01 July 2008

Starting the Toolbelt

Toolbelt Theory is based in the idea that our students - or everyone - must learn to analyse and use the tools available to make their learning and communication as efficient and effective as possible. And that we must become really good at matching our needs (that interface between or skills, our capabilities, and our limitations) with both the task at hand and the best and most appropriate tools.

But how to start this?

And when to start this?

I am going to argue here that the time to begin is right at the start. Right at the moment when our children begin to use technologies.

We do this already. We do this in many ways. If a child needs to reach something higher than they can comfortably reach, a number of solutions offer possibilities. The child can stand on the floor and cry until we come and get the object for him or her. Or the child can drag a chair over and climb up. Or the child can find other things to pile up to get to the requisite height.

When we are parenting, if we are good, we help the child navigate a series of decision-making events. We'd prefer some level of independence. If a stool pulled over will work, we'd rather they not ask. If it's very high, we'd rather they did ask. We'd rather that they learn to use the step stool than the pile of blocks. We'd rather the chair without wheels than the rolling office chair. We'd suggest that they not try to pull the ladder out of the garage.

In other words, we are teaching them the TEST protocol at the heart of Toolbelt Theory decision-making:
Task - Is it a small toy or a huge box? Is it light or heavy?
Environment - Is it just out of reach or up by the ceiling? Are we inside on a flat floor or outside on an uneven surface?
Skills - At my height is it just out of reach or far out of my reach? Am I strong enough to hold and carry what I am reaching for?
Tools - What is available? Can I bring that chair over here? Will this stool work? Or do I need to ask for outside assistance? (and is that available?)

Now, can we imagine the same thing with ICT, even at the very beginning?

I believe that we can. We can do this at home, and we must do it at school. We need to stop making absolute choices for our children and start teaching decision-making.

What if, right from the start, we offered options. For the cost of an extra USB hub we can begin doing this. Our computers could have three keyboards and three mouse devices connected. Maybe a Big Keys, something standard, something with lots and lots of keys. Maybe a mouse, a trackball, and a touchpad. We might also have Click-N-Type loaded.

If we did that - on the computers our youngest students used - we'd be teaching these very important ideas. No two people are alike when it comes to these tools. You have choices to make. Everybody needs help in one way or another. The most complex might not be the best solution. Learning by trial-and-error is effective. You might choose one solution one day but not the next, for one task but not the other.

How else could we do this?

Do you want to log-on with your fingerprint or by typing? What font would you like to use in Microsoft Word? How big would you like it to be? What colour should the letters be? Would you like to hear that story with WordTalk or NaturalReader? These are choices you can often offer without cost, and they are choices a five-year-old can easily make, and analyse.

Think about this model and contrast it with the way technology is usually delivered in schools. A classroom full of children all working on matching keyboards, with matching mice, with matching software packages all pre-configured to be identical.

What is that system teaching?

Years ago when I was at Grand Valley State University I took a group of high school teachers on a tour of our biggest computer lab, about 200 workstations. As we walked through I pointed out to these teachers how our students were using these computers. Many were listening to music (even in those pre-iPod days). Many (especially the males) wore baseball caps with the brims curved deeply, creating "blinders" that focused their attention on the screen and not on the huge, chaotic space. 20 percent or so leaned back in their chairs with the keyboards in their laps. Despite rules to the contrary, at least half had drinks with them. There were lots of different "window" sizes, lots of different page magnification sizes. Some had only one thing open, others, many things. Our students were making themselves comfortable, and I argued, more productive because they were comfortable. Then I said to the teachers, "but almost everything these students are doing to make this environment work for them, is against the rules in your school."

The teachers admitted that was true, but thought that what was appropriate for higher education students couldn't work at their level. And this is the same argument I hear when I suggest that if Stanford and Duke almost insist on iPod use they should not be outlawed in high schools. And that if the mobile phone is an essential communication device outside of school it might be an important one in school.

But I thought then, and I think now, that we do our children no favours by refusing to teach them, from the earliest point, the art of logical decision-making, the art of tool use, the art of appropriate tool use in social situations. And I thought then, and I still think, that the only way to teach decision-making, tool selection and use, and appropriate behaviors, is to offer choices, to allow choices, and to help our children learn the consequences of those choices. And to do it from the beginning.

- Ira Socol

Worth reading: Ewan McIntosh on the Global One-Room Schoolhouse. There's a new AT Blog Carnival up. Coffee-on-the-Keyboard on Identity 2.0.

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

1 comment:

Karen Janowski said...

And if you haven't made the point clear enough, here's another point to consider. How many times have you heard teachers say, "Well, he doesn't want to be seen as different?" In other words, the student is choosing not to use the tools that are in the classroom for their use only. If all schools implemented what you advocate, no student would ever appear "different." If we really care about kids, we would make these tools available. As you have emphasized, many of them are free.