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We create tools. Our inventions are everywhere, from important ones like the wheel to impractical ones like the pet rock. As silly as some inventions may seem, what's no laughing matter is that tools play a significant role in society. Tools shape society and us.

If you think about it, making stuff is a two way street. We make our tools, but our tools make us. Long ago, we harnessed fire and it changed us by allowing our brains to grow. We made the automobile and it changed society into a car culture. We created the cell phone and it has made life -- well, I don’t need to tell you how life changed. The bottom line is that the tools we make change us for better or for worse.

The same goes for education. The tools we use in classrooms change how we teach.

When Education Is Left to Its Own Devices

When we think of a classroom today, the chalkboard might come to mind. As innocent as chalkboards may seem, they support the teaching approach where information is transferred in one direction from the teacher to the pupil. This is the sage on the stage model, and it is a teacher-centric approach.

We have the Industrial Revolution to thank for this. Schools and education became a serious enterprise during that time. With the Industrial Revolution came the assembly line mindset and the ideas of uniformity, repetition, and specialization. This kind of thinking was in the air, and schools were not sheltered from it. We treated all children's brains the same and taught everyone in the same way. So lessons were drilled, desks were organized into rows, and subjects were separated.

Education started to open up in the 20th century (see Table 1). The creation of the computer and educational software moved learning away from the classroom to the learning-on-demand model. This is the path that was set by these tools, which the internet has enabled a thousandfold. However, not all tools help us. The invention of the multiple-choice test in the early 20th century, which was created to help us evaluate progress, has instilled a testing culture. Our tests were designed to serve us, but now we serve our tests. We create our tools, and then our tools create us.

Now we are in an age of iPads, YouTube, gaming, and analytics, and the jury is still out on how they will ultimately shape education. One obvious early result from these tools is the flipped classroom, which positively changes the teaching dynamic from the teacher-centered sage on the stage to the student-centered guide on the side. Similarly, the invention of clickers is helping active learning to take root. These are all forward leaps in innovation and in learning.

Teaching and Tools: A Delicate Balance

We must remember that tools do not play a passive role in education. Laptops, videos, and iPads are not innocuous means to record, convey, and disseminate content. These items can positively change teaching. But they also limit how we think about teaching, too. Once we have iPads, we create curriculum that is supported by them and might not be open to other (and sometimes better) ways of doing things. It is important to remember how tools can cloud our thinking. Just because we have a hammer doesn't mean that everything is a nail. This is why it is important to step back, think about our goals, and ask, "What do we want education to look like?" Let's not let our tools answer that question for us.

Who knows, the best tools might be a combination of things that are old school and new school. It might be like a real toolbox containing an old claw hammer next to a newfangled laser tape measure. What they have in common is that they serve the common goal. This is why it's so important for us to keep that goal in mind.

The classroom of the future may have opportunities where students are using their hands, because that's good for the brain. It might have attributes of "making" and play, because they support creativity and imagination. It may contain a digital means of sharing information, so that active learning can happen during class time. It might have an analytical part, because data can sometimes spot trends that humans might not be able to see alone. And my hope is that the classroom of the future will always have a teacher!

So let us not forget that we shape our tools and that our tools then shape us. And let's choose the tools that are best -- and be brave enough to leave the rest.

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Eric Hestenes's picture
Eric Hestenes
Director, Engineering

In psychology there is the classic debate between tools versus intelligence. We talk about tools as cognitive amplifiers. This comes to roost when a high schooler or college student must choose what to learn. They may be choosing what tools to add to their life tool belt. Perhaps one key advantage for STEM education is that is can widen the range of tools available to a student and open doors to a wider range of opportunities.

Ronald Glymph's picture
Ronald Glymph
Retired mathematics teacher

Balancing the use of technology with authentic Human Interaction

Computers are playing a massive role in changing the way we live work and teach. This binding of computing to our daily activities will in turn affect our values, goals and aspirations.

Technology and Human Interactions

The use of technology has reduced human interactions, specially at school. The recent automation and extensive involvement of technology in scientific research has been a boon to the development of sciences, but it looks as though it has become a bane when it comes to human relations at work and school. The latest development in technology has paved a novel and quick approach in education today.

Technology seems to be creating opportunities, but it is also bringing in a void in human life. Our students are above all a part of nature not machines. As teachers our primary job is to support the healthy development of well adjusted, productive citizens. This is why the Math Maze card game was developed.

Where has the fun and the friendship gone?

It continues to astound me daily, the extent to which people are afflicted with various debilitating technological addictions. I once sat through an entire fifty minute lunch break where not a single word was uttered save the occasional grunt or other nondescript noise.
Technology is proving to have a detrimental effect on our ability to interact with each other. The trend for juggling school assignments, conversations, Facebook updates, twitter feeds and reality is reducing the human attention span. Addressing your in the moment desire to reply to a message will ultimately compromise your success and future contentedness.

The impact of less talk

Does spending less time talking to and interacting with your students really make that much of a difference in terms of their future success? You bet it does!
The bottom line - students have better outcomes when their teachers "consider how their use of electronic devices might be limiting their ability to meet their student's needs".

It's all about being face-to-face

"For a student, being face-to-face with you adds a special quality to the interaction. It brings you closer to them, physically and emotionally, and makes them feel that you're really with them. This important strategy not only encourages students to communicate and initiate, but it lets them know that you are interested in what they say and do. Face-to-face interactions between teachers and students are the building blocks of the student's emotional, social, and cognitive growth.

It's about setting limits

Set aside some consistent, tech-free time in your classroom.
The long-term benefits of those fun, uninterrupted interactions are immeasurable.
Technology is a tool that can provide another way for children to learn and make sense of their world. Computers can be used in developmentally appropriate ways that are beneficial to students, or they can be misused, just as blocks or any other materials can be misused. And just as pencils do not replace crayons but rather provide additional means of expression, computers or any other forms of technology, do not replace other tools but add to the array of tools available to students to explore, create, and communicate. When used appropriately by skilled teachers, technology can support and extend learning in valuable ways and can increase educational opportunities for learners. The key is finding the balance, knowing how to align the elements of a healthy childhood with the unique capabilities offered by technology.

Professor R.C. Glymph mathmaze.us

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