Tool and Toy: Technology in Education

The following article was written in February of 2004 to be presented to the Symposium on Technology and Higher Education at Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA, USA. I transcribe it here because I think it is becoming more and more relevant as time goes by.


I. Technology as Tool

Few things have been as well debated in education in the past 30 years or so as the role of technology in education.

Some have emphasized its importance in teaching – classroom teaching or distance teaching. For them technology is first and foremost a tool for teachers.

Others have emphasized its importance in learning – classroom learning or non-formal learning. For them technology is first and foremost a tool for learners.

The debate between these two groups has tried to show the qualities of technology as a tool – for teaching and/or for learning.

I will try to contribute to this debate. Of these two options, I find the “learning tool” alternative more interesting and challenging, on pedagogical grounds. Education, after all, has to do with learning, not necessarily with teaching. But I want to add a “tertium”, a third alternative, that emphasizes the role of technology in education not as a tool (for teaching or for learning), but as a toy.

This will fit nicely, I think, with the emphasis on the pedagogical use of computer and video games that characterized a good portion of this encounter.

II. Technology as Toy

I like to define technology, in its broadest sense, as anything we, human beings, invent to make our life either easier or more pleasant.

Technology can be classified in various ways.

One useful way of claifying is distinguishing, on the one hand, instruments and equipments of various natures (“hard”, tangible technology), and, on the other hand, methods, procedures, techniques, notations, languages (“soft”, intangible technology).

The languages we speak and in which we read and write are technologies: they were invented by our predecessors (and keep being reinvented by our children) in order to make their life easier. Language is one of the most important technological tools we use today. Language is incredibly useful. Without it life would be terribly difficult..

But what about art? Painting, sculpting… Language is a tool, but literature is a form of art.

Why do we create art? Why do write fiction? Why do we invent games of various sorts, of which computer and video games are only the latest variety?

Those who try to promote a specific ideology try to make art into a tool: a tool for propagandizing, a tool for proselytizing. But in its truest sense, art is a toy: we engage in it, either producing it or contemplating it, not for its utility, but for the pleasure that doing this gives us.

III. Human Survival and Human Development

We, human beings, have two basic tasks when we are born: one, immediate and extremely urgent; the other, for the longer range.

The first of these two tasks is surviving. We are born almost as if prematurely: ill-equipped to live. We are born incompetent in the most elementary tasks: we are not able to walk, to communicate, to feed ourselves, to defend and protect ourselves against the elements, against other animals, or even against other human beings. In our early years we need to be constantly helped by parents, family and community – otherwise we do not survive, we perish. But we are incredibly well equipped for learning. And our basic education should aim at making us competent for living autonomously, so that eventually we will be able to take care of ourselves.

The second of these two tasks is developing ourselves as human beings. Aristotle liked to call this “flourishing” as human beings. Developing as human beings, however, is not equivalent to growing or maturing. We are not totally programmed by nature. The programming that nature gave us is quite open. It allows as, from a given time on, to choose the kind of life we want for ourselves, that is, to define a life project of our own choosing and to go after what is needed to turn this life project into reality, that is, into a life worth living.

Our education should, therefore, aim at:

· First, helping us become competent and autonomous in our life-sustaining task: survival;

· Second, helping us become competent to autonomously define a life project and to acquire the skills and resources necessary to make it a reality: human development.

Edgar Morin, in France, and Rubem Alves, in Brazil, have recently emphasized the fact that our tools are our instruments of survival, but our toys are that which makes us want to survive, that which gives us a reason for desiring to go on living.

IV. The Education of Intelligence and the Education of Sensibility

Our schools have tried to educate us at best as if we were only disembodied and soulless intelligences – that is, as if we were, as Descartes tried to convince us, simply a thinking machine – without a body and without a soul (and I am not speaking of soul in a religious sense: the soul, for me here, is the seat of emotion, the seat of pleasure, the seat of joy – and that which motivates us into action).

When technology is brought in to help, it is viewed as a tool.

But it is an essential part of our education that we educate our sensibility and our emotions, that we learn to deal not only with what is true (the “verum”), but also with what is good (the “bonum”) and what is beautiful (the “bellum”). Without this kind of education we may become apt in the art of surviving but uncertain about what we are surviving for – that is, about what it is that makes life worth living.

The technologies that will help us here are not tools, but toys.

V. Learning and Playing

I have seen many parents and educators wonder why children are so enthusiastic about technology and learn to use it so easily. The reason they learn to use technology so easily is that they are enthusiastic about it – and the reason they are enthusiastic about it is that for them technology is not a tool, it is a toy: it is not a tool for learning, but a toy – that is, a source of pleasure.

And yet, curiously enough, exactly because it is not intended as a tool for learning, technology as toy can be a powerful learning environment.

After they leave school adults learn, as a rule, by working or by just plain living. Many insist on going back to school for learning specific things. Some have become so addicted to schooling that they get two or three bachelor’s degrees, or even master’s degrees – and I know a few people who have two Ph.D.’s (and one who has two Ph.D.’s and an M.D.!). But this is just plain silly. By the time we have graduated from the University, we must have learned to learn by ourselves – or we never will.

Children, on the other hand, learn by playing – and of course, by just plain living: but just plain living for children is a kind of play. The reason they are so fascinated with computer and video games – not to speak of digital cameras and mp3 players – is that these technologies are toys for them, toys that allow them to play – and exactly because of that, they learn so much by using them. And human beings never give up playing. Even while adults, we keep inventing games to play.

VI. The School

Many educators, in the second half of the twentieth century, have tried to make the school a place where people acquire the competencies necessary for sustaining life – and, therefore, a place where they learn to use technology as a tool.

These educators propose that the school ought to help kids get prepared for a life of work and citizenship in the 21st century. In getting prepared for this life, they should acquire skills that can be translated into greater employability in the 21st-century workplace and better participation in the 21st-century global society. This is all fine. I am not proposing we give it up.

But we ought not to forget, either, that the 21st century will likely be the century of creativity and leisure. That means: the century of play.

During most of our life we have worked most of the time in order to be able to have some fun each day, after work, each week, on the weekend, each year, during vacation, and, in each life, during retirement. We worked at things that did not give us pleasure in order to enjoy pleasure out of work.

In the 21st century things will be different: we will discover ways of making money, and so sustaining our life, doing exactly the things we enjoy doing, doing the things that brings us pleasure and joy. And many of the things that bring us pleasure and joy will be things that will also contribute to our learning, that is, to our development as human beings.

VII. The School of the Future

The school of the 21st century, when we finally discover what the 21st century will be like, will not be a place that looks like the schools we presently know – only with a lot of technology in them. They will not be places where children will dutifully sit behind one another, according to their enrollment number, waiting to be addressed by a teacher that has to use a microphone to address them – but with a tablet on their desks instead of a (paper) notebook. They will not be places where technology will be used mostly as tools. They will be places where children play and use technology as toys – and learn how to turn their toys into tools that can help them sustain their lives as they are having fun… and so help them transform their life projects into a life that is fully worth living.

Eduardo Chaves is Chairman of the UNESCO Chair of Education and Human Development at the Ayrton Senna Institute, in São Paulo, Brazil, and a member of the International Advisory Board of Microsoft Corporation’s Partners in Learning initiative.

Written in Redmond, WA, USA, in February 2004. Transcribed here in Monte Alegre do Sul, November 25, 2010 (Thanksgiving Day)

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