Digital Media in Education

research in new media learning environments

In Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes In The Age Of The Machine

In one of the most interesting books of Donald Norman, he tell us about the importance of cognitive tools for helping us in multiple ways. The book was written in 1993 and some comments may seem a bit out of date but the most significant ideas used with analog technology may be transferred to some digital technology. Below is presented a selection of most inspiring quotes that focus the importance of some ideas to address the study of cognitive tools and technology.

  • The need for a historical approach to technology use in knowledge construction;
  • The importance of reason and time for critical thinking  and meaning making;
  • The importance of social interaction for learning;
  • The importance of storytelling for decision making where context and emotion are important attributes of the story.

“Probably the most important of our external aids are paper, pencil, and the corresponding skills of reading and writing. But because we tend to notice the unique, not the commonplace, few recognize them for the powerful tools that they are, nor does the average person realize what breakthroughs in reasoning and technology were required to invent writing, numerical representation, portable and reliable pens and pencils, and inexpensive, functional writing paper.” p.44

“Today we may have regressed to match the fears of Socrates: We read too quickly, without questioning or debating the thoughts of the author. But the fault does not lie with the book, the fault lies with the reader. Cognitive artifacts are tools, cognitive tools. But how they interact with the mind and what results they deliver depend upon how they are used. A book is a cognitive tool only for those who know how to read, but even then, what kind of tool it depends upon how the reader employs it. A book cannot serve reflective thoughts unless the reader knows how to reason, to reflect upon the material.” p.47


“the magazine Scientific American has characterized the human brain as ” the most complex structure in the known universe”. There is far more to human cognition than what goes on in the brain: we are social interacting creatures.”pp.116-117


“Fancy graphics fill the screens, numbers and formal predictions abound. All is spelled out just as the textbook says it should be.

I remember just such a meeting of senior executives at a major American company, decision makers inundated with statistics and facts. And then one of the highly placed decision makers spoke up: “you know, my daughter came home the other day and said …,” and the story poured out. “hmm”” another executive  said “that makes sense, but you know, the other day…” and came a story. A few stories, some discussion of the stories, and the decision. All those facts and statistics, and in the end, the decision was based upon some personal stories. There is something important and compelling about stories that bear considering in great detail. Stories are marvelous means of summarizing experiences, of capturing an event and the surrounding context that seems essential.  Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, in to one compact package, information, knowledge, context, and emotion.” p.129


“Logic provides a powerful reasoning tool. Start with a set of clear assumptions; add a set of clear, precise rules, and the result follows- no ands, ifs, buts, or maybes. (…) The problem is that in its attempt to abstract the relevant from the irrelevant, logic oversimplifies to the extreme. Logical analysis only applies to information that can be measured, but what can be measured and what is important  are not necessarily related. One can measure size and weight, cost and time, but one cannot measure value or beauty, pleasure or pain, moral good or evil. (…) Stories have the felicitous capacity of capturing exactly those elements that formal decision methods leave out.” (p.130)

Norman, D. A. (1994). Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes In The Age Of The Machine. Basic Books.

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