The Right Tool For the Job

The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously observed that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. I first heard this insight from a mentor when I was beginning my teaching career, and it’s had a profound influence on me ever since. In one sense, it’s a fairly obvious pedagogical point: tools matter. I wouldn’t use a hammer to remove a splinter from my finger, and I wouldn’t lecture for a whole period if I was trying to foster active learning. But there’s more at work here, I think; “tools” can also signify mindsets and attitudes. For example, if our default mindset about students is that they are deficient (“they can’t write worth a damn!”), then that conditions our responses to their work (We might ignore improvement because their writing never reaches “mastery” level).

Hammer, hammer, hammer.

“What’s wrong with hammers?”


The tools we use – cognitive, pedagogical, social, and technological tools – matter greatly, then. Some of our most important decisions as teachers therefore center around the tools we choose, or don’t choose, to employ. Assignments are tools; technology is a tool; course design is a tool. However, this doesn’t mean we have to use them all, or all the time. I’VE CREATED A HYBRID ACTIVE IMMERSIVE SERVICE-LEARNING SEMINAR PRACTICUM WITH A LECTURE COMPONENT AND EIGHTEEN VARIETIES OF ASSESSMENTS! WE WILL LEARN ALL THE THINGS! Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.

So how do we think about tools in this broader sense? How do we decide which tools to use, and then how do we go about using them? This week’s links offer some answers to these questions, meant to be suggestive rather than exclusive.

Adeline Koh takes on the tool we all have to grapple with in our teaching one way or another with her “Teaching with the Internet; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Google in My Classroom.” In a provocative argument informed by historical context, Koh posits that “[t]he Internet poses to us an active challenge to deeply reconsider what it means to be literate in the twenty-first century. Does literacy for us simply mean, the way it did in the 19th century, the memorization and regurgitation of factoids and arguments?” Good question. As higher education professionals, we ought to be able to answer it.

If we use digital tools, we understand that creating assignments with them looks different. Jesse Stommel, from the University of Wisconsin, has a helpful essay on “12 Steps for Creating a Digital Assignment or Hybrid Class.” Though Stommel’s list is geared toward digital learning, it actually serves as an excellent set of thoughts for creating any type of assignment.

Continuing in the vein of assignments-as-tools, Elon University’s Anthony Crider recently published an interesting piece on “Final Exams or Epic Finales?” He raises a valid point: if we never see students after they take a “traditional” final exam in our course, how can it function as assessment? Students, after all, wouldn’t get to see the results or incorporate them into future learning. According to Crider, perhaps that suggests we might want to rethink the concept of “final,” and design a different type of culminating experience for our courses. There’s some good food for thought here.

Have a great week, and remember that the CETL staff is always ready to engage in some Tool Talk!

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