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How Tools Shape Behavior

Zack Henry, Forge Learning Guide

If you know anything about adolescent boys, diligence and attention to detail are often not their strengths. Having taught and mentored this demographic for the better part of the last decade, I would rather not recall the amount of times I have reminded someone to “slow down, take your time”. So I was struck recently as I watched four adolescent boys taking their time (without prompting) while crafting garments diligently using sewing machines. What was going on here? Why weren’t all of these machines tangly messes, and how are all of these stitches so straight?

It seems to me that these students were given the right tools, the right environment, and the right motivation. The tools they were given were not dumbed down versions of sewing machines, they were the real deal. The environment they were working in was neither raucous nor sterile, folks were chatting calmly while they were working. The motivation they had to take their time and focus on their product was not to get a good grade or receive praise from an adult; these students were motivated purely by their desire to have a sweet garment that they could use in their lives. 

Here I was, looking upon this room full of diligence and attention to detail, and I was struck by what I was seeing. Young men given proper tools and proper instruction on how to use them set loose. It seems to me that if we could harness this principle in the wider context of education our outcomes would be vastly improved. Creating an authentic learning environment in which learners are producing real-life products using real-life tools seems like a no brainer to me. Sure, resources are needed to require and maintain tools such as sewing machines, but I wonder if it would really be more expensive than multi-million dollar curriculum contracts and endless professional development workshops. 

Perhaps we should be investing our resources into giving our learners the right tools, the right environment, and the right instruction before stepping out of their way and letting their self-motivation take over. The results might be shocking to us; adolescents taking their time, practicing diligence, and giving attention to the detail of their work. Maybe all they’ve needed were the right tools for the job.

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