Thought Traps

Published: 2014-02-14 12:15 |

Category: Grad |

Another cross post, somewhat edited, from a recent MAET assignment. Below is a short reflection (slightly adapted for the post) I wrote comparing Missional Thinking (big idea, goal-based) and Instrumental Thinking (short term, tool-based) in education.

You can see the entire assignment response in my Google Doc

Problem of Practice

Schools are facing a variety of problems, especially concerns over annual budgets. Competing internal and external factors carve up the funds available faster than the Thanksgiving turkey, often leaving very little behind to explore new areas of possibility. Free tools, as a result, are (ironically) at a premium in the education world. Google Apps for Education is, without a doubt, an extremely powerful suite of tools available to schools at no out-of-pocket expense. Budget issues aside, the allure of “free” and what Google Apps offers can lead to narrow thinking and a loss of larger opportunities when it comes to classroom use.


This was a tough assignment for me because the lines between instrumental and missional thinking are so nuanced. At first, I thought the two were woven together, with missional thinking directing the instrumental decisions. Now that I’ve taken nearly a week to think about it more, I’m not so sure that’s the best description. If you’re working as a missional thinker, your decisions will always support the larger goal of the group or organization. If you’re working with an instrumental mindset, the decisions you make will be for your own benefit. There are significant parallels here between the way an Alchemist and Opportunist work.

At first, I thought the two were woven together, with missional thinking directing the instrumental decisions.

I chose the problem of deciding to implement school-wide tools for two reasons. First, I think it is a decision that could fall easily into either camp…it isn’t as clear cut as some of the other ed tech discussions happening right now. Second, Google Apps should be leading to larger discussions of school culture and how technology will influence that, but I don’t hear those very often.

If you open a conference program, you will see no less than 10 or 12 sessions on Google Docs, but rarely a session on how the use of the platform has contributed to meaningful, systemic change within a class or across a district. I struggle to connect or find deeper discussion when tools are simply picked up because they’re free. This discussion could have a lot of great ideas as well as some individual anecdotes, but I wouldn’t expect much more meat than that. The only exception could be a discussion on collaboration, but (and I may sound pessimistic or cynical) “collaboration” is the new term of endearment for student work. Using Google Docs for the sake of collaboration (I honestly think “cooperation” is more descriptive thanks to some thoughts from Dave Tchozewski) is the same as using Google Docs because they’re free.

When having discussions about systemic change, it is so easy to include the name of the tool you’re considering, and I think that would shift the missional thought process into the realm of instrumental thinking. The missional discussion should consider larger truths of digital learning and forward-thinking organizations. They consider the desired behavior rather than the potential tangible or economic benefits of a particular tool. The people in this conversation are dealing with deep philosophical issues around education. Technology needs to be part of the discussion, but it shouldn’t be off in its own category. The other big differentiator is that any number of tools can be used in a plan to answer the questions asked. Each would serve their own unique purpose, and when combined with one another, serve the mission of the organization much more thoroughly and effectively than any instrument alone.

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