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Posted by on Apr 17, 2013

Evolution, Tools, and Coming to Know: The Purpose of Writing

This post represents the aggregation of some disparate thoughts I had today while taking a long walk. I had it all cohesively accounted for in the middle of the walk, but it was a disparate group of variables again by the time I got home. Some of this was inspired by the following materials (referred to me by one of my supervisors), some of it came from previous thoughts I had here on this blog. The two sections of Coming to Know through Tools and The Purpose of Writing are disparate but linked. Just not sure how yet.

  • Saljo, R. (1999), Learning as the use of tools. Chapter in Littleton, K., & Light, P. (Eds.) (1999). Learning with computers: Analysing productive interaction. Psychology Press.
  • Säljö, R. (1979). Learning about learning. Higher Education8(4), 443-451.

Coming to know through tools: The over-reliance of knowing how to do something before we do something

I battle a bit with some of the underlying structure of education, especially education that is process-driven. Essentially, it implies that we must learn to do something before we do something. For many formalized, articulated, and risk-averse disciplines (medicine, rightly so!), this is the purpose of theoretical understanding followed by simulation followed by applied practice. However, we seem to battle a bit with this at the expense of investigation and discovery. We forget that we often learn how to do by doing.

This learning by doing (and formalizing that knowledge into learning before doing) is evolution itself. And evolution reveals how tools were an integral part of what that complicated process of coming to know entailed. So, our earlier iterations had a stick, they more than likely inserted a stick into an anthill, withdrew ants, and ate the results of that labor. The utility of the tool emerged from the use of that tool itself. More importantly, once learned, the process of using tools as actors in a process of coming to know could never be unlearned. The earlier human iterations never forgot (nor subsequently) questioned the use of tools for particular effects. This knowledge transformed brain structure altogether; neural pathways were redrawn based on what was possible and what cognitive capacity had just been freed. Human capacity was redrawn and with it human development altogether. The same process plays out with flint tools, rock art, wheels, the printing press, computers. All greatly and irrevocably expanded our ideas of what is possible and how to best use our cognitive capacity. There has rarely been a retraction in this understanding, only expansion. We were meant to learn through tools.

We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us -Marshall McLuhan

Fast forward to mobile technology, wearable technology, Google Glasses, etc. and we have permanent transformation. Once learned, much of this newfound capacity cannot be unlearned. Once tools provide evolutionary advantage (defined in this instance as freeing up cognitive capacity for other creative pursuits), there is no going back. So, I don’t always buy into learn how to do before doing. Sometimes, we need to have the tool in our hand or on our person before crystallizing a profound understanding of what is made possible through its use.

Writing affords me a tool much the same as those described above.


The Purpose of Writing

I hate whenever I hear the time ‘the definitive work” or something which suggests completion or the encapsulation of all that could ever be said about the subject. Writing, like the knowledge it explores and constructs, doesn’t work that way. Let me briefly suggest why that is so by evoking a few of my writing routines and practices.

I write a lot. For this blog, my thesis, the five papers I currently have in some stage of completion, a book I am working on, and other projects I contribute to, I easily exceed 10,000 words on any given day.

Some of these words are carefully curated; others are constructed as they are being thought. In fact, I would suggest that the thoughts are being constructed by the words as they are typed. The structure of the writing produces the thought. Other times, the writing is merely following the preordained structure. My thesis is more like the latter. This blog is more like the former.

I am not embarrassed to admit that easily 80-90% of these words are written from my laptop laying on my bed. I don’t have a sofa right now so I would otherwise bounce all day long between the sofa and the bed. I think best reclined. I have earned two Masters and am working on a PhD from my bed. I have written almost this entire blog from some bed or another. I have conducted webinars, training, workshops online from my bed. The geographical location of the writing, Seoul, London, Princeton, Long Island, never mattered to me as much as a bed, reclined. I feel no shame in admitting that I am reclined as I am writing this.

Writing is how I think. I live, to some degree or another, in my head. Writing is how I communicate and make sense of this world. It is my thought process constructed externally, writ for all to see. I rarely feel threatened by having my words up on this or that post. Writing is an ongoing dialogue for me, not a completed output.

Which brings me to my point. The point I was clumsily trying to raise in my previous section on coming to know through the use of tools. Writing is not only the vehicle through which I make sense of the world; it mediates that sense-making and, in some ways, co-creates it. I have often started a blog post with no idea what it is going to be about (and some of you can spot that). Only in the last sentences of a post do I articulate my point as that is precisely when it is revealed to me. Writing is the ultimate form of revealed meaning; it emerges from the rhythm and syntax and structure and cadence of the words that it employs. Without that rhythm of revealed meaning lurking in the shadows of our consciousness, we are lost. A painter with limitless colors and no palette. A writer with clumsy analogies.

This is an acquired skill, beginning something without a clear idea of how it will end. It is just like life that way. We really only have control over that next step, that one choice, and then we cast ourselves out into the ether to interact and be interacted with. Believing in that process is like writing. Knowing that whatever I write, whatever I think, whatever I do, is incomplete. There is always more. Writing is a dialogue with ourselves and our world and the feedback we get informs the next iteration. All we have to do is start. Everything emerges from that action.

So language becomes a tool, a vehicle for understanding, but it changes understanding, our sense of what is possible. After we write, after we employ language for purpose and discovery, there is no going back to a time when we didn’t know that is possible. Those neurons have been pored over with new understanding. Tools are transformative that way.

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
– William Shakespeare


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