15 October 2013

Thinking TEST and Toolbelt Theory again, the Tech Choice Paradigm for Every Child

People who buy technology for schools make their choices for many reasons, but, I am going to make an unsubstantiated accusation here, I suspect that those reasons often have little to do with the way that children will need and want to learn.

I am not necessarily implying the nefarious, the reasons are usually much more mundane than big dinners and trips proffered by vendors. There is personal preference, "I like Apple stuff," "I like PCs." There is the ever present convenience, "This is easier for us," "Our tech staff knows these products," "I've bought these before, I can just reorder." There is ignorance, "I think only iPads can do that," "You can't mix operating systems on our network." There is even ego, "I want to be the superintendent who gives every kid an iPad."

But nefarious or mundane, the end result of these decisions is to limit opportunity for students, to limit access, and to limit learning, and we allow these kind of anti-child decisions because we have chosen to not adopt Toolbelt Theory as our tool paradigm.

Basic tool choice: Where will I sit? (Furniture is technology too)
Now that should sound egocentric. Toolbelt Theory is, I suppose, "mine." That is, it has my name on it. I described it first, though, like all practices, it has been adapted and used all over the place in great, effective, and original ways by educators far ahead of me. And, hey, there are no patents, no royalties involved. There's not even a book to waste your money on, just free and open blog posts (see right column for a whole collection). So, that said, it's egocentric perhaps, but, after all these years, what I like best about Toolbelt Theory and the TEST paradigm which underlies it, is that it is grounded in two essentials:
Toolbelt Theory works for everyone.
Toolbelt Theory is basic to the humanity of tool choice.
But Toolbelt Theory is also challenging, and threatening to some, including those technology acquisition agents mentioned above, and often including Special Education "higher ups" and folks who prowl the faculty hallways of some university Special Education graduate school departments, because Toolbelt Theory takes the power of technology choice away from these people and their "expertise" and moves it into the hands of students - even students some think can't make those choices.

Toolbelt Theory began with Special Education, and, I suppose - because so much of what I work on begins here - with postcolonialism. I wanted to free Special Education students from the prescriptive process of the "Medical Model" which dominates thinking in North American, and which considers "difference" to be a pathology (more on this later). Yet, by working with Special Education students, the TEST paradigm proved to work for everyone, because, well, despite the thoughts of the US government, the Common Core, the College Board, and the Gates Foundation, all students are different in one way or another. Thus, that postcolonial core remains.

The TEST paradigm is simple: It started as a reworking of Dr. Joy Zabala's SETT protocol (Student, Environment, Task, Tools), which I learned and used but never liked, because to me it was "colonial" and "patriarchal" - it encouraged "school-based teams" to evaluate the student and his/her environment, tasks, and tools. I wanted something much more student-centered, something much more essentially human, and - OK, maybe, an acronym spelled correctly (its a dyslexia thing) - and so...
Our 1:1 PCs with Windows 8 Start Menu showing
the full range of "Freedom Stick" tools plus we start out with
I started with these beliefs:
  • Humans are, essentially, tool users. This is what makes us distinct from other animals. Many use tools, but only we choose, invent, and improve tools.
  • Students are not an "object" in the tool choice paradigm, students must learn to make the tool choices, or we are not preparing them for life.
  • All tools, used well, are "assistive technologies." As I used to ask my students at Michigan State, "what technologies do you choose to use which don't help you?"
  • Task is always the first consideration in intelligent tool choice. In choosing a saw, do you want to cut down a Christmas Tree or cut 40 4x8 sheets of plywood to build furniture? You can't, as Zabala suggests, "start anywhere," you need to begin with what you need to do.
And ended up with:
  • Task - what will I need to do?
  • Environment - where, or under what conditions, will I need to do that task?
  • Skills - what are my skills - my strengths, my weaknesses, right now? (in that very unstable world of ability and disability)
  • Tools - what tools do I know about? what tools can I access? what tools can I learn if need be?
In 2005 this was, for me, all about, "When would I choose to use Click Speak in Firefox and when would I choose to use WYNN for reading? Or when would I choose an audiobook and when might I use a Reading Pen?" But today this about so much more - "Should I use a laptop or my mobile phone for that?" "Should I use Google or Google Scholar or a more specific search?" "Is that better in Final Cut Pro on a MacBook or could I really just do it on my Galaxy Tab and upload it to YouTube?" "Is it easier right here to dictate into my phone or to get to a computer and use something else?" "How would I choose a keyboard for my phone? - is Swype any good?" "Do I read this using the Kindle App or just a PDF?" "Do I express this best with Twitter or a blog post or with a blog post promoted by Tweets?" "Which calculators do I choose from the Windows 8 App Store? The Chrome App Store?"

Tool Choice in third grade. What is the task?

None of this is unimportant. These are the kinds of tool choices which will help define success for students in their lives in their century. It is especially critical for every student on every margin, the ones - like me - who need to make the right technological choices to be effective at, say, reading or writing. Or at communicating, or at maths. These aren't "assistive technologies" anymore than elevators, cars, and eyeglasses are - they are the tools we need to learn to choose, use, and leverage to be our best.

ignore the "Michigan State" references up front...
honestly, that College of Education never understood one bit of this

it threatened their egos and sense of power

Let's go through this. It isn't enough, in this century, to say, "I will read (or watch) the news." We need to decide what kinds of news to read, watch, and interact with, when to do that so we maximize our learning and attention, on what device to do that, using what apps or software to prioritize it. If I use Flipboard do I know how t set that up? What are the limitations of New York Times apps? How do I interact with the Guardian? Is it worth having news alerts emailed to me? texted to me? About what? If reading isn't easy, or I'm in my car a lot, which apps best convert text to speech?

So you borrowed your French buddy's laptop... can you reset the keyboard?
It isn't enough to say, "I'll write that down." On what? How? Where? Do I know how to set up Windows Speech Recognition? How to use Speech to Text in Android? in Dragon Lite in iOS? in Chrome? Do I know how to configure a keyboard on a tablet or mobile device? Can I adapt a keyboard if I have to use a computer in another country?

Obviously, we just don't "send letters," I need to know how to text my boss even if I'm driving. I need to know how to send a professional text, a professional email, a professional dm. I need to know how to read critical work emails and texts even if I'm driving or rushing through an airport. And, most critically, I will need to choose and set up devices throughout my life.

These are essential skills. And these are essential skills that certain children - the privileged - get at home from the start, but they are essential skills which most American schools have chosen to deny to kids whose parents cannot supply them with these options - thus widely increasing the devastating opportunity gap.

What does "Assistive Technology" really mean? A university student VoiceThread project
the students thought of many things, but none realized they'd need, for example,
a bridge or tunnel or boat to cross the river (swimming a tidal strait being difficult),
or roads, clothes, shoes, and all the other technologies which make modern life possible

The critical point today is, you can't do any of this if you do not begin by changing how you acquire the technology in your school, and then change how you teach with that technology. You have to begin by buying technology based your students' needs to respond individually to the first three steps in TEST, so that they have the options, and eventually the knowledge, to function in a multi-device, multi-operating system world.

In 1996 I built my first [US] public school computer network in a high school just outside of Muskegon, Michigan. We had internet connected (T3!) computers in every classroom, laptops for every teacher, and both Macs and PCs, of course, because different devices were better for different things. In the years since, I have never worked in a "monoculture" school - that would make no sense given the choices we know - have known - exist.

Today the schools I work in support 6 operating systems, well, 6+. We have Windows 8, we still have holdover Windows 7, we have MacOS (in various versions, hence the "+"), we have iOS devices, Android devices, and Chromebooks. Why? Because this is both what the world looks like and what gives our children the tool cribs they need to learn for their time.

Does that challenge the purchasing process? Yes. Does it challenge tech support? A bit. Is it something we can all do? Yes. Absolutely. But remember the point here, when you are purchasing technology for your school(s) you are purchasing learning tools, and to quote a tweet from Bronx middle school librarian Deven K. Black, "Learner not just center of education; learner is the only essential person in the process of learning." If it is not all about the learners' needs, we shouldn't be buying the stuff. For, quoting Deven again, we need to get past school as a learning limiter, "Go ask a longshoreman about anything and you get a different POV. School restricts POV, not expands it."

Once you have flexibility of device choices in your school, teachers can give your students the options they need and the information they need in order to learn to make decisions.

This begins with giving students control, yes LA Unified and Apple - control, of the devices in their hands. A device without student control is, for lack of any better term, a textbook, and if you have bought devices but refused to hand over control to your learners, your taxpayers have every reason to ask why you wasted their money?

That yielding of control begins with your policies and your tech staff and then lands squarely in the hands of your teachers. If teachers still think teaching means all kids doing the same thing at the same time in the same way, then learning pretty much stops. I often say that the first technology of school is time, and the time to do things in ways which work for oneself is crucial. But teachers then need to accept that if, say, we're "reading together," reading may look very different in the hands of different students.

Reading looks (and sounds) like  lot of different things in this century

Some may read best using "ink on paper" - that incredible technology of the 16th century, the printed book. Others will want or need the flexibility of digital text, that it can enlarge, or change color and font, or switch the number of words on a line or the word or line spacing. Still others will want audio, either with or without the text, maybe with word-by-word highlighting. Some will like big screens, some will like lightweight screens, some will be just fine with small screens. Some might want earbuds, others might need soundblocking headsets. There is no reason to resist this or argue about it, these are the ways reading occurs now. You might have argued, back in 1776, that you were really angry that Thomas Paine did not print Common Sense as a Torah-like scroll complete with no vowels and no spaces between words, but people would have, pretty much, laughed at you. Time marches on and human civilization changes.

Likewise students may do maths (or math, pick your side of the Atlantic my friends) using all sorts of tools and all sorts of free calculators available online or via download. They will write using their thumbs or 3 fingers or 10 or by dictating. They will share work via SyncSpace or Google Drive or a hundred other ways.

Our job, as educators, is to enable their learning of how and why to make these choices.

- Ira Socol

Stepping back for a moment...

I began looking at all this again after reading a Masters Thesis about Toolbelt Theory:
"Specifically, Ira Socol’s reordered version of SETT made intuitive sense to me, mostly because, in practice, I found it was important to first establish what task a student was expected to do with the as-yet undetermined assistive technology teachers were requesting (often as a last-ditch attempt to help a struggling student). I did not yet have the theoretical understanding to see that Socol was suggesting something deeper than a simple reordering of the components of the SETT Framework for the sake of practicality. When I discovered the theoretical underpinning in disability studies, I recognized what he was trying to do and was happy when he made this explicit in an electronic mailing list conversation (Socol, 2011, January 6)."- Daniel P. Cochrane, Masters Thesis, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2012: Recontextualizing the Student: Analysis of the SETT Framework for Assistive Technology in Education.[pdf]
Cochrane explicitly locates this within the postcolonial realm of the Disability Studies/Disability Rights movement - a large force in Europe - and little known in American, especially American K-12, education. The Disability Studies movement views disability as between somewhat and entirely a social construct... my preference is to use the term Transactional (see also this) - the opposite of the medical model... and tends to want to allow humans to make identity choices instead of being described by diagnosis - as even the most well-meaning American educators tend to do. (Americans like to use the same terminology for "disability" as for all pathologies, so they say, "a student with a reading disability" as they'd say, "a student with cancer." The other option is for the student to choose - or not choose - to use an identity label as we would with other forms of identity, "an African-American student," "a dyslexic student," "a gay student.")

This matters not just for students we label as having "disabilities," it matters for all not statistically average. Students cannot reach their potentials when we spend more effort limiting them and describing their problems than we spend enabling them and equipping them with the tools they need.

And I began looking at this again because of a fabulous blog post from Heidi Hass Gable. She was looking for those "ways in..." those "how to begins..." and began a fabulous conversation:
"What do we teach, and why? And what tools could we make available in “Toolbelts” for students, in classrooms? Does that differ from a perspective of identified special needs students?" Heidi Hass Gable blog post: Understanding Ira Socol's TEST approach, October 2013.
And I cannot forget the amazing Karen Janowski, who teaches with Toolbelt Theory and has pushed it into wonderful new realms, and always keeps me excited about the work.

1 comment:

Mike Kaechele said...


Not against anything that you say here. We are pretty much one platform at our school, primarily these decisions are made by IT people based on cost IMO, not by teachers.

There is definitely an anti-Apple bias on our campus by IT as we have been fighting for some Mac editing stations. It is both a bias against Apple and a cost issue.

I personally have no problem with students using different devices but question how much of it is preference vs. actually making a difference in their opportunity to learn.

Uniformity is definitely convenient for both IT and teachers. I don't teach different platforms or tools. For the most part I don't teach technology at all but let students figure it out.

I guess I see internet access as the key and the device used as secondary as they all do most of the same thing. I can see some differences by age level, but I think high schoolers need a computer and internet access. I really don't care what kind or what OS it is using.