26 January 2009

The Toolbelt as School Policy

I believe in "Toolbelt Theory." I believe that it is our job, as educators, to help students assemble the learning and communication tools which will support them across their lifespans. And to teach them how to to keep that tool collection up to date as they, their circumstances, and the world's technologies change. If we do not that education is simply babysitting plus a few random facts which may or may not have meaning a decade from now.

This is not a "Special Ed" or a "Special Needs" issue. This is about every student. Every person.

Students, of course, can not build their toolbelts, and learn to keep them up to date unless they try out tools. Try them, and learn to compare and assess them. Do I use the alarm on my phone or send text messages to myself through Google Calendar? Do I prefer Microsoft Word or the Google Docs Word Processor? Natural Reader or Microsoft Narrator? Ghotit or the spellcheck in Firefox? QWERTY keyboard or Dvorak or Phone keypad - or Speech Recognition or handwriting recognition?

How do you start this? How do you continue this? What would a school's policy look like to make this happen?

We evaluate so many things about students every day, let's start this by requiring that students evaluate at least one thing every month. And let's begin that by asking them to evaluate Information and Communication Technologies.

In my class last semester we made PowerPoint Books or Microsoft Reader books. Of the almost 60 students, more than two-thirds tested them on very young students (ages 5-8, mostly "special needs"). Almost every one of those students expressed preferences.

"I liked the computer voice."
"I liked the teacher's voice."
"I'd rather read the book."
"I liked that the pages turned by themselves"
"I liked that I could click and make it say it again."
"I liked that I could draw on the page."
"I'd rather read my favorite books the old ways, but I'd use this sometimes."

So, right from the start, you have options and preferences, and, with a bit of coaching, those preferences start to build 'data-based decision making' on the part of the students. What works? When? Why?

Audio book, print book, computer book, that's a set of choices the youngest students can begin to experience. Just as fat pen, thin pen, fat pencil, thick pencil. Or sit at a desk, sit on the floor, stand in the back of the room while listening to the teacher. Or when to take breaks, or what time to work on different subjects.

And you don't just test this once and write it down on some school form. You encourage students to try and keep trying, to bring in different options each time, to start to record their "whys" carefully. Building a record the students themselves can check back on. Yes these are anecdotes, but as the years of school, and the experience of making choices multiplies these anecdotes do what they always do - they become data.

As students get older these toolbelt experiences expand. What kind of keyboard? What about speech recognition? What kind of calendar? What kind of planner? What kind of book or digital book? Which literacy support system? When to schedule classes? Which email system? Of course as they get older you begin to expect that they start researching and bringing in new things beyond simply the choices known to the school and teacher. Because... there are always new things.

Think of this: If you just did this once a month, a 16-year-old would have at least 100 experiences with testing and choosing. With evaluating and considering. With planning their own interactions with the world, with negotiating their way through that intersection of their own capabilities and the way the world works.

This may not seem essential within many schools. What's the old joke? The only place that wouldn't surprise and confuse a modern day Rip Van Winkle is a classroom? But it is essential for survival in the world. When my university's email interface changes I need to make a fast analysis of the best way to convert the emails into speech. When Jott drops its free stuff I need to find a replacement which works. When I find limits in Google Notebook I need to evaluate Zotero and other solutions, and I need to know - through experience - how to do that. The same would be true if my work tools included a cash register terminal or the new computer system built into Ford Trucks.

Making it policy? A grid of what's been evaluated each month belongs on every grade report. It needs to be available to the students and the parents and, of course, each succeeding teacher. It needs to be a "must do" because it will help define future success far more clearly than any silly standardized test of "content."

Imagine if your school made this important? Imagine how much better prepared all your students would be when they graduate into the future which awaits them.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's so difficult to get applications/strategies 'supported' by institutions. Titles need to have 'sufficient interest', have 'proven worth' and be thoroughly tested so that they can be supported. It's frustrating to see the rich possibilities that exist, but aren't available.

Except of course, that increasingly, these technologies are available. Our students don't need to rely anymore on most of the packages that are part of the college setup. The choice is available to them, often for free, and often on their own devices.

Yes, what we need to do as educators is be aware of (some of) the options, be willing to direct and guide, and instill this spirit of self-advocacy and self-direction. Who cares what tools they use as long as their learning is effective for them?

Great post. You helped me put words on what we are trying to achieve here at NUIM.