Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Toys or Tools

Are we using toys or tools to teach computers science? The cute little robots for example. Or Micro:bit? or any number of other fun little gadgets that we use to make learning more fun and interesting? Toys or tools? Calling them toys makes them seem frivolous and unimportant. See Merriam-Webster definition of toy which includes “something (such as a preoccupation) that is paltry or trifling” “Tools” implies work or perhaps even not fun. Too serious for some though.

The definition of “toy” also includes “something for a child to play with” Ok, “play” seems a little better than “trifling” but still not so serious. Isn’t school serious business? Yet educators know that play is the way children, especially little children learn. And we’ve know this for a long time.

“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.” ~ Plato

I had a related conversation with my programming students the other day. I asked who needed more time to finish a project. A student replied “Everyone but the students who actually write programs for fun.” I do have a couple of those. I tend to see one or two and sometimes three in a course.

The students who find the fun in the course are the ones who do the best. They learn the most. They learn the fastest. And they create the most interesting projects. There may not be a coding gene (as Mark Guzdial insists and backs up with research) but some students sure do seem to find coding more fun than others. As a teacher I do try to make it fun for as many as possible.

My experience tells me (not research so doesn’t count for much perhaps) that students who enjoy their projects learn more and do better at coding. Calling the tools we use to make things more interesting “toys” or “tools” doesn’t change that they make things more fun and interesting. Words may bias people so we should be careful how we use them. Perhaps we tell the funding people they are tools. And maybe we say the same to parents. Calling them “toys” will lower stress for some students and cause others to take things less seriously. It can be a tough call.

Among ourselves (educators) we can call them toys because we understand that toys and play are the tools of learning.  For the most part I think we should avoid categorizing them as either tools or toys. There is too much emotional baggage about both of those words. Let’s try to avoid broad characterizations completely and just call them what they are: computers, robots, sensors, or what ever.

Remember fun is good even when it looks like work to someone else.

FWIW I found that Plato quote at Child’s Play Magazines Quotes about play Lots of great ones to choose from.

Some of the web most things on the Internet are blogs. This post is inspired by a post from Doug Peterson (as many are) that quotes and links to another blog. Specifically Doug’s Toys or Tools post that links to Tim King’s ECOO BIT18: Reductionism and Ignorance in Educational Technology post. Both posts are worth a read.


Doug said...

Interesting take on the situation, Alfred.

It begs the question about using the word "toy" with students versus teachers. In Tim's case, the use was teacher to teacher. i.e. professional to professional. Is that a different use than teacher to student?

I like to "play" with my Sphero but I don't know that I've ever called it a "toy". Is that because it isn't or because I see the deeper meaning?

Alfred Thompson said...

“Must a name mean something?” Alice asks Humpty Dumpty, only to get this answer: “When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

If only life were this easy in real life. Words have meaning and often that meaning is different for different people.

Garth said...

Toys, tools, the difference is a bit vague to me. I do math for fun therefore it is a toy right? In a galaxy far, far away I was a motorcycle mechanic. I made a living with my tools. I loved my tools. I paid the Snap-On dealer several hundred dollars a month buying more tools. I love playing with my tools. I fixed motorcycles in my spare time for fun. Didn't that make the tools toys? Is Unity a tool or a toy? It is fun to use, and makes games which are toys. If we could convince kids programming was playing with toys we would have students lined up at the door.

Of course there is the argument that things like toy robots are really not teaching the kids anything. We are teaching them to play with toy robots which may actually transition to understanding non-toy robots. Anything to make kids enjoy thinking is a tool for education.

Timothy King said...

A toy isn't a toy because it's fun, it's a toy because its purpose is to entertain.

A tool isn't a tool because it's work, it's a tool because it is made for a specific function, usually making or repairing. If I'm spending a lovely afternoon tensioning the chain on my bike the torque wrench is still a tool even if the using of it makes me happy. It's still a tool the next week when I'm swearing at the damned car because I'm trying to put snow tires on in the first storm of the winter.

Words matter, especially if the choice of words point to the intent of the speaker, which they almost always do. Diminishing the accuracy of language usually leads to rhetoric, which starts me wondering why we're on such a slippery slope.

BTW, I've never 'played' at mechanicking anything on a motorcycle or automobile. Telling someone I was just playing with their brakes isn't a nice thing to do even if you're doing it for fun on the weekend.

Matt Crawford does a great job of unpacking the value of hands-on skill in Shop Class as Soulcraft: https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/shop-class-as-soulcraft
Working with yours hands and expressing your expertise is a pure joy, but it doesn't mean you're playing with toys.