Get the Hammer I have a Nut



Photo Credit: Billy Wilson Photography via Compfight cc

The discussion tonight by Alan Levinecogdog – was awesome. I have always enjoyed reading Alan’s work and find his insights into learning often challenge me to think deeply about different topics and examine more closely my own assumptions and point of view. Alan was discussing storytelling, something that has become more important to me as I stumble along this path toward my PhD.

As part of his presentation, Alan discussed digital tools – asking if a tool was just a tool? Was a guitar just a guitar to Jimi Hendrix?

That’s an incredible solo but, notice, he wanted to redo that one part –  Hmm – I  often get stuck here in the discussion of digital tools –

My POV – Brushes and Sprayers

For years I was a painter – not artistic in the sense that I painted paintings but in the sense that I painted dwellings. I remember taking a painting class and trying to actually paint – it was a disaster. I couldn’t free myself from the self-imposed idea of what painting was suppose to be – so I struggled with the class to the absolute delight of my instructor who spent a great deal of time with me.

Oh, but give me a 3″ paint brush and a roller or a sprayer with a fine-tip –



Photo Credit: Nick Kenrick., off to Rome/one week via Compfight cc

these were tools I used to change plain white gyprock into spaces of living – places of warmth and caring – places where you would shop or eat or snuggle with someone you really liked, eat popcorn or pizza and watch that movie or the game ….. I spent hours creating & changing space into living space. I’ve created the illusion of space, a deep forest, a calming beach, a rustic countryside, a sunny nook – all with brushes, rollers, sprayers and some coloured paint. No not landscapes – didn’t you get that in the earlier section! With colours – I’ve done this in malls, homes, businesses and a garage or two for people who had nothing more than an idea that they wanted to have a “feeling” when they were in the room. Colour does that – it’s an extension of our emotions and subconscious  but we all know that –  the colours we choose and the patterns selected, through the contrasting and complimentary highlights that play together and against the dominant colours. Note – avoid a room of Periwinkle – it just doesn’t work on so many levels!

They were tools

The brush, roller, sprayer – they were just tools. It was what I could do with them that made the difference – or didn’t when it came to using brushes to try to “create” images. I was a craftsman and those were my tools. Just like I had the pleasure to work with stonemasons, drywallers, electricians and other craftspeople. Each had their tools – some were amazing to watch. I remember watching a younger guy – a drywalled – apply drywall mud like it was icing on a wedding cake – it was amazing to watch the way he worked, his motion as he swept the trowel across the surface as a skater glides across ice.  Unless you could watch, you wouldn’t really know just how good he was at it since it would soon be covered with paint! For me, someone who generally was the next person in the line of craftspeople, I admired what he did because he was so good. Very few bubbles or ridges. A soft sand and smoothness – a painters dream but I also liked watching him as he applied his craft – as much art as skill.

Are digital tools different?

Again, is someone who can do amazing things with a guitar any different that being incredibly good at, say, painting? Is being able to use a set of tools at a particular mastery level any different if it’s a computer or a chainsaw?

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Photo Credit: TrishaLyn via Compfight cc

In Banff one summer I was able to watch a carver create an incredible eagle from a piece of wood using a chainsaw. It was amazing. A tool that, to so many, was just a tool was something else when he used it. Or is just still a tool and, in his hands, its used in a different way? Like the pencil drawing  Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher , is the pencil more than a tool?

When is it not a “tool”? 

Are tools just “tools” until they are used by someone and become more than a tool? Really, it’s just a pencil or a paint brush. In fact, for me, it’s just a paintbrush, although not all paintbrushes are equal. Do these things become more than tools depending on what we use them for and who is using them? Or is it what we create? Is there a difference in how we define “tool” for a painter  than, say, someone who creates an infographic of engaging with twitter ?2014-05-10 21.17.28

I use all sorts of digital tools – for work and play, organization and gaming. I am better at using some than others like most people.

I created this thinglink using an image created by someone else – both of us using different tools to share with other people for different purposes.

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And I created this thinglink myself from different images for someone who had a particular request

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In a time of increasingly shifting creation of new tools and technology there is a blurring of whether something is a tool or not. This pushed me to wonder – Are glasses a tool? Google glasses? Infrared glasses? Night-vision glasses?

Is it Perspective? 

I game a bit – probably more than a 40-something should but that’s another discussion. I use my computer or iDevice to game – the tools are similar but not the same so I carefully choose what I do when using them. I see the tools I use on my computer as ways to connect, create, play, talk, listen, frolic… well maybe not frolic… okay just a little. I use to visit SecondLife  regularly – there are some incredible buildings and lands there – a number of times and for awhile was really engaged in meeting and discussing with people but it kind of faded away…..not the same as the gaming experience. Some people see the computer or other devices as more than just tools just as a guitar was more than a guitar to Hendrix. Or was it?

Still, it’s just a paintbrush – if I handed it to you would you see it as a way to create feeling, emotions – to change how people feel about their day or about each other? Or is it a paintbrush – a tool to apply liquid to a solid surface? If Hendrix handed me the guitar what would I see beyond an instrument?

When I listen to my daughters play the piano it sometimes is so moving I get choked up. I don’t touch the thing – ever!

When are these things no longer “just tools”? Or are they always just tools but in the hands of different individuals, they can become instruments of much more. Is it the person/people?

Should we care?

Really, should it be something we debate about whether something is or is not a tool when there might be a greater discussion to be had – what does the person do with it? What is the learning? What is the connection? What is the benefit to themselves and society? Don’t we all use tools for different purposes – ever use a shoe to pound a nail? Hammer to crack a nut? Screwdriver to open a paint can?

I’m slowly developing the skills to use my computer to create a better and better podcast. As I add a better microphone and learn to integrate different interviews and add different shifts, my podcast is slowly improving. I want to share ideas and discuss different topics related to education. As I develop the different skills does it mean that at some point the computer will become more than just a tool that I am using to create and then connect to people through the podcast?

What do you think? Are some tools just tools – like a hammer and are some tools more than just tools – like an iPhone? I’d like to hear your thoughts and ideas as part of this educational discourse…..

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I am a husband, father, son.... I am currently working on my PhD in Education - Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is teacher professional development and social media integration. I have a beautiful, supportive wife who has been my partner for 28 years. We have 8 wonderful children who are amazing individuals. Together, we are exploring the world around us, sharing our stories, and enjoying the journey!


  1. Thanks so much for the walkabout on tools and our relationships to them. Let me be clear in that I have no certainty of the “answer” here (if there is one).

    But first, I am digging the title, and still not sure exactly what that means. And that is a success. If it causes a reader to ponder… winner.

    As a long time guitar owner and hardly still a player, I have always had a huge respect for the mystique and technique of Hendrix, especially on tunes like Red House. But all of that ratcheted up more when I recently watched the documentary “Slow Train a Comin'” Every family member and friend who knew him as he was growing up and developing talked about how devoted he was tot he guitar, and he played and played incessantly. It was his calling and he listened. This is not a “do something for 10,000 hours and you win a prize” it was a total devotion to the craft.

    So for your craft with the rollers, and big brushed, and rooms every color but periwinkle (I would add red walls to the challenge, wow do they take a lot of care), I would guess this was not a natural born skill– it was a craft you developed through practice, maybe mentoring, reflecting, but also some pride as well, the kind that feeds the feedback loop. And I would totally agree that a master dry waller is an unknown artist.

    I have often said something like “it’s not the tools, it’s the craft” which I think is what you are saying as well. There is a lot to be said for work done with the hands, even in times when we work much digitally; my favorites are gardening and I especially enjoy splitting wood (always learning technique). If you have not come across it already, you might enjoy “Shop Class as Soulcraft”.

    So here’s what I have arrived at, after reading your post. Left to their own, the hammer, the wrench, the chainsaw are “just tools”. It’s when we put them in hands that everything changes, not by virtue of the touch alone. I am by no means a Marshall McLuhan expert, but my colleague Gardner Campbell once paraphrased McLuhan’s framing of a “hammer hand” — that a hammer alone was a tool, but the relationship in the hands (of someone with a craftperson’s mind) make it more than a hammer and more than a hand, its symbiotic.

    So how does this play out for digital tools? I think it is in the flow state when we are using a creative tool in a way that it’s not “just an inert tool” but some sort of extension of our minds. I bet this happens when you are at work redoing a room. It’s not just technique of dip and paint, but a connective relationship with a vision for the room and the person who will inhabit it.

    Craft over tools any day of the week.

    Now I am getting space. Thanks for the listening, Kelly and the exquisite write up.

    • Alan, thanks for the response – so quickly too. I am not a musician but I thoroughly enjoy, and can really appreciate, someone who is. ” It’s when we put them in hands that everything changes, ” Agree completely – for some people they are extensions of the mind – but is it only to the degree that ppl can use them proficiently? Is there a difference between someone who ‘has a calling’? Can they tap into the ‘tool’ to a deeper degree than others which then shifts the object from being a tool to being an extension – a deeper symbiotic relationship?
      As for the painting – I’m not sure. I picked up a brush and almost immediately was able to paint – there were things that came naturally – that I improved upon but I didn’t have a mentor or someone that guided me – it stared. I haven’t read “Shop Class as Soulcraft” but I can definitely see that having watched some students get lost in a piece of work in shop – sometimes missing a class! My dad was an incredible craftsman. We talk about the flow of coding – well I’ve seen that but I’ve also seen it with other things like with carving when my dad would spend hours lost in working on a piece – slowly allowing the image to emerge from within. I agree “craft over tools….” but does it change depending on the user? When does something become more than the tool?
      Again, as always, thanks for pushing me to think and ponder. Like I said, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed following and reading your work for a number of years – it’s inspired me to think more deeply about many things. Thank you.

  2. I’ve seen monkey’s use a stick to dig out honeycombs from trees. To humans, a stick may not be much of a tool, but to other great apes, it can be the difference between life and death. I think some objects, or tools, have the potential to be used in a wider variety of functions and applications, but other tools that are more limited in scope may perform more vital tasks. There are many tools that we can use in education, but the beautiful thing about technology as a tool is its adaptability to handle such a wide variety of tasks and variety is the spice of life!

    • I agree, Andrew, that technologies can add variety and spice to our lives and can build the connections we have which leads to greater synergy. I sometimes wonder if , in education, the draw is the tool which overshadows all the rest. Technology can do so many wonderful things and, as you say, “handle such a wide variety of tasks” but it’s getting to that which is crucial. Although variety is the spice of life, too much variety sometimes overwhelms us and makes us less able to focus. We become “busy” with all the different options while not focusing on deeper thinking and reflection. It’s when we break free of the fog to select tools with purpose that build on the relationships we have and allow us to go beyond where we are that these technological tools become symbiotic with the user. Thanks Andrew for making think even more about this. I appreciate your feedback.

  3. Even simple tools can be used for extremely complex or stunningly creative purposes when put into the right hands. In the case of the extremely complex, intimate knowledge of the tool can lead a person to greater insights into the subtleties of the tool. In the case of the stunningly creative, a new hand may envision a use for the tool that is unconventional or unexpected, yet no less effective. To continue the musical examples, a group like Stomp is able to create complex music using very simple tools – is their music any less effective than another percussion ensemble using traditional instruments? Or what person first decided to take two table spoons and tap them together to make a musical instrument, because I have seen some street buskers make amazing music using just that.

    When I think of the application of this concept to education, the tool is the medium that allows us to represent the learning. It provides the means for displaying the concepts learned. An essay or report, for instance, is but a tool for representing learning. Some students may show a great aptitude towards the use of such tools. However, it seems to me to be extremely limiting to confine the vast diversity that is the student population to a few tools that may be well suited to only a few.

    • Yes! Allowing students more choice in how they demonstrate learning and opening up different avenues for expression provides students with ways to use technologies, whatever they may be, to deeply reflect and interact with the world. Authentic audiences and different options for representing are becoming more important for assisting students to become reflective thinkers conscious of their actions and the actions of others. Providing options for and including students in the process are, in my opinion, no longer options for creating authentic learning for students. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your feedback and the conversation.

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