14 July 2008

Watching Ghandi

I watched Ghandi a couple of afternoons ago. I shouldn't of, of course, I should have been writing, but I just couldn't anymore, and the film was on TCM, and despite everything I know about it, I'd never really watched it. So I sat down. And, as much as I can do any one task at any one time, I watched.

You probably know the film, or the story. And I'm enough of a history person to have known the broad outlines. But as I watched the film a few key things ran across my consciousness.

1. This has always been one of my primary ways of learning. Because I did not read as a child film and television became my literature. Maybe you're the "smart kid" type who read Jane Eyre early, well, I watched On The Waterfront. Maybe you read Dickens, well, I stayed up late and watched the 1930s versions of Great Expectations. Maybe you read "grade appropriate" histories, well, I watched documentaries. I'm not claiming that because of this I got a "better" education than you, but I'm also not willing to admit that my education was, in any way, less valid. Interpreting the relationships and social conditions underlying Jane Eyre in print is no more challenging and no more important than doing the same with the film On The Waterfront.

2. This has always been my entry point into knowledge. For whatever reasons - personality, family training, teachers, I never accepted what I saw in one representation. If I watch this film or that, read this or that, I want to compare the claims made to those made other places. What is "real" in Ghandi? In The Third Man? In Bloody Sunday? In The Kite Runner? In The Wizard of Oz? What is not? What is to be doubted? I have to say that schools have typically been really poor at helping students with this. By confining reading to things declared "authoritative" texts, they eliminate the obvious questions - and the skills which go with the asking of those questions. Does Kansas really look like that? What would Muhammad Ali Jinnah have changed about the film Ghandi? Was Vienna really occupied in zones like Berlin after World War II? Did the RUC really try to talk the British paratroopers out of violence? Is the author really a typical Afghani in any way?

3. The struggle for liberation is always brutal. Certain social structures give power and privilege to certain people. And people who have power and privilege rarely volunteer to give up those advantages. They only yield when they are compelled to. And the compelling isn't usually pretty. British General: "You don't think we're just going to walk out of India?!" Ghandi: "Yes. In the end, you will walk out. Because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate." But there's a corollary, which Ghandi exposes because he is that rare individual who, though part of the struggle, fully understood this: The longer you fight against someone, the more you come to resemble them (see WWII Allied "Strategic Bombing" or Abu Ghraib).

4. Queer Theory is important. No one quite pioneered Queer Theory like Mohandas Ghandi. You don't find many British-trained lawyers refusing to wear anything more than a dhoti. But Ghandi knew the power of "in-your-face" gestures. He knew the power of questioning the "western" notions of progress and "western" standards of morality and ethics.

5. Romantic Nationalism is as divisive as it is powerful. Irish liberation was tied to Catholicism - by myth if not politics. Israeli liberation was tied to Judaism - both mythically and politically. Indian liberation took the mythic forms of Hinduism. Is it any surprise that Protestants in Ireland and Moslems in Palestine and India could never feel joined to the resulting states?

And today, frustrated, angry, hating the people who create the rules by which I am destined to fail, I read what Rufus had to say about my last post:

"It's weird because, on one hand, reading your essays really has convinced me that I need to update my skill set to include these technologies. On the other hand, you sometimes take this quasi-martial tone about it that makes it difficult to fully accept. "I mean, look, I've always seen my scholarly life as being a matter of having particular tastes. Just like some people enjoy collecting stamps, I enjoy studying history and translating things. I've never seen this as a winner/loser sort of thing, and I've certainly tried not to be I certainly hope I don't seem contemptuous of people who are interested in other things. I definitely don't see them as lacking in intelligence. "So, saying that knowing these new skills would be worthwhile is effective with me. But, sometimes this stuff about winners and losers comes off as hectoring, and if that was going to be effective with me, I'd have gone into computer science long ago after having heard "What are you doing studying history?! The computer science people are making it big!" for the hundredth time. "Anyway, overall, you're making your point. I just might dial down some of the "you have no choice" stuff."

And Vera said, about the same post, "[T]oo much of a us vs. them tone for my taste- aka the losers shall be the winners and the winners- losers."

How do these things go together? Because they do. Because liberation of those repressed because of "print disabilities" or "attention issues" or any "capability issue" at all is the same as national liberation. It has the same socially constructed barriers, the same enemies trying to preserve their advantages, the same need to openly declare ourselves to be "different," and the same dangers of replacing one tyranny with another.

So I need to be careful. It is important to say that if I cannot convert ink-on-paper into digital text, no one in the same situation should be able to convert digital text into ink-on-paper - that's a stubborn illustration of our rights - like saying if you'll only speak English in Ireland, we'll only speak Irish. It is important to say, "I need that in accessible form," even if you may not really need it today - that is solidarity and it is demonstration - just like Ghandi's clothing. It is important to create and hold our own mythic achievements - it is powerful to point out, for example, the school failures of Edison and Einstein.

But we don't want to let the ball roll too far. We don't want to build schools designed only for "us," whoever "us" is. We don't want to create exclusionary environments. Revenge is tempting - of course it is, "come the revolution" and all that, but revenge rarely falls on those who've done the oppressing - instead it smashes innocent bystanders (see, the Palestinians). You understand - if we want to embrace "curb cut theory" we need to make sure we put those textures or ridges in place at the curb line so that those who are blind won't get run over.

There's the idea. Universal Design needs to mean what it says. It needs to mean that every student gets the learning environment they need. So I get all my digital distractions and my sister gets to curl up in a quiet corner with her books.

- Ira Socol

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

07 July 2008

Left Behind

What will you do when technology changes and you can not keep up?

This is not a "new" question. It is a very old one. Whole cultures have collapsed, empires have fallen, corporations have vanished, and yes, languages have died, because of failures to embrace new technologies.

In 1890 there were at least 25,000 wagon manufacturers in the United States. Only one, Studebaker, survived 50 years later. They were the only one that realized that they did not "make wagons" - they made transportation devices.

The Chinese never adapted their gunpowder invention for warfare and it cost them dearly when Europeans showed up on their shores.

Languages which were separated from the printing press, Cornish for example, were wiped out.

Western Union rejected the opportunity to acquire telephone technology - after all, they ran the finest communications system in the Western Hemisphere.

I thought about this as I read about the slow death of VoiceMail. As I read that story I remembered the blog commenter - a university professor - who, just this year, insisted that his learning abilities would not be judged by "nonsense" such as his ability to "program a VCR." And I remembered a 'community leader' in my area who declared that he, "just [didn't] understand email or cellphones."

I barely use VoiceMail anymore. My phone converts it to text which I can read or listen to in my own way. I'm stuck with it at my office, but I beg people to email me instead. VoiceMail is a huge time waster, and it cannot be forwarded easily, cannot form the structure of my reply, cannot be copied and pasted into a calendar or other document. It was the vital technology of the Seinfeld era, but Seinfeld has been in reruns for a very long time.

And that professor may find that VCRs are dying even faster than VoiceMail. I think he can simply say, at this point, that he missed that entire two decades of information technology (and his ability to preserve and re-access important data).

As for the community leader, well, he is retired, which is good. His chances of economic survival in the actual world of work would be close to nil.

Different Winners

One of the things I often suggest is that new technologies will make new winners - not just in the world economy, not just in the marketplace, but eventually in the classroom. For the past 150 years a certain kind of straight-line thinking, a certain set of literacy skills, and a certain kind of slack-jawed staring attention has characterized those who "win" in education. Victory has gone to the compliant, the quiet, and those most comfortable when knowledge is divided into discrete boxes.

But those skills were the perfect fit to what is now an antiquated technology set - printed books, one-directional or perhaps "duplex" voice technology, the rectangular classroom within the school building used during the school day. Those skills are really a terrible fit with hyper-text, with information unconstrained by walls and borders and time periods, and with a workspace defined by multiple sources and multiple representations occurring concurrently.

This is why - I think unconsciously - so many academics and educators resist contemporary ICT so fiercely. Accepting these new technologies means that the advantages they were taught to prize in themselves - their study habits, their ability to focus, their willingness to depend on authoritative sources and to observe classroom rules - might prove to be their undoing. And the disadvantages they despised in others, ADHD for example, processing information via pictures instead of the abstraction of text as another, the disadvantages that have been labelled as pathological "disabilities," might prove to be advantageous in this new world.

That ADHD kid might be far better in front of multiple monitors with a dozen windows open and 15 tabs going in Firefox than the professor and former high school valedictorian who is really uncomfortable if a TV is on while she is reading. That Asperger's kid who processes images efficiently might be far better at analysing changing maps than the text-dependent historian.

And I have many colleagues who think of me as distracted and disorganised, but who turn to me all the time for the information I collect via Twitter and blogs, Skype calls and text-messages, and million moments each year when I right-click on a link and choose "Open Link in New Tab" or "Save to LaterLoop" or "Note This (Google Notebook)."


Much of education, of the educational establishment, is in real danger from this changing moment. When I watched a friend scramble through the binding process for her dissertation recently I felt like I was watching a horse-drawn carriage manufacturer around 1920, or a Greek bronze armaments maker in 800 BC, or maybe more accurately, a scriptorium around 1700. Beautiful work, lots of detail, lots of tradition, but it is all for nothing - the world has moved on.

I feel the same watching most classrooms, seeing most reading assignments, observing how assessments are conducted in educational institutions. Yes, that carriage is wonderful, but the cars will rush past it. Yes, that calligraphy is beautiful but you just spent six months creating a single book. Certainly, that bronze sword is beautiful but the steel weapon will cut it in half. Yes, you did wonderfully on the multiple-choice exam but I need people who can find information and develop new ideas, not repeat what I already know. Yes, you read that whole book, but I need to know the range of observations from these twelve sources around the globe.

The issue of being left behind is an individual one - and a potentially catastrophic one for anyone not rapidly approaching retirement age, but the much bigger issue is a systemic one. Will schools - as we know them - have any validity at all if they refuse to embrace the technologies of the contemporary world? Will the world have real room for an organization which trains straight-line thinkers when we need multi-taskers? Will the world continue to accept credentials from knowledge institutions which fail to teach the basic skills of current knowledge acquisition? Will anyone value a system which can not figure out a way to include - and thus learn from - the most inventive minds of our time? (from Bill Gates - college dropout, to Steve Jobs - college dropout, to Sergei Brinn - working on his PhD since 1993 - supposedly)

Two years ago I heard Dr. James Gee ask, "Why is the shortest proof [in mathematics] the better proof? Why is the student who finishes a test faster rewarded?" He argued that this focus on speed, on the short path, on what I might call "focus," not only left many students out, but was a fundamentally flawed educational model. "The shortest route to an answer got us into Iraq," he pointed out.

The shortest route to an answer also explains current US oil dependence, and why GM, Ford, and Chrysler are in such desperate trouble in North America today. Those car companies were "focused on shareholder value" when they were selling everything they could build. Perhaps if their CEOs were a touch more ADHD they might have looked around and seen other things along those horizon lines. Perhaps someone in the White House might have clicked on a hyperlink in a Wikipedia article and discovered something of the potential rifts in Iraqi society. Perhaps intelligence community operatives less trained in following procedures and with higher networking skills would have discovered Al Qaeda's threat to the US in August 2001.


Change is uncomfortable. Change is dangerous. Change is hard.

But change is essential. And change creates new possibilities. If you are the "traditionally successful" educator you may find yourself on the losing end of some of this - but you can give your students a better shot at being winners. And, maybe now is the time to jump on the Universal Design bandwagon. Allow those future winners to choose the learning tactics appropriate for themselves, and they might return the favor when they end up in control.

- Ira Socol

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

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