Tool Skills

In my last post I talked about Mastery Learning, that is, the idea that it is important to train people to a high level of performance before advancing to a new topic or skill. The idea behind Mastery Learning is that there is a hierarchical nature to many academic skills.  Relatively simple skills, such as learning how to tally a group of objects, or to write letters and numbers easily, or learn basic letter/sound correspondences are the foundation for more complex skills, such as adding and subtracting, and reading and writing words and sentences.  And these more complex tasks in turn become tool skills necessary to accomplish even more complex tasks, such as solving algebra equations or writing an essay.

The sub-skills that are needed for a task are often referred to as “tool skills."

There are, I think, two especially interesting and fundamental aspects of cognition that help explain why developing tool skills is so important.

First of all, there is a relatively small cap on how much a person can consciously attend to at any given moment.  Therefore, if a person requires quite a bit of effort and attention to perform a particular task, she will not be able to perform another one very well at the same time.  For example, If a student is still doing a basic arithmetic calculation on her fingers, it will be very difficult for her to attend to the new patterns and relationships involved in multi-digit addition, and almost impossible to think in a very sophisticated way about fractions.  The same applies, of course to reading.  If a student doesn’t know a large number of basic letter/sound correspondences and  how to break a word into individual speech sounds and how to blend those sounds together, it is very difficult to learn to recognize a large number for words instantly.

Secondly, when a person is trying to solve a problem, he brings to the task the tools that he has available.  If a person has a well practiced skill (such as the ability to tally a group of objects) then that skill is readily available, it can not only be used but combined with other skills when working on new tasks (such as learning how to add and subtract small quantities).

Furthermore, if all the necessary tool skills that are needed to perform a task have been well-developed, a person often will be able to integrate them in order to perform a new, more complex task with little or no instruction about how to perform the new task.  This phenomenon is known as “generative learning,” because the learning is to large extent self-generated.  All it requires from the outside is a task to accomplish.  The rest is internal, in the form of well-developed sub-skills available to the person to use and combine as needed.  And as you can imagine, generative learning greatly accelerates the rate at which a person can learn new skills.

This general learning principle has been well-established in the lab with pigeons.  In one ground-breaking experiment years ago, pigeons were trained in 3 separate skills:  pushing a box to a particular spot, to climb onto a box and peck a facsimile of a banana hanging overhead, and not to jump or fly toward a banana when it was out of reach.  These pigeons were then able to perform the novel behavior of pushing a box so that they could climb up on it and peck the banana without receiving any training to combine these skills.  Pigeons who had received training in only 1 or 2 of the sub-skills, however, did not spontaneously perform the novel, integrated task.

I have seen this process in action many times in my own teaching.  For example, when students acquire a variety of sub-skills involving fractions, such as being able to add and subtract fractions with like denominators and  having skills both visualizing and calculating equivalent fractions very easily, they often figure out how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators with very little additional guidance.

In my next posts I’ll continue on the theme of tool skills, addressing issues including the importance of fluency, and how fluent tool skills improve student motivation.  I will also present a tentative list of some basic tool skills and resources for investigating tool skills in more depth.