More than a tool, technology transforms patterns


On my morning commute, I’ve recently started to listen to podcasts of educational programming from a variety of sources. One of these that I’d highly recommend is the November Learning Podcast Series, and from one of these shows came an idea that’s percolated in my mind for several weeks now.

The keynote address of the Building Learning Communities Conference of 2007 was delivered by Dr. Yong Zhao from Michigan State University. A very entertaining 75 minutes, a bit dated, but full of very thoughtful and informative ideas. And it resonated for me because of one statement he made; technology transforms patterns.

This has been a topic I’ve mulled for some time now, but have been unable to articulate properly. I’ve seen it in multiple places, and encapsulated it several different ways. At one point, I thought about it as “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”; the tool simply causes you to think differently.  For example, in our home we’ve recently acquired a shiny new mixer which has revolutionized our entire way of working in the kitchen. Suddenly, we think differently about baking, food preparation, and organizing our time. Using the lens of the mixer, we begin to understand how we can use certain ingredients and prepare other items. We can grind that raw grain in the cupboard which has sat unused for months. We can juice those apples and use the canning jars which we’ve kept but not known why. We begin to revision our entire home when we look through the lens of this new tool.

In another version of my thinking, I’ve explored the McLuhan notion that we first create our tools, but in the long run they are actually creating us. In the mixer analogy, I understand this idea as, we are not just a family with a new tool, what’s created is more than the sum of the parts. The mixer starts to actually shape us; it affects the way we think, how we plan, our patterns of purchasing and interacting in our day. It’s opened up new possibilities which weren’t available before it came into our home.

But this way of thinking extends even more powerfully when we think of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Certainly these are tools, but they are not value neutral, they have the power to actually reshape social processes in their image.  Already we can see how they’ve made the world more democratic, social, and individually empowering. In education, they’re revolutionizing what it means to access information, connect with others, and build our own learning agenda. It’s no wonder Personalization and Individualized are two of the major buzzwords right now. The astute observer will be a cautious adopter, always aware that this may be a one-way street from which there is no return.

So, for me, Dr. Zhao’s statement has taken my thinking to another level all together. Technology is more than a tool, it’s a game changer. It transforms the way we think, how we plan, our patterns of interaction and goals for the future. Whether it’s a blender or an app, our lives are changed in revolutionary ways. And, as is now well understood, we can’t un-invent technology.  It’s imperative we harness it for our purposes, understanding how it has the power to reshape us. It’s not enough to disengage and hope it goes away. We must be part of this discussion, and put our values, vision and mission at the front of any change initiatives.

So, as a leader, I need to be constantly aware of this, and ensure that our vision is at the core of what we do in our building.  Our choice of tools is critical, and must be driven by pedagogy and good practice.  We bring them in, and they start to change us, our patterns of interaction, or ways of operating. I can see this, and part of my challenge now is to engage 12 year olds on the topic, kids who are so immersed it’s hard to imagine their perspective. And their parents, some of whom are questioning what’s happening to their kids.

So here’s my thought for today. Encourage the debate, keep people thinking, explore the varied perspectives on the technology issue. Keep our vision central and remain focused on best practice for learning at all times.

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About Ron Sherman

I am the principal of Salmo Elementary/Secondary School, a small rural K-12 school in the Kootenay Lake School District. Happy to be part of the Grand Conversation, moving learning forward and joining with great people every day. Runner, triathlete, skier, blogger, loving husband and father of 2 great boys
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