“It’s not about the tool, it’s about the learning.”

We hear it at conferences and workshops. Especially from experts delivering keynotes or those engaged daily in the push for the use of technology to assist and amplify teaching and learning.

We hear it often. In articles and educational pamphlets and podcasts. I often overhear myself saying it.

Whilst it isn’t about the tool, we all know that when it comes to technology, more so than pen and paper or, previously, chalk and ink, things can go wrong and especially so if the teacher doesn’t feel comfortable with the tool in question.

Though sometimes they fail, I am also reminded of a favourite phrase of my maternal grandfather: “Only a poor builder blames his tools.”

“It’s not about the tool” is the mantra of an increasingly diverse technology landscape through which our students participate not only as learners but also as consumers. Our students chose the tools with which they engage with their worlds, and are doing so with increasing complexity, multilingualism (between platforms and brands) and, much more so than most parents and teachers, adeptness.

I’ve been forced to rethink this position in recent developments at my school, where platforms and operating systems and devices and compatibility are becoming a rolling conversation about what teachers and students are expected to do in the classroom.

“it’s not about the tool” doesn’t really help a teacher who is an expert in their subject area, a pedagogical wizard but who has no interest, experience or yearning to see the potential of technology for their students. To the quote, sometimes teachers might say “but therefore the tools we use might not be digital, instead the tool that has served me well and helps me teach my students.”

That’s hard to argue against. I usually use the “real world” defence, citing that the workplaces, tertiary learning spaces and general social environments of the present and future require us to include technology-rich approaches as a necessary element of reality and progress. But that isn’t the experience of all teachers, who may not see the necessity that I do.

“It’s not about the tool” doesn’t stand up well in the face of the NSW Higher School Certificate (HSC) which has only just recently begun digitising examination papers for markers to assess via an online portal. This was not done because of some research-based movement for home marking or because they fund greater accuracy reading from a screen, but because of cost cutting. When all we are doing is basic substitution (according to to SAMR model) and only on the marking end,how do students see the value of technology as a part of their final and most onerous assessment process of their school careers?

“It’s not about the tool” also faces difficulty when battling with mandated or designated device programs at schools. From an institution perspective, it is much easier to manage and control the use of a stock standard device. From an individual perspective, this tethers every learning activity completed at school to a particular operating system, for better or worse. As more schools move to BYOD environments, we will see this change.

However, how are teachers supposed to respond to this change? How are they to manage and cultivate an engaging, differentiated learning environment when their environment may be either mandated so that students are disenfranchised from their choice of tools, or where the environment is so diverse that the teacher cannot assist their students when they choose an unfamiliar tool might the teacher is not trained to use themselves?

I think one part of the solution is that teachers, like many other professionals, need to take it upon themselves to become familiar with various platforms. They need to see what an iPad can do, despite having ever only used a PC laptop. They need to visit other schools – especially those of similar socio-economic status – to see what is possible in their context. They need to join their colleagues from other schools and share ideas, have debates and model practice to each other in order to lift ourselves out of the tradition of cyclopian focus on a single way of doing things.

Naturally, this is hard because teachers are busy people. There needs to be a strategic approach to school and system change, but also an individual and small-group drive towards innovation and experimentation. It is difficult, but if teachers get the time to play, and do so in a social context to be challenged, supported and acknowledged, we can truly begin to say that it is no longer about the tool. For we might not be able to keep up with the rate of technological change, but we can and should keep up with best practices for teaching and learning, whatever tools are at our disposal.