The toolbox metaphor, continued.

The toolbox metaphor, continued.

Occasionally I’ll run into an instructor who is actually teaching appropriate, plausible skills – but who insists on calling them “another tool for your toolbox”. Why would he or she intentionally handicap the material in that way?

Sometimes it’s because what’s being taught lacks internal consistency. The skills and concepts don’t relate to each other well, or perhaps the plausible skill contradicts another less plausible one. This happens when the instructor has no overall philosophy for the course as a whole, and has simply gathered what seems ‘cool’ from disparate sources and stuffed them all into his course  toolbox.

Very often the toolbox metaphor is used to mask the fact that the instructor is not capable of explaining the technique in terms that the students can grasp and apply. This inability to articulate why a skill is valuable or useful can be simply due to a lack of teaching skill, but often it’s a cover for an incomplete understanding of what’s being taught.

If the instructor doesn’t understand the material at its core, both in terms of how to perform the skill but also the reason for learning/practicing/evaluating that skill, it’s easy to fall back on telling the students that it’s another tool for their toolbox. The students, having heard that saying from other instructors or seen it used in books or articles, are goaded into accepting the lack of explanation.

This is also the case when the instructor isn’t capable of answering the questions that the students are capable of generating. While this is often due to a lack of deep understanding, it can also be a defense against those rare students who are wedded to a particular point of view and will not accept logic and reason when the material contradicts what they’ve trained previously. I speak from experience: it can be tempting to fall back on the toolbox metaphor when faced with such a vocally intransigent student, but I believe professionalism demands that I resist the urge. (It also demands that I resist the urge to hit them upside the head with a two-by-four, which I’ve so far been able to do. I will admit to being sorely tempted, however!)

From the standpoint of instructional integrity I think it’s important to not allow oneself to slip into the habit of using a trite explanation like “another tool for the toolbox.” It’s far better to explain the reason for the material, its expected use, and the frequency with which it needs to be practiced to maintain a certain level of proficiency. If the instructor can do that, there is no need for the toolbox nonsense; if he or she can’t, it should give the students pause.

Whether to cover up for a lack of plausibility or to disguise an issue with the ability to teach the material, the “tools for the toolbox” metaphor is at best a smokescreen. If you’re taking a class from someone who uses it in place of rational and complete explanation, it’s a sign that you need to be asking questions and expecting clarification before accepting the material as being valid.

-=[ Grant ]=-

  • Posted by Grant Cunningham
  • On May 1, 2013