New Slide: Skills Matter More than Tools

All y’all know my feelings about the role that #edtech should play in schools, right?  

I mean I don’t think I’ve hidden the fact that I’m sick of conversations that take a tool-first approach to reimagining learning spaces.  When our primary goal is to get kids blogging or to teach kids to make Wordles or to roll iPad carts — or Chromebooks, or Whiteboards, or Apple TVs or any other gadget that you can think to spend your money on — into every classroom, we are wasting our time, energy, political capital and cold hard cash all at once.

That’s because tools in the hands of a person with no real skills are useless:

(click here to enlarge, download and view original image credits on Flickr)


Does this make any sense?

Brett’s point is that even if you bought him a three ton hydraulic jack, a four-position creeper with an adjustible headrest and a crap-ton of Torx bits, he’s never going to replace the alternator on his wife’s 1970 AMC Gremlin.  In the Twitterstrand that started this conversation, Brett argues that if you HAD to choose between skills or tools, skills matter more.

Now don’t get me wrong:  We MUST make investments in technology if our schools are ever going to remain relevant.

I cringe every time I have to turn to a kid in my classroom and say, “Good question — you’ll have to look that up when you get home.”  The two ten-year old desktops running Windows XP in the corner of my classroom AREN’T getting the job done.  In fact, they are embarrassing.  How can we really sell schools as modern learning spaces when we aren’t even willing to invest in modern tools for learners?

But until we start thinking about skills first, no amount of #edtech investment will change the way that our kids are learning.  

This is simple, y’all:  Before spending a dime, decide what you actually want your kids to know and be able to do.  If you can’t answer that question, do us all a favor and don’t buy anything.



Related Radical Reads:

Teachers, Chainsaws and the Dreaded Interactive Whiteboard

Change Depends on Something MORE than Shiny iGadgets

The Gadget Happy Classroom Fail

  • Jan Ogino

    Don’t You Hate Being Right?

    Dear Bill, 

    I feel like many of us have been saying this for years.  But here is another step further into the skills/tools debate.  As a reading teacher, I have been preaching for years that foundational skills (like phonological awareness, phonics and grammar) are nothing without applying those skills to authentic literature and non fiction.   So many teachers teach these skills in isolation, assuming that they are using those skills when they are reading and solving problems when they are reading.  So it is not enough to have the tools and learn the skills, but you have to use them regularly to solve problems when reading and to become a proficient reader.  

    Even if you had the right tools to fix the car and learned the skills to fix the car, if you never get opportunites to fix cars and use those skills, what is the point?


    • Tchaiko Kwayana, National Board Certified 1995-2005


      What good are those skills if we do not teach  content that erases the lies, the distortions, and the absences that give our youth the belief in European superiority?  Why do you think racism is so pervasive?

      Tchaiko Kwayana

      National Board 

      Certified Teacher






      "One of the greatest crimes you can commit is to teach a people that their history begins with invasion, colonization and enslavement."


      –Runoko Rashidi‎"

    • Sandra Flowers


      In my educational world, I find the opposite scenario, Bill.  Teachers are not teaching  foundational Reading skills in isolation or otherwise.  After the primary level EC- 3rd, many teachers do not attend to skills progression instruction–many teacher do not have the foundational nor the skills progression knowledge to move students forward in this process.  I find teachers who just giving reading assignments (without much attention to skills) happens mostly with the isolation  to which you refer.



  • CarlDraeger

    Dinosaurs CAN change, too.


    I totally agree with the not-so-obvious wisdom shared by you and Brett Clark. Too often school leaders wish to show off the bells and whistles of new tech toys available. However, as John C. Carver recently shared on #CTQedchat, “Schools should not use new technologies to teach the same old crap.” LINK 

    The revolution has already happened. It has been said that the teacher is no longer the smartest person in a room with an internet connection. Therefore it follows that how to use the information (and how to vet that information) is more important than having out of context knowledge. Wiggins and McTighe might argue that that is the beginning of asking what is essential. 

    Before spending a dime, decide what you actually want your kids to know and be able to do.  If you can’t answer that question, do us all a favor and don’t buy anything.

    This is so true. We also need to get veteran teachers comfortable in asking questions that they don’t know the answer to. As Dr. Suess said, “Oh, the places you’ll go!” The larger question remains, how to we get teachers to step away from the comfort zone of yesterday’s lesson plans/technology to engage and empower our students’ curiosity so they can solve 21st century problems creatively?

    PLCs ranging from the CTQ Collaboratory to home grown groups hold the keys. As Barnett Berry says, “If teachers know best about professional learning… let’s follow their lead.” Allow teachers to learn from each other by redefining professional development and creating time for teachers to work together. Even dinosaurs like me can learn new tricks.

    Cretaceous Carl