23 March 2007

CSUN 2007/ Ira Socol "Toolbelt Theory"

What I said at CSUN: (this is very long, but I wanted to offer most of the PowerPoint here - feel free to skip down to other topics - Firefox Speaks in Simple Terms, Creating an Accessible University, the IntelliSwitch and New Software, Accessible School Email and more...)

"Toolbelt Theory" suggests that we must teach our students how to analyze tasks, the task-completion environment, their own skills and capabilities, an appropriate range of available tools… and let them begin to make their own decisions

Services to those labeled "disabled" are far too often presented as "gifts from concerned people," the style is, of course, medical, with evaluations, and prescriptions, and implementations set up by professionals. None of this builds independence. None of this builds life skills. None of this prepares students for life after school. And, truly, none of it is realistic because it all pretends that one defined, professionally chosen, solution will solve all of a person's needs forever. And, obviously, that is as ridiculous as it sounds.

Toolbelt Theory is based in the concept that students must learn to assemble their own readily available collection of life solutions. They must learn to choose and use these solutions appropriately, based in the task to be performed, the environment in which they find themselves, their skills and capabilities at that time, and the ever-changing universe of high and low-tech solutions and supports. After all, few of us have a toolbox with just one screwdriver, or just the tools we were given when we were ten-years-old.

So, the Toolbelt is designed to:

Break the dependence cycle

Develop lifespan technology skills

Limit limitations

Empower student decision making

Prepare students for life beyond school

Students are taught a specifically ordered version of Joy Zabala's SETT Framework (Skills, Environment, Tools, Tasks). Specifically ordered because, in human experience, the choice of tools is always task-dependent. At the most basic, I need to know if I need to cut wood or join it before I start looking for a tool to use. Environment is next because it makes a huge difference whether I am cutting the wood in my garage or in a forest and whether I am cutting the wood to burn or use in a cabinet. Then, I need to know my skills – Am I strong? Am I exhausted? Is my right hand broken? Am I simply a danger to myself and others with power tools? And finally, once I know all of that, I need to know which tools exist – if I have never seen a chainsaw, as many dyslexic students (for example) have never seen a good digital reader, I will spend long hours hacking ineffectively with an axe.

So, SETT is re-conceived as TEST:


1. What needs to be done? (when possible, break the task down into component parts)


1. Where must this be done (or is typically done)?

2. Under what time constraints?

3. What is the standard method of task completion?

4. How does the person with the disability interact within this environment?

5. Who is the task being done for? (specifics of teacher, employer, other expectations)


1. What specific strengths does the person with the disability bring to this task?

2. What specific weaknesses interfere with that person's ability to complete the task?

3. What is that person's "tool acquisition aptitude" and what tools are they currently comfortable with?


1. What tool best "bridges the gap" between the current skill set and what is needed for task completion?

2. If the tool is not already "in the toolbox" (the person has been successfully trained in its use), how does the environmental timeline match with the needed learning curve?

3. If it is not possible to use the "best tool" within this environment what is the "back-up tool"? How do we pre-train so the best tool can be used the next time?

But, we cannot just implement this in our schools right now, because our schools are unprepared. Essential things must be in place to do this effectively:

Up to date technology

Schools can not continue to prepare students to use 20th Century technology

They must be preparing students to use the technology that will be around in the next decade.

Start by asking: is the technology in your school…

Up to that used in most major retail stores?

Up to that used in most offices?

Ubiquitous technology

Specialized technology is always more expensive, and more difficult to use “everywhere

The mobile phone, the PocketPC, Google-based solutions, Microsoft-based solutions, Firefox-based solutions, are less expensive and everywhere at the start.

This is just like the tale of those horrible old cassette players Telex made for RFBD (US: Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic), etc. You felt like an idiot being seen with one, you couldn't use them in the car, you had to lug your own equipment around. Using regular cassettes would have been superior in every way. This is why I dislike the whole idea of Daisy Books – and other proprietary formats. I want plain text I can use the way I want to, wherever I am…

Start by asking: Does your school…

Ban mobile phones?

Ban mp3 players even when students are working individually?

Have all available free Assistive Technology installed on all computers?

Why is school, especially in the US, the least technologically equipped environment many of your students will be in all day? Why does school actually prevent students from developing their own – perfectly reasonable – solutions… such as baseball caps which focus attention and keep your eyes away from flickering fluorescent lights?

Choices of hardware and software readily available

Students must make their own selections and learn how to evaluate

Start small at young ages, and move up to discovering the world

Why are you forcing your students to use one absurd, antiquated, non-ergonomic keyboard when there, literally, thousands of choices available – couldn't you have at least a dozen different ones in your school building?

Start by asking: Does your school…

Have various keyboards and mice for students to choose from?

Have more than one form of literacy technology?

Encourage a choice of calculators?

Willingness to allow failure

Without failure there is very little learning.

Make failure “low cost” – learn from the world of video games

Failure now beats failure later.

Start by asking: Does your school…

Encourage all students to try differing methods of reading?

Of writing?

Have assessment method choices?

Allow choices of seating?

Instructional tolerance

Accepting loss of classroom control

Accepting that all students will learn their own ways to do things

Emphasizing “what” instead of “how

Start by asking: Does it matter…

“how” a book is “read”?

“how” a paper is “written”?

“how” a student “gets to” a math answer if the concept is understood?

Does your school…

Privilege methods?

Does anyone in your school ever ask a student…

“What if the computer breaks?”

“What if the power goes out?”

School often begins with being told that we are "making [our] fives wrong" and ends with being told that our "citations are wrong." In neither case are we necessarily being incomprehensible – the teacher knows that it is a five and knows where the citation is from, but they are only interested in style, not content. (Oh, and the answer to the "computer breaks" question is, "what if your pencil breaks, what if your pen runs out of ink?")

Now, the goal is to empower students to continuously assess their changing needs and the ever changing technological environment that surrounds them, and allow them to build their own toolbelts of appropriate solutions to their life challenges.

The student with reading issues will likely need differing solutions for differing tasks for different instructors. She might watch a video of a Shakespeare play, listen to an audiobook of Joyce, need a simple computer reader with annotation capabilities for textbook reading, use a reading pen for a restaurant menu, and require a high-tech literacy support program for testing.

A student with math issues might require just his mobile phone calculator for work and a downloadable computer graphing calculator for homework, but may need to know to transfer data that he cannot write accurately from the teacher's calculator if that teacher distrusts the technology or suspects cheating whenever high-tech gadgets appear.

A student with writing problems might use speech recognition at home but type fastest using a mobile phone's word prediction for in-school answers.

There is not one answer. Tool choice is based in task, needs, environment, prior knowledge, availability, fashion, a sense of self, and the vagaries of what makes one person comfortable but not another, among many other things.

One AT device for each “issue” is as limiting as would be a toolbox with one saw, one screwdriver, and one crescent wrench.

There is a key final part of this learning, self-feedback, and it must be taught…

Data-Based Decision-Making: In tracking task success students can learn to look at direct results (improved test scores), indirect results (less time required for task completion), and affective indicators (improvements in mood, self-image, stress levels). Students need to be taught that all of these things matter, and will determine what assistive devices they use in the same way it determines their choice of mobile phone or mp3 player.

The target is students prepared for independence and life after school. Ready to make their own data-informed decisions throughout their life as their needs and the world changes. And to do this the roles of those of us in special needs services will change dramatically. We will become less doctors and chemists/pharmacists, and more librarians and advisors and personal trainers.

It will be a big change for all of us, but I firmly believe it is essential if the rights and needs of those with differing capabilities are to be respected and supported.

The Keys:

Contemporary technology

Ubiquitous technology

A view to the future

Student choice

“Method Freedom” instead of “Method Privilege”

Low cost of failure

Universal design (non-“prescriptive”)

Please credit if quoted or re-used © 2005-2007 by Ira Socol

-Ira Socol from Los Angeles


Anonymous said...

This is really great stuff. It's 'teach a man to fish,' with acronyms and cognitive theory. But really, it's a kind of activism... The underlying assumption is that the 'disabled' shouldn't be pity magnets.

Plus I now want an iFrogpad. :-)


MelissaKate said...

I'm way behind on reading this but you have hit on a couple of really important issues-one that schools don't trust the kids (do they even like them??) and the "americanization" of education. I think alone is a far bigger issue than anyone wants to admit or even acknowledge. why does everything have to be such a big struggle?