Tools for the toolbox: my least-favorite phrase!

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In many of the classes I teach one phrase (or a variation) comes up with disturbing frequency: “another tool for the toolbox.” Not because I say it, but because sooner or later a student will say it.

Then comes The Lecture.

As many of my students will attest, I hate that term. When it’s uttered in class I take the time out to explain why I hate it, why it’s nonsensical, but most importantly why it’s dangerous from the standpoint of learning defensive shooting skills.

The toolbox metaphor seems useful; you buy tools (learn skills), and then when you need the tool to do a job you can go to your toolbox, pull out the tool, and use it for the task at hand. In reality it’s more like you have an overflowing toolbox full of low-quality implements, none of which you’ve actually used because you’ve not run across the need for them yet – and then you suddenly have a woodworking problem only to realize hat all of your tools are for a machinist!

The toolbox analogy is usually used to justify, as opposed to explain, a technique or concept. If a technique has a plausible use there is no need to justify it; the use itself will be sufficient justification. It’s only when the technique doesn’t have a plausible use that it becomes necessary to explain why it’s being taught by using the self-referential toolbox analogy: “we’re learning this technique to put in our toolbox because we have a toolbox to fill.”

In any given class there are things which I could teach which don’t really have much (if any) application to defensive shooting, particularly defensive shooting as applied to the sudden criminal attack (ambush.) They’re neat, they look cool and will impress your friends, but they have no application to defending yourself against the attack you didn’t know was coming. I could concoct some ridiculous hypothetical instance in which that technique might be useful, but the less relevant the technique the more outlandish the scenarios become.

Why, you might ask, would I be teaching such a thing if it really doesn’t have any application to the life my students lead? That’s when the toolbox comes out: you don’t need to worry that it doesn’t seem useful, it’s just another tool for your toolbox in case you need it! The students are mollified and I can continue filling the time with things other than what the students really need to know.

The toolbox metaphor, however coyly phrased or authoritatively uttered, is a red flag that what you’re learning really doesn’t have a plausible (let alone probable) use, which means you’re probably spending time learning stuff other than what is likely to keep you safe. The toolbox is a waste of your limited training resources, resources that might be better spent learning things that will actually save your life.

Sometimes, though, the instructor will use the toolbox to cover something that actually is useful and plausible. If something is obviously useful, why use the metaphor? I’ll cover that next time.

-=[ Grant ]=-

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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