The “Law of the instrument”

In 1966 Abraham Maslow said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”, this has become known as the “Law of the instrument“, maybe the least discussed law when talking about education, but imho the most important to warn for in educational discussions.

Not that we only have hammers in education, no, it’s sheer impossible to grasp the almost infinite possibilities, but many people do have their favorite tool.

Some examples:

  • How many times do you read: this tool will change everything in education? We know that it won’t, but most of the time the person expressing this is really convinced of his hammer.
  • In a similar vein let’s teach all children how to code. Most of the time this is said by people who are really convinced of his or her hammer.
  • This morning I woke up to find myself in the midst of a discussing pro and contra PBL, and again, well, you guessed it.

But do you remember the learning pyramid? If that awful piece of educational myth would have been correct, it would mean there is one approach that works best in any given context, for any child, for any given goal. Or that there is only one golden hammer.

The same reason why the learning pyramid isn’t true (for sources, check our book), there is seldom a golden hammer in education. It’s true: as Hattie often claims: most of the things we do in education have effect, it’s to know the impact. But it’s more difficult: it’s also knowing when, why and how something needs to be applied.

When thinking about this law of the instrument the past few days, I found it quite confronting as I did find discover I’ve made this mistake myself too. Let’s make it one for our educational New Year’s resolutions…

4 thoughts on “The “Law of the instrument”

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