Toolforthoughts: Reexamining Thinking in the Digital Age

WCER Working Paper No. 2005-6

David Williamson Shaffer and Katherine A. Clinton

September 2005, 22 pp.

ABSTRACT: In this paper, we argue that new computational tools problematize the concept of thought within current sociocultural theories of technology and cognition, by challenging the traditional position of privilege that humans occupy in sociocultural analyses. We draw on work by Shaffer, Kaput, and Latour to extend the analytical reach of activity theory, mediated action , and distributed cognition by adopting a stronger form of the concepts of distribution and mediation in the context of cognitive activity. For rhetorical purposes, we posit this stronger form of the distribution of intelligence across persons and objects as a theory of distributed mind. Previous theories of cognition and technology show that persons and artifacts both contribute to meaningful activity. Here, we explore how understanding the pedagogical implications of new media may require creating a new analytic category of toolforthoughts. The result of such a shift in thinking provides a view of the relationship between technology and cognitive activity appropriate to the emerging virtual culture of the digital age. We suggest that this may provide a useful perspective from which to analyze pedagogical choices in the context of rapid expansion of powerful cognitive technologies. Theorizing the cognitive agency of tools provides a means to evaluate (in the fullest sense of the word) the educational consequences of new technologies.

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keywords: Computers; Thinking; Learning; Distributed Cognition