The Toolbelt and Universal Design - Education For Everyone

Originally published at on 2009-07-17 04:00:00 UTC

Education may be understood in one of two broad ways. Either it is about teaching people a discrete set of facts they will be able to repeat – multiplication tables and The Lord’s Prayer are two examples – or it is about helping people learn how to function in the world – crossing the street, using the Dewey Decimal System, reading a map all fit into this category.

The first understanding is not without value. It is important to know an alphabet, basic math facts, or what “President” means. But the second is crucial to survival. Humans, from the very start, needed to know how to hunt, how to recognize safe plants from poisonous ones, how to find their way back home.

And almost as soon as humans began to function as “humans” – this process of learning to function in the world began to revolve around tools. Humans are tool makers and tool users. It truly is our most significant distinction among the species on the planet. Sure, many animals use a few basic tools, but no other creature uses as many tools, or constantly refines those tools, or continuously invents new tools. It is almost a definition of “humanity.”

Our societies are defined by our tools. Our first complex tool is our language, which allows us a huge communicative advantage over most species with which we compete. And our languages significantly define who we are and what we know. The rest of our tools tend to define where we fall in social evolution. We describe much of our history by our tool sets: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, The Iron Age, The Age of Steam, The Information Age.

This progress explains an important idea to educators. If you are teaching your students the tools of yesterday, you are preventing society from moving forward. Rather, we must be teaching our students to use the tools of this moment, and teaching them how to learn the next set.

Toolbelt Theory

For the past four years I have talked about something I call “Toolbelt Theory.” This began as an idea for allowing students with “disabilities” to learn and choose their own Assistive Technologies. But it very quickly expanded to all students, because every human on earth needs some kind of technologies which assist them in their interactions.

It is impossible for most to climb to the second floor of a building without stairs. It is very difficult for most to get to a meeting on the 25th floor without an elevator. And it is perhaps even more difficult for most to get to work each day if work is 30 miles from home, unless we use a car.

Because we are not whales, we need some form of “assistive technology” if we are to talk to someone 3,000 miles away. We call this a telephone. Because we are not birds or Monarch Butterflies, we need other “assistive technologies” if we are to cross from one continent to another. We call these planes and boats. And because we are not Socrates, we struggle to remember everything we have ever been taught without “assistive technologies.” We call these books and paper, pens and ink.

So we create toolbelts for ourselves. We not only collect hammers, saws, screwdrivers, we load up on books or television, typewriters and newspapers.

WYNN, highly sophisticated Text-To-Speech

A toolbelt for everyone

I began to discuss Toolbelt Theory in my field – for students with special educational needs. I was frustrated when some “school-based team” would pick a single technological solution for a student’s “disability” which the student was expected to use no matter the task, no matter the environment, no matter how the student was feeling that day.

For example, a student with a reading problem might be given complex, expensive literacy software for his computer but not be able to read a menu at a restaurant or a sign on a school door. Or a student without verbal communication might be given a speech-generating device too large to use on the bus as she traveled home. Or lots of students might be given tools based on their “worst day” needs – rather than allow them to use “just” the help they needed.

It was the equivalent of breaking out a chain saw every time you needed to cut wood – even if you were trying to build furniture.

But once I began to see Toolbelt Theory work, I saw that every student needs this. There’s not a human on the planet that doesn’t need to reach for a tool sometime – and knowing how to pick the right tool for the job and moment, how to use that tool well, and how to find new tools, is an essential survival skill.
Universal Design

We don’t call someone “disabled” because they can not saw 100 sheets of plywood in half by hand. We get them a table saw. We don’t call someone “disabled” because they need a power screwdriver or they’ll be exhausted after an hour of putting down deck boards. We put a bit in our drill. And we don’t call people “disabled” because they can’t walk five miles to work every morning. They take a car or a bus or a train.

This is the idea behind Universal Design Technology, and behind Toolbelt Theory. We, as humans, differ. Our tasks differ. Our environments differ. Our circumstances differ. And we pick the appropriate tool.

This Wednesday I could walk much further, cane and all, in the 64 F degree weather in San Francisco than in the 98 F degree weather just south of there in Mountain View. I could decide if I wanted to drive between those two cities, or take the train. Get off early and take BART to my destination, or ride to the station by AT&T Park and walk to the streetcar – What’s the weather? Is time an urgent factor? How does my leg feel?

But without education, I can’t make these choices. I need to know how to know the temperatures. I need to know what transit options are open to me. I need to know how to drive and how to read a timetable. How to operate parking and train ticket machines. I need to know which way the streetcars run, and how to ask for help.

When I read I need to make similar choices. I read really slowly, really badly. But for short things I just tough it out with “ink-on-paper” (or paint-on-signs), though I have a Reading Pen with me if I’m having a very bad day - a day when no alphabetical system connects correctly in my brain. But I also use Click-Speak in Firefox for reading web pages. I use WYNN for big academic reading, and Read-and-Write-Gold – all of which convert text to audio (WYNN and Read-and-Write both highlight each word visually as it is being read aloud). Sometimes I use audiobooks – especially for novels, poetry, or great historical stuff, or I let WYNN, Read-and-Write, or WordTalk convert the text to an mp3 I can listen to in my car.

Without education I could not make these choices either. I need to know how to use those different tools. I need to know how to work with them – say, how to take notes effectively. I need to understand what the purpose of my reading is. And yes, I need to know about these tools, and where to get them.

Are you teaching your students those things?

Suppose your wealthy, white, typically-abled child is heading off to Europe. Can they read maps effectively? Can they read maps on their iPhone or Blackberry so they aren’t “screaming” “I’m an unfamiliar tourist” as they walk down the street? Can they translate information quickly from unfamiliar languages? Can they use Google to convert currency? Or to know if they’re being ripped off? Are they able to figure out the transit system maps when they arrive in a city?

Oh yeah, they’ll probably need all of those tools simply to start college in a new place or to go to that first big job interview in New York or Chicago or San Francisco.

Can they get through that last hundred pages of reading when their eyes hurt? When they need to finish as they drive to work? Can they dictate a text message or email to their boss while driving a 50 mph on the Eisenhower Expressway toward Chicago’s Loop? Can they switch their Firefox spellcheck when they communicate with that job possibility in London? Do they know if it will be better for them to buy the print version of that textbook or the digital?

Or have you left them clueless in the tool store via an education continuously committed to one way of doing things?

Toolbelt Theory, and Universal Design, means there aren’t “disability solutions” and there aren’t “normal ways to do things.” There are just humans and the tools they need. And so we don’t write IEPs for some and insist on conformity for others, but we make the tools of the world available to all, and teach them to evaluate on their own.

We do this because we know, we know, that across everyone’s lives their tasks will change, their environments will change, their skills and capabilities will change, and the available tools will change. Or quick, grab your fountain pen, fill it with ink, look up the number you need in your Manhattan White Pages directory, and dial it via your rotary phone.

So: Task – Environment – Skills – Tools (a specifically ordered re-design of Joy Zabala’s SETT Framework for those educators playing along at home). When students begin a task they need to consider what that task really is – the essential purpose. They need to know where, when, for whom that task must be completed. They must understand their own skill set and capability position (which might vary throughout even the day as they tire). And they must know the range of tools available to them – and how to use those tools.

None of this is automatic. Don’t give me your “digital native” nonsense. People even need to learn to properly hold a hammer – tool skills are not natural. Nor is tool knowledge. Every day I go into schools where students struggling with reading are left in the dark – as if we denied wheelchairs to students who couldn’t walk on the theory that being left on the floor would motivate their legs to work. Every day I go into schools where the vast majority of students struggle – and often give up – as they are forced to use antiquated tools which fit their needs badly.
Teach your children well 

We are humans. We are tool users. We are defined as humans by our constantly changing tools. Those tools, in turn, actually change who we are, as they alter our capabilities.

Your school must be a tool shop, where tools are demonstrated, taught, considered, respected, used, and deliberately chosen. Because we can not afford to send our students out without the toolbelts they need to function in their future world.

- Ira Socol

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