Toys or Tools

Tim King wrote a very powerful post with his reflection on what he interpreted as unfortunate messages from the recently concluded Bring IT, Together Conference.  He made an insightful observation.

These aren’t toys, they’re tools!
Calling them toys says a lot
about how YOU use them.

His second call-out was in reference to comments made by the closing keynote.  Unfortunately, I had left to make sure that this sickie (not to be confused with sicko) made it home safely.

But I was in the audience for the first comment.  It was made during the intros around the room at the Minds on Media event.  I probably was engaged in a conversation with a former colleague at the time.  I may well have heard the comment but it didn’t push my buttons like it did with Tim.

This Minds on Media presenter monopolized the microphone to suggest anything digital was essentially meaningless (a toy) and that when people were ready to stop playing with their toys here she was ready to show them something real.

I wish I’d been paying closer attention at the time to know whether or not it was made with tongue in cheek or whether it was a statement taken in the manner that Tim did.

Presentations at a technology conference are an interesting lot.  Obviously, the presenter(s) have a vested interest in their topic and that’s why they’re presenting.  I led a session on Hyperdocs because I’ve seen other presentations that take it at such a cursory level.  In my mind, the notion of a Hyperdoc as a hub for effective use of connected resources is one of the more powerful tools that we have.  Before that, I felt the same way about Webquests.  So, I put up.

Minds on Media is a much different venue.  By its nature, there is only one start and one stop time, at the beginning and the ending of the day.  In the meantime, the various stations are there, along with their hosts, for you to work with.

So, what’s there?  This year, there were a large number of stations devoted explicitly to coding.  Don’t tell anyone, but this Computer Science teacher sees coding / programming in darn near everything.  If you believe that the big takeaway from anything in technology is to take control of it, then you see coding / programming at every turn.

Unlike the good old days where programming involved you, a language, and a computer, coding has expanded the playing field.  With the target audience becoming younger and younger, the devices that we’re controlling are now decorated with bright colours, lights, and the ability to generate sound.  Sensors, connectors, etc. complete the package.  For all intents and purposes, they do look like toys.  In fact, often they are made by toy manufacturers.

But toys today aren’t like the toys of my day.  Manufacturers have found a whole new niche by incorporating and labelling toys as educational.  What parent doesn’t want their children to learn from that birthday or Christmas present?  That niche has also found its way into education.  Where there was once a few manufacturers who created products that were clearly only usable in schools, the line has blurred.  Language has morphed as well.  It’s standard practice to use the phrase “Play with it” as an invitation to explore.

My time at Minds on Media was actually kind of limited.  With this wonderful cold that I’m still working on, I didn’t want to touch anything.  Sadly, it meant not enjoying many of the stations to the fullest, including Tim’s stations on Virtual Reality.  But, as Yogi Berra said, “you can observe a lot by just watching.”

Having said all that, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the educational devices are “toys” in the conventional sense.  Or, maybe it doesn’t follow that they’re “tools” in the conventional sense.

In a professional learning environment, it’s important that respect for all those who are there to learn is given.  We talk about how students can be hurtful with their choice of words but should also look inwardly.  Unless you’re turning out students who score 100% in everything that they’re doing, you have room to grow.  Respectful learning means using the right words.  In this case, it looks like there are some who need to choose their words more wisely.

5 thoughts on “Toys or Tools

  1. Doug, I think your final paragraph sums things up so well. That said, I also wonder about the use of the word “toys.” There’s such a negative connotation to this word, just like the word “play,” and yet, as a Kindergarten educator that embraces a play-based program, I see value to both “toys” and “play.” I would have wanted to come and play in the Minds on Media session, and I would have been looking for what I could learn and take back into the classroom through this play. Is the implied message here that “toys” cannot be used for “learning?” I see an updated Kindergarten Document that would speak to the contrary. Something to consider, I think.



  2. Perhaps it’s about perspective.

    I ordered a virtual reality (VR) system for the classroom. For me it’s a “tool” that I will use to inspire students to write programs in my Computer Studies class and create VR scenes in my Communications technology class and design a suitable computer system in my Computer Technology class.

    But to the students the VR system will likely be a “toy”, not a tool, and I’m okay with them thinking that way.

    If it inspires the them to use the programming or graphic arts or other digital tools to create content for the VR system, and, as a bonus, they become self-motivated to do so, then others can call it whatever they want. I will have met my goal of getting students interested enough in something to want to push themselves to learn about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Like Aviva, this post reminds me so much of my time teaching kindergarten. I can remember on more than one occasion when colleagues made comments like “all they do is play.” As if what we did in kindergarten had no value and the ‘real learning’ didn’t start in grade one, when playtime was over. As kindergarten educators we know that play and learning are not two separate things. Children learn through play and that doesn’t stop in kindergarten. Children and adults learn through play throughout their lives. It is unfortunate that some people seem to think that learning can’t be playful and fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Using technology as a hook, as Peter suggests, to bring students into a better understanding of it is no bad thing. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that approach, I’ve used it myself. I also would love to see more elementary students introduced to technology if its being used to encourage digital fluency. It’s why we’re introducing it that matters. If it’s just for entertainment with no intent to teach then it encourages the kind of abuse I heard at the conference. We’re doing a bad enough job with digital technology (ie: distracted driving, fake news, social media overturning democracies, etc) as a society that we don’t need to be amplifying it in the classroom.

    This particular situation was an educator in a room full of educators who dismissed anything digital as a waste of time. Anything at all. As a technician who teaches future engineers and technicians and someone who understands just how vital to modern life digital infrastructure is, this was shockingly ignorant, especially coming from a teacher.

    I read Alfred’s post: and I find the “Must a name mean something?” thinking frustrating, but then four years of English honours degree makes me a little more sensitive to the weight of words. What we call things matters if it highlights how we think of them (which I generally find to be true). If we’re all introducing technology with an understanding of what it is while encouraging fluency rather than a reductive ignorance, then we’re teachers teaching and all is good.

    Liked by 2 people

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