10 December 2013

Paul Tough v. Peter Høeg - or - the Advantages and Limits of "Research"

or, How Children Succeed v. Borderliners

Years ago now, in the first semester of my doctoral program, a professor named Cleo Cherryholmes
In Memorian Cleo H. Cherryholmes
challenger of all that we "know"
came to speak to my "Research Methods" class. Cleo would later become a remarkable mentor, and a friend, but at that moment all I knew was that he was being brought into this class as a sop to postmodernism and qualitative research, things dismissed by the demeaning faculty leading the course, led by Dr. Robert Floden.

About 20 minutes into Cleo's discussion, I interrupted and asked, "but isn't it all just storytelling?" And he said, "Obviously, but how do you know that?" "And I said, "I'm not sure, I just know it."

And he said, "Oh, good," and paused for maximum effect, "because if you had gotten this from him," he looked at Floden, "I'd have to think a lot more of him than I do."

We became fast friends. Cleo would mean much to me, and he continues to inform what I do and how I see. Floden would become, in my world view of education, one of the leading villains - preventing universities from becoming useful to K-12 education. But that is not this story...

This story is encompassed in my question: "[the writing of research, the conduct of research] isn't it all just storytelling?"

I've thought about this question a great deal the last couple of weeks as I've struggled through listening to Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. It is a very good book, a very important book, and yet, well, something very essential is missing from Tough's reporting, something which ultimately makes the book as dangerous as it is valuable. What's missing isn't just that Tough never learned the "art of the anecdote" from those who led the New Journalism revolution 50 years ago - his "human" scenes fall flat every time - and it isn't just that a career at The New York Times tends to make most who live that life fawn in the presence of power, whether Scooter Libby or the Goldman-Sachs Education Man, Geoffrey Canada.

It is more than either of those things, it is, I suspect, the essential failure of straight rationalism, and of those who always seek causal inference. And it is that straight rationalism and a direct belief in causal inference - combined with the very limited world view constructed from life in elite schools, elite jobs, and elite neighborhoods - surely creates its own palette of disorders: Perhaps this is a case of Data Over Acceptance Disorder, the problem of seeing the world purely through quantitative data analysis, combined with Elite Limited Vision Disorder, the belief that the world you know is the only world that matters. And if these are the disorders which limit and ultimately undo Tough's storytelling it is because not only the author suffers from these issues, but almost every adult interviewed in the book suffers from the same - from the unprepared Chicago High School principal to the founder of KIPP, from the University of Chicago economists who open Tough's tale to the pop psychologists who construct theories about "learned optimism."

As I said, it's an important book. As Tough told Valerie Strauss, "The book is about two things: first, an emerging body of research that shows the importance of so-called non-cognitive skills in children’s success; and second, a new set of experimental interventions that are trying to use that research to help improve outcomes for children, especially children growing up in disadvantage. Some of this research is decades old; some is very new. Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to show the connections between fields of research that are generally kept quite separate, including various branches of economics, neuroscience, pediatrics, and psychology." It is an important debunking of much of the so-called "research" behind the work of 35 years of "educational reformers," going back to the start of the Reagan Administration. It is, though Tough doesn't know this, a vindication of sorts for the Open Classroom movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the Schools Without Walls movement of the same period, of high schools like the Philadelphia Parkway Program and New Rochelle's (NY) 3Is which worked to help "troubled" kids via reconstruction of self through independence and trust. (Tough doesn't understand what "character education" may look like, but those with a wider understanding of educational history will see this clearly.)

And its an important book because of its investigation of Allostatic Load and what that concept requires of educators. All this is good, and all of that offsets Tough's depressing unquestioning trust in the powerful, from the University of Chicago to Arne Duncan, from Harvard researchers to those who run elite schools to those elites who run schools for those in poverty. That Tough never asks the questions beneath his questions is no more reason not to read his book than it is not to read The New York Times. We can use both to collect information while reserving the right to do better analysis than the author - or publication - may be capable of.

The founder of KIPP went to school
beyond these gates, paying a tuition
now at $37,000+ per year:
a place with none of the rules
enforced on KIPP students.
Mostly, it's an important book because Tough has written a book which might begin to persuade his The New York Times social class, the wealthy, powerful people who set national and international agendas, that their education agenda of the past 30 years has been wrong. I cannot do that, and my writing cannot do that, because "evidence" of a single specific form is the only thing which this group responds to. And Paul Tough has assembled that form of information admirably, largely repudiating all that he has - and much of what The New York Times has - written about education before. That switch really matters.

But it is a dangerous book because Tough continues to look for simple answers which will make life comfortable for his social class. It is a dangerous book because it never really asks the tough questions. It is a dangerous book because it holds out those old New England Calvinist ideals - grit and hard work - as the "by your own bootstraps" way to the top - as the path for the poor without ever really acknowledging that the rich need none of that.

Principally it is a dangerous book because, through the use of only stories selected by the researchers Tough fawns over, it implies a series of essential untruths about those who grow up along America's socio-economic, learning, and behavioral borderlines. It is not a dangerous book, however, for the reasons suggested by "the usual suspects" - E.D. Hirsch, Daniel Willingham, and Peter Meyer. "Yet it is hard to argue from recent reform efforts that the aim has been to increase the “information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years," Hirsch laughably pronounces, proving once again that he has actually never seen a public school. The danger in the book is not Tough's correct demolition of the "cognitive hypothesis" - the idea that schools have been focusing on Googlable information instead of life long learning competencies - but his lack of art in understanding children born differently from himself.

But that missing art, that missing empathy, that missing doubt, where do we go to reach for that? And why is that important?

'640K is more memory than anyone will ever need.'

The first computer mouse: research must have shown
that taking your right hand off the keyboard
would make one less efficient
Whether Bill Gates ever actually said, "640K is more memory than anyone will ever need," isn't the important question. The fact is that the computer industry, like most industries, is filled with examples of research data leading to flawed conclusions because the research is - as quantifiable research always is - based on understandings of the past.

The graphical user interface, the computer mouse, was known to all sorts of people before Apple Computer introduced the Lisa Computer in 1983. In fact, it was a gift to Steve Jobs from Xerox, which couldn't see any advantage in it. And there is no doubt that, based in the knowledge of computer users in the early 1980s, research must have shown that taking your right hand off the keyboard would make one less efficient. The research only shows the known world of the researcher.

Twenty years later, among a dozen companies, only Steve Jobs' people understood what a handheld could do. Others were trying to build better phones. But the iPhone was a pretty crappy phone that did a dozen non-phone things really well. Ford, in the late 1950s, named a new car the "Edsel," a name which meant sophistication and fine design in southeast Michigan, but which just sounded funny to everyone else. Blackberry missed the point that phones, even sophisticated phones in the hands of business leaders, were now "mobiles," which needed to function as effective computers.

That fact: that quantifiable research can only tell you about what you already know, is a critical problem for people of Paul Tough's class, people with Data Over Acceptance Disorder. And its a disaster in education - blocking real change from ever being considered "What Works" by those in power. And so we get someone like David Coleman, "architect of the Common Core," making this ridiculous - if entertainingly profane - statement:
"Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a sh** about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”
Coleman, a life spent fully immersed in nothing but prior knowledge, cannot understand the power of either personal experience or the imagination. He believes that the best storytelling is that which is endlessly repeated until it is "normed." But the best storytelling is not what Paul Tough writes, or what David Coleman tests - rather - it begins with the art of seeing what few others can.

Thus, in Tough's chapters 11 and 12, his researchers search their known world among children they do not know at all - and that is a problem for the story Tough wants to tell. First, he tells us that kids in a Chicago juvenile detention facility have much smaller vocabularies than other students, but we have no way of knowing whether that is true or not. The vocabularies of the jailed teens was not measured, instead they were asked about white middle class vocabulary. I could easily devise a test based on South Side Chicago street vocabulary that middle class AP students would fail, but there just isn't any validity in either assessment. Then Tough writes about how children with less "attentive" mothers were more likely to engage in disruptive activities in classrooms - but again - we do not have any idea what "disruption" means in this context. We might guess the behavior standard being sought is that used by KIPP, sitting still, staring straight ahead, and shutting up. But if I looked at St. Ann's School in Brooklyn Heights, I might find that the wealthy children of highly attentive parents would be acting a lot like Tough's troubled kids - a great deal of movement, distraction, talking out of turn, leaving the classroom, staring out the window... In fact, later in the book, Tough himself acknowledges as much, but that pesky Data Over Acceptance Disorder prevents him from understanding his own experience, he's stuck in David Coleman's world of non-imagination.

from the borderline...

Now, as I have struggled with Tough's clinical prose, I have found my mind inserting the voice of the young Peter in Peter Høeg's Borderliners. A unique voice. A literary voice. And, for Mr. Coleman, a "compelling account of [someone's] childhood."

Borderliners, in many ways what I consider the most important book available about education, is all about allostatic load, but it also understands that high allostatic load factors do not mean that a child comes to school "disadvantaged." Rather, their advantages are simply not respected nor exploited by the school. The damaged children described by the "young Peter's" narration are all brilliant, all incredible observers of their worlds, and are all incredibly capable. They sound - in Høeg's storytelling - quite unlike the way any of Tough's children "sound." And perhaps this is because Høeg can do something none of Tough's numbers and none of the researcher/storytellers in How Children Succeed can do - that is, use one's own unique observational skills to channel the actual voices of these children.

And this is what matters about actually hearing, and actually relaying to us, the voices of these children - the voices that Høeg channels explain why Tough, and KIPP founder Dave Levin, can't figure out why their plans don't really work. And the central difference between Tough's story and Høeg's story is this - because of Elite Limited Vision Disorder Tough and his friends begin from the point of view of what these kids cannot do. Høeg, on the other hand, starts with everything his three - or four - heroes can do.

And that makes all the difference in the world. Tough and friends want to teach "grit" to the "grittiest" kids in America, because none of them has any idea who these kids are.

Actually, what Tough and his friends want these kids to possess is willing compliance, not "grit" nor "character." "Grit" and "character," I have found in a lifetime of working with kids on that "borderline" Høeg talks about, is what has enabled the kids Tough wants to "help" to survive - even to age five or six.

Høeg, understands the gap created by allostatic load, and that it is not a gap of achievement or character, but a gap of inexactness as opposed to exactness...
"Fredhoj and Biehl never said it straight out, but I know now, with certainty, what they were thinking. Or maybe not thinking, but sensing. What the cosmology was, upon which all of their actions rested. They were thinking that in the beginning God created heaven and earth as raw material, like a group of pupils entering Primary One, designated and earmarked for processing and ennoblement. As the straight path along which the process of evolution should progress, he created linear time. And as an instrument for measuring how far the process of evolution had advanced, he created mathematics and physics.

"I have had the following thought: What if God were not a math­ematician? What if he had been working, like Katarina and August and me, without actually having defined either questions or answers? And what if his result had not been exact but approximate? An approximate balance perhaps. Not something that had to be improved upon, a springboard to further achievement, but some­thing that was already more or less complete and in equilibrium." - Høeg Borderliners
"What if God were not a math­ematician?" and not a quantitative researcher? What if God was a storyteller, and education could build on, and not fight against, the stories our children bring to us? What if our researchers understood the art of listening to real stories and the art of retelling those stories? What if those charged with discovering "what works" for children actually knew how to hear and see children?
"I don’t think the specific character strengths that KIPP and Riverdale have chosen are necessarily the right ones. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever have an authoritative list of essential character strengths. And I do think that for any young person, part of the process of growing up is coming to understand your own character. But I think there is some strong evidence emerging about how effective certain character strengths are in helping guide young people toward successful outcomes. For me, that list includes grit, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control and perseverance. That’s not a prescriptive checklist, but it’s a useful guide for anyone, young or old." - Tough in interview
"Not something that had to be improved upon, a springboard to further achievement, but some­thing that was already more or less complete and in equilibrium." Here's where the limitations of what we call "research" appear. Here's where those limitations become, umm, most limiting. Where Tough can only measure accomplishment by children who are "improved" - better grades, more success in interactions with the kind of people Arne Duncan and Barack Obama put in charge, Høeg understands, and can explain, something very different.

Though the narrator of Høeg's book uses the term "damaged" for himself and his two - or is it three? - comrades, he never doubts any of their capabilities, or their abilities to out-think and outmaneuver all those not "on the borderline." They are not deficient and they are not disadvantaged, despite their pain, despite wounds beyond most of our comprehension. And they are surely not "behind," unless you rig the measurement system, or, as Tough does, you assume that the rigged measurement system is both fair and reasonable.

Now I don't really know if it is reasonable - neither does Høeg, nor do any of us who lie outside the meaty part of the curve - but we all know that it is not fair. We all know that the problem is transactional, not ours alone. We all know, for example, that if homework wasn't assigned we wouldn't be in trouble for not doing homework. That if sitting in chairs was not required we wouldn't be in trouble for not sitting still in chairs. That if work was read to us, those of us who struggle with alphabetic decoding wouldn't be considered "retards." That if we could set our own school hours we wouldn't be in trouble for being late or truant so often. Even, if preventative health care and good birth control was free, available, and respected within society, we might not get women/get pregnant so often. And that if our economic system was remotely fair, we might commit fewer crimes. Yes. All of this is true. And all of it storms through Høeg's storytelling, and none of it appears in Tough's.

Which is what makes Tough's work, like all modernist, rationalist, discourse, just part of what we need to know, it is a story, of course. It is the story the author wishes to tell, like all stories. It is a story the author believes in and which rises out of his/her construction of his/her experience, like all stories, but it fails to get to the human part of the experience, the essential truths, like so much research and too much "non-fiction."

You see, you simply cannot, using numbers, using "evidence," or even using the University of Chicago School of Economics, write the paragraphs below, which are an absolutely required frame for reading Tough's analysis:
"When you assess something, you are forced to assume that a linear scale of values can be applied to it. Otherwise no assessment is possible. Every person who says of something that it is good or bad or a bit better than yesterday is declaring that a points system exists; that you can, in a reasonably clear and obvious fashion, set some sort of a number against an achievement.

"But never at any time has a code of practice been laid down for the awarding of points. No offense intended to anyone. Never at any time in the history of the world has anyone-for anything ever so slightly more complicated than the straightforward play of a ball or a 400-meter race-been able to come up with a code of practice that could be learned and followed by several different people, in such a way that they would all arrive at the same mark. Never at any time have they been able to agree on a method for determining when one drawing, one meal, one sentence, one insult, the picking of one lock, one blow, one patriotic song, one Danish essay, one playground, one frog, or one interview is good or bad or better or worse than another."
- Peter Høeg Borderliners
The paragraphs above, if they framed Tough's story, would transform it, as would these:
"At Biehl's you had to sit down for five to six hours every day ­not including the study period-five days a week plus Sunday for the boarders, more than forty weeks a year, for ten years. While constantly having to strive to be precise and accurate, in order to improve.

"I believe that this went against the nature of children."
- Peter Høeg Borderliners
For Høeg's words challenge the world Tough assumes. Høeg's story inserts the doubt and variability into Tough's world of science and measurement. And, in the end, Høeg's story explains what these kids need in a way Tough cannot.

There is this scene in Borderliners, in it the young narrator Peter describes exactly what he needs. He
tells the story of the orphanage he was in, and how you only got 30 seconds of hot water in the shower, and then had to move to the cold shower. But his friend Oscar Humlum stays under the cold for minutes, stopping the line, leaving Peter in the comfort of the hot water stream. Humlum says nothing then, needs to say nothing, offers neither praise nor sympathy. Rather, he just gives a moment of peace, and for Peter, this is mythic.

Because that is what "we" need, Mr. Tough. That is what we've always needed. Acceptance, belief, a few moments of peace, and maybe - evidence that "we" are worth sacrificing for. Not the kind of "work sacrifice" KIPP expects from their teachers, not the paid sacrifice of social workers, not even the charity sacrifice of volunteers, but the kind of deep personal sacrifice which suggests real care.

It is that which will give "us" both a chance to breathe and believe in ourselves. And in that pause we may find a path.

Will that make us into perfect adults by the standards of a New York Times writer or a Riverdale Country School graduate? Probably not. Both Tough and KIPP are quick to label a Bronx kid with steady work at high level customer service call centers as a "failure" because he didn't complete four years of college. They've not only labeled him, they've convinced the 20-something himself of that failure. You understand, colonialists like KIPP want to make sure the powerless never really feel empowered, so "not quite getting there" is their ultimate currency. But maybe, just maybe, it will allow "us" to be a little bit more alright, and maybe a little bit safer in our own skin.

That won't be enough for Paul Tough, because he can't hear the story, because he has never learned to hear or to tell the complex stories of humanity, but it should be enough for most of us.

"That was what we meant by science. That both question and answer are tied up with uncertainty, and that they are painful. But that there is no way round them. And that one hides nothing; instead everything is brought out into the open." - Peter Høeg Borderliners

- Ira Socol

27 November 2013

Please Mayor DeBlasio... Please Governor Malloy... Please Governor McAuliffe... Please...

It is time to stop the abuse of children for profit. I cannot say it any more clearly than that.

It is time to stop the abuse of children for profit.

Perhaps, if you are an American political leader, say a President or something, you personally have not walked through enough schools and watched enough children...

...though I suspect that Mayor-in-a-month DeBlasio and Governor Malloy and Governor-in-a-month McAuliffe all have in recent years. And so, if you walk through those halls, you know what we've been doing to children, you know the harm we have been doing to children, over the past 30 years, and especially the last 15, and especially the last five.

We haven't just been making children cry. We haven't just been scaring them. We haven't just been stealing their resources to enrich a few adults. We have been limiting their educations, and thus, their opportunities.

What is the definition of child abuse? I'm not going overboard here to suggest that the policies promoted by ALEC, Pearson, the Gates Foundation, and implemented by Arne Duncan, Mike Bloomber, Jeb Bush, and others do indeed constitute emotional and psychological abuse and denial of equal opportunity.

The testing which has destroyed our schools, and which has crushed the spirit of our children, and which has wrecked, in many cases, our children's love of learning, has no actual validity... it measures nothing of consequence. The imposed, even scripted (in New York City's case), curricula of the Common Core and its relatives, does nothing to build an educated society, but rather, limits the engagement and interest and intellectual diversity of our children. The attacks on those of us who are "different" - especially those of us who are dyslexic and ADHD (I'm looking at you, Common Core advocates and Virginia leaders) - are cruel and in my mind, constitutionally unfair.

Now what should school look like? This isn't rocket science Mr. Mayor, Governors. We know that first, we need to engage learners. Unengaged learners are, definably, not learners. Second, we need to toss our "grade level standards," and every test which goes with them, out the window. Grade level standards are designed - from the very start - to fail children, not help them succeed. They are based in the absurd fiction that all humans learn all things at the same rate. And that fiction is why those who created grade level standards and age-based grades at the start, did so in order to flunk out 80% of children before ninth grade began (five part series).

Ninth Grade English learning plot development

Then we need to Universally Design our schools, so we are assessing - and yes, we are smart enough to assess without bad tests - abilities and capabilities, not disabilities and human differences.

Through contemporary technologies and loads of free software choices (consider just the Freedom Stick Suite, it's free), with One-To-One computer initiatives based in student choice, with contemporary learning space design, and with teacher professional learning aimed at the creation of creative, informed, empathetic professionals. we can - we have proven that we can - develop schools which maximize the potential of every child, and that we can do that without breaking any banks (the savings on Pearson et al will get us half way there, the stopping of worksheet printing will generate the other half of the money we need).

Third Grade Writers

So this is a desperate plea to our leaders. New leaders and continuing leaders. Let's put a stop to more than a century of Industrial Education. Let's stop treating our children as the raw materials ready for the "value added" assembly line which will turn them into identical widgets for jobs which no longer exist. Let's stop assaulting our children with tests which do not help them learn and which do not help us help them learn.

Let us remake education as something humane and holistic. As something inspiring and committed to real human development.

You are leaders, please, lead. Starting right now.

Sixth Grade Writers
"Schools should be factories in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products. . . manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry." - Elwood Cubberley's dissertation 1905, Teachers College, Columbia University

"We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks." - Woodrow Wilson at the University of Virginia, 1905, and in various other addresses

"Richard Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee and one of the country's most recognized experts on early literacy, calls the accommodation [use of Text-To-Speech technology for dyslexic students] "cheating." - EducationWeek
 - Ira Socol

24 November 2013

Wiping Yourself Out of History

Yes, I am old enough to remember the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. And yes, as with almost anyone who remembers that day I believe that remembering the event matters a great deal.

With that in mind, I joined in the creation of a Kennedy Assassination Resource Site for our schools, as we begin the modeling of how to collect digital resources, and as the 50th Anniversary of that Friday in Dallas approached.

But we had one recurring problem. We kept trying to link two critical YouTube video clips to the site: one of the interruption of the soap opera As the World Turns for the first CBS News bulletin, the other, legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite wiping away tears as he confirmed the news of the President's death. Now, I saw neither of these "live." I was in school when, probably, both happened, and we were an "NBC News family" anyway, pretty firmly committed to getting our news from Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. And yet, in national memory, those CBS clips have prettu much defined getting that awful news that day.

Walter Cronkite breaks the news to America,
November 22, 1963
"Three-quarters of the people in this country today are not old enough to remember the tragedy, but Baby Boomers forever will recite where they were and what they were doing when they got the news from Walter Cronkite," said the Boston Globe in an article about the National Football League's bizarre decision to play football games that weekend in 1963. CBS was the top rated television network (there were only three then), and CBS News was the most watched news source in the nation. Cronkite was so powerful that he is largely credited, five years later, with turning the majority of Americans against the Vietnam War.

So, we figured Cronkite and CBS were important parts of the story of that awful weekend. But CBS thought differently. Every time we tried to link to either of these videos the links would vanish, taken down because of "copyright claims by CBS," so eventually we gave up. What our students see is instead, my family's preference, NBC News. NBC (and ABC) aggressively embracing YouTube sharing.

 NBC News, November 22, 1963

Now eventually, on Sunday morning, November 24, 2013, CBS did post a contemporarily-edited version from CBS Sunday Morning to YouTube. But this is not the kind of source material we want our students to begin with. So CBS News and Cronkite are gone, and Huntley-Brinkley are in. In 20 years, if these policies remain the same, no one will write, "where they were and what they were doing when they got the news from Walter Cronkite," because Cronkite will have vanished from history, hidden from view by the CBS attitude toward copyright.

This is not just about the Kennedy assassination, of course. This is about the massive mistakes so many are making a decade or so after the Gutenberg Era ended.

"It is a sobering fact that some 90% of papers that have been published in academic journals are never cited. Indeed, as many as 50% of papers are never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors." notes an Indiana University researcher (PDF). To which my response is "duh." Hidden behind paywalls, limited to the research strategies of bored graduate students, it is clear that no one gives a damn about what you have written if you choose to severely limit your audience from the start.

My blog's statistical analysis suggests that more people have read my blog post - in one month - criticizing Dr. Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville than have probably read all the academic papers by all of Allington's grad students. My post being public, and their research being, not.

Closed for business: Allington's Google Scholar results list all sorts
of research that will cost you dearly in you want to read it.
Why is he choosing to avoid the national conversation?
In fact, if I use Google Scholar to search for Allington's work, I find links to $25 books and $15 journal articles, and I'm not paying for either, and neither are teachers. I don't know, maybe he assigns his books so his students have to buy them. If I use "regular" Google I find a few "light" pieces available, alongside many costly ink-on-paper books. Again, sorry, no thanks.

RIAA caught stealing copyrighted web code as they pursue
kids who download a song.
Do you want to be part of the conversation or not? That is the question. Many, university faculty, grad students, the Authors Guild, the MPAA, the RIAA, would rather not be. In pursuit of pennies, they are actually seeking irrelevance.

These groups all think they are benefitting their "members," but that's obviously not true. They are all choosing to drive their audiences away. It is not even a tough prediction to suggest that university attendance will nose-dive over the next 20 years, better information than many post-secondary courses offer is available free and in much more engaging forms... That "film" and music distribution will look completely different in five years: Straight to YouTube has become the path for many of our most creative new musicians and film makers... That authors will be publishing free but making money via contribution and performance in less than five years: Free stuff to read is all over the internet, and its a much better collection than you'll buy at your local Barnes&Noble. This is neither "good" nor "bad," it is just inevitable. The distribution system of the 20th Century makes no sense to most anymore. It was clumsy and expensive and enriched the wrong people anyway. The copyright system of the 20th Century makes no sense anymore - it really never did make sense to protect a cartoon mouse as "intellectual property" for ten times as long as a life-changing medication. It also enriched the wrong people - corporations and attorneys rather than inventive minds. So both will go away, and soon.

So, you have your choice. Hide behind paywalls and attack lawyers, or share your works with the world. Be part of the global conversation or confine your thoughts to an increasingly irrelevant elite.
Figure out how to live via a culture of sharing and communication or sit back and imagine royalty checks rolling in.

But realize that the sides are forming now. CBS may eliminate itself from the understood history of global journalism in pursuit of a few cents. Just as the RIAA killed the music CD by charging $14 instead of $3 for that format in 2000. Just as university faculties sit back proudly as their work in "peer reviewed" journals gathers dust and has zero impact on anyone. And if you choose the wrong side you might become the next AOL - remember? They had this brilliant business model...

- Ira Socol

03 November 2013

The Wilful Ignorance of Richard Allington

Initials after your name don't make you smart, or worthwhile to society. That's always been the problem with the credentialist society of the past 150 years. People with doctorates, for example, hand out doctorates, and maybe they do so in ways which limit intellectual and career competition.

Anyway, this is largely my case against our colleges and schools of education. Credentials trump knowledge, credentials trump experience, credentials trump value to our children in many of our "hallowed halls" of academe.

This fact appeared again - powerfully - in an EdWeek story about that impending bane of children of America, the Common Core test and its refusal to treat read-aloud - Text-To-Speech - as a fully equal testing regime for students with dyslexia. The key part of the story for me was a stunning ignorant and offensive statement from, yes, a professor of education:
"Richard Allington, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee and one of the country's most recognized experts on early literacy, calls the accommodation "cheating."

'"What special education does best is create illiterates," Mr. Allington said. "I know why they don't want their kids tested on reading activity. It's because they've done a terrible job of providing those kids with high-quality reading instruction."' - EdWeek
So, in a national educational publication, this "Doctor," this "Professor," is willing to call me - and millions like me - an "illiterate cheater," and he thinks that's a perfectly reasonable thing to say about a person, about people, he knows absolutely nothing about. In response, on Twitter, I called him a "moron" in the best slang use of the term - but here's the difference. From these quotes, I know a great deal about Richard Allington, and I know he is dangerous.

Dangerous because he is willing to mix his position of credentialed authority, and control over who becomes a teacher (and perhaps PhD) from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, with his desire for fame, with wilful ignorance and a firm disrespect for humanity.

Dr. Richard Allington:
Please take his glasses away,
accommodations are cheating

Whatever Allington's credentials - and he claims an awful lot on his web page and - I'm sure - his office walls...
"Dick Allington is professor of education at the University of Tennessee. Previously he served as the Irving and Rose Fien Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Florida, and as chair of the Department of Reading at the University at Albany – SUNY.
   "Dick has served as the President of the International Reading Association, as President of the National Reading Conference, and as a member of the International Reading Association Board of Directors. He is the co-recipient of the Albert J. Harris Award from IRA in recognition of his work contributing to the understanding of reading and learning disabilities and the William S. Gray Citation of Merit for his contributions to the profession. In addition Dick has been named to the IRA Reading Hall of Fame.
  "Dick currently serves on the editorial boards of Reading Research Quarterly, Remedial and Special Education, Journal of Literacy Research, Journal of Disability Policy Studies, and the Journal of Educational Psychology. He has previously served terms on the editorial boards of the Review of Educational Research, Elementary School Journal, and the Reading Teacher, and as associate editor of the Journal of Literacy Research."
... he has proved to be an irresponsible person to have within the field of education, because he is willing to hurt children in the pursuit of his career.

In order to make the statements he made, this "Doctor" has to be willing to ignore almost all the actual brain research of the past fifteen years, everything we now know from genetics research around the world and fMRI research. This is probably OK with him because if there is one thing most education graduate programs teach it is to pick and choose research which supports your initial biased guess (called a "hypothesis" in the Alice in Wonderland research paradigm of education). And he probably believes he can get away with slandering a wide group of people because his "credentialed status" labels him as an expert.

Now, "Doctor" Allington, who appears to cheat using accommodations daily (if photos can be believed), also proves himself a hypocrite of the first order, accepting a solution for his inabilities as "normal" - his prescriptive eyeglasses - but seeing solutions for the inabilities of others - the digital reading support and audiobooks I use - as "cheating" and proof of illiteracy.
This "illiterate cheater" will be happy to debate the issues
of contemporary literature with "Doctor" Allington
Now, "Doctor" Allington and I can agree on the shortcomings of much of Special Education - it does, all too often, breed dependence. But the difference is that while my response is respect for, and the attempt to empower those students within the Special Ed-Industrial Complex, his solution is to blame them for their genetically differing brain structures, and to insist that they become just like him.

Now, since "Doctor" Allington has called me a "cheater" and "illiterate" - let me list my credentials - and I will argue that these are contemporary - post-Gutenberg - credentials. Sure "Doctor," I struggle mightily with decoding alphabetical text, and sure, unless I am drawing my letters, copying them in fact, my writing is just about useless, and - well, to go further, I've never learned to "keyboard" with more than one finger. So yes, "Doctor," by your standards I can neither read nor write. And to get around that I do indeed "cheat." I use digital text-to-speech tools, from WYNN to WordTalk to Balabolka to Click-Speak and I use audiobooks all the time, whether from Project Gutenberg or LibriVox or Audible. Yes, I "cheat" by writing with Windows Speech Recognition and Android Speech Recognition and the SpeakIt Chrome extension.

Hey "Doctor," we put these "cheating" tools on computers for every child.
And "Doctor," I not only use them, I encourage students all over the United States, all around the world in fact, to cheat with these tools as well. I've even helped develop a free suite of tools for American students to support that "cheating."

But beyond that, I'll match my scholarship with "Doctor" Allington's anytime, including my "deeply read" knowledge of the history of American education, and my "actual" - Grounded Theory Research - with real children in real schools in real - non-laboratory, non-abusive-control-group - situations.

And beyond that, I tend to think I'm as "well read" as any non-literature major around. So if the "Doctor" wants to debate James Joyce or Seamus Heaney or current Booker Prize shortlist fiction, or argue over why American schools often teach literature and the real part of reading, the understanding - so badly, I think I'll be able to hold my own.

Finally, in terms of recognition and accomplishment, well, for over 15 years I've been making real differences in the lives of people - from creating one of the earliest universally designed university campus computer networks at Grand Valley State University in the last century, to working for over a decade with children and adults through Michigan's Vocational Rehabilitation agency, to supporting the universal design and assistive technology initiatives of many K-12 schools, to research and teaching at Michigan State, to my present work in Virginia, and I have shared this work and knowledge base freely, never putting anything behind paywalls which might limit the access of teachers and students to essential information. And thanks to contemporary forms of social media, people know what I do.

Perhaps I should mention the books this illiterate has written - cheating with Speech Recognition, and oh yeah, spellcheck too, and WYNN for editing help - but, that's just extra...

I list my credentials not to compete, but to suggest that I have a deep kind of knowledge of these issues which is quite different from the knowledge listed on the "Doctor's" CV. It is a kind of "street," on-the-ground knowledge not available to university office researchers. And a prime part of that difference is that I deal with humans, and human brains, and human learning, and not just data points.

And with that knowledge, I would like to challenge "Doctor" Allington to a debate. We can do it in person or we can do it via those contemporary technological affordances, but we should do it in public, with the largest audience we can get.

I will ask the "Doctor" to explain and defend his definitions of "cheating," "illiteracy," "literacy," and "reading." And he can ask me whatever he wants. I will challenge his knowledge of contemporary research, and he is welcome to challenge mine.

I will ask him about his willingness to assault children in public by labelling them as he has done, and he can surely challenge my use of the term "moron" as it relates to him, and my use of "quotation marks." But I think that "Doctor" Allington should answer me before he steps back into any University of Tennessee classroom, or talks to any more future teachers.

Reading and Writing - "Reading is getting information from a recorded source into
your brain in a way which allows you to work with it. Writing is getting information
from your brain into a form which can be accessed asynchronously."
In the end our children deserve not just our respect but every opportunity we can give them. They also deserve respect for their differences, and must not be forced into conformity. Perhaps they need this most from those who claim the right to prepare our future teachers. Perhaps they do not need "credentialist experts" insulting them and attempting to deny them opportunities - especially those "experts" who have actual power over what the user experience of our students will be.

So, "Doctor" Allington, join me on an international stage, and let's let the world understand your argument, and let's let the world decide whether you get to keep using technology to fix that eyesight of yours.

- Ira Socol

26 October 2013

Making Learning Spaces: The Secondary Library

If our schools are filled with "teaching places" instead of "learning spaces," what are we doing to change that?

All of us. What are we doing? Because whether you are in a national government, or you're a school superintendent, or principal, or teacher, you can be changing things, if that's what you want to do.

I had to write about this because of what happened with a Tweet from my friend William Chamberlain:
Choices in seating, in seating height, in gathering or hiding, and yes, fireplaces,
all make the typical recent McDonald's interior a far better learning space than most classrooms.
"McDonald's has better learning spaces than most schools," Chamberlain wrote, and, of course, he is right. Dozens of teachers joined in and retweeted this which is good, except.. when we tried to shift the conversation to what teachers might do, there was far less uptake. Now, I'm all for complaining, I do plenty of it myself, but honestly, if your classroom sucks as a learning space... fix it.

Fixing it... third grade teacher Derk Oosting doesn't wait, he acts

"Fixing it" doesn't always require money or getting new things, it often requires more subtraction than addition, getting rid of desks and miserably uncomfortable classroom chairs. Kids prefer floors anyway, whether its kindergarten or university. "Fixing it" mostly requires a mindset built around the ideas of "Choice and Comfort" and "Instructional Tolerance" and "Universal Design."

We remove the cultural expectations which have nothing to do with how humans learn. We remove the cultural and religious expectations of discomfort as some sort of positive. We remove ourselves as arbiters of some sort of schoolhouse propriety. And in doing so, we enable our children to find their own paths to success in school and in life.

Interlude: the eyes of a designer

Click 53rd and Park, New York City to get to this intersection in Google Earth.
There is a problem here, of course, which lies with the way educators are educated. They are not, unless their career paths have taken them far from "education," trained in design vision or design thinking. Years ago I taught Intro to Architecture at the Pratt Manhattan Center in New York. By the third class session we'd go on a walking tour, and early in that tour we'd end up at the corner of East 53rd Street and Park Avenue. At that intersection stand three landmarked structures, Mies van der Rohe's Seagrams' Building, Gordon Bunshaft's Lever House, and Charles McKim's Racquet Club. On the fourth corner is 399 Park Ave, a building completed in 1961 for Citibank - or as it was then called - The First National City Bank of New York. This building is on no one's landmark list. Why?

The why? requires learning to use Design Vision and Design Thinking, and also requires that observers step away from "I" statements. What makes three of these buildings great and the fourth a mediocre pile of steel and glass is really not a question of personal preference, it is instead an understanding of humanity and how humans see and understand. There are lots of clues to the failures of 399 Park when it is compared to its neighbors, from window shapes which violate the Golden Mean to an entry that's somewhat unfindable to massing which fails to meet the ground - and pedestrians - with grace, but the untrained observer will not see them - or will not understand what is wrong - without help.

Who helps educators do this? When an educator looks at a classroom, or a corridor, or a library, or a playground, or the school's entry... what do they see? How do they understand what they see?

Libraries - the Learning Commons

Middle School Library gathering space, connectivity everywhere
In the school system in which I work we invest very heavily in libraries. This counters a US national trend towards abandoning libraries and laying off librarians, but we see our school libraries as the center of our transformation from a collection of "teaching places" to a community of "learning spaces."
In New York, as in districts across the country, many school officials said they had little choice but to eliminate librarians, having already reduced administrative staff, frozen wages, shed extracurricular activities and trimmed spending on supplies. Technological advances are also changing some officials’ view of librarians: as more classrooms are equipped with laptops, tablets or e-readers, [New York City Schools' city’s chief academic officer] Mr. Polakow-Suransky noted, students can often do research from their desks that previously might have required a library visit. 
Now, I think we're smarter than Mr. Polakow-Suransky, and we've alway assumed that our libraries are more than a place for students to use the World Book, but we also know that if libraries are to be the Learning Commons at the center of our schools they must be re-thought, re-imagined, and re-designed in ways are far beyond "tinkering." In a century where all the world's libraries are linked to our phones, where information and books are no longer scarce but somewhat overwhelming, and where curation has become a mass participation exercise, the function of libraries as learning spaces requires radical change, and we expect our school librarians to not just change and adapt, but to be the leaders in our school buildings.

HackerSpace in one of our high school libraries
seating choices from bean bags to pub-height bar, technologies, tools
What do we look for? We look for flexible, adaptive, multiple media learning and creation environments. We look for student comfort, student choice, student-centric spaces. We look for students dropping in - all day long, whether elementary or secondary - so we know this is not "just" a scheduled space. We look for flexibility of design and the ability of students to alter that design as they need to - what we call "Student-Crafted Learning Environments."

Learning Environment"
We expect our libraries to be MakerSpaces. Our libraries have legos, music studios, construction areas, one has a Makerbot 2 replicator, which students - quite "casually" - come and use to prototype things they've designed.

Students come with lunch and snacks and drinks, move the furniture, grab technology or bring their own, settle in, and work in contemporary environments.

Our libraries are far more kitchens than supermarkets these days, which makes sense. Our information supermarkets now reside in our hands, our quiet study places now reside in our earbuds and headphones, but our gathering places, our "Learning Commons," the places where we come together, for communion and contagious creativity, those are often what we are missing.

We've done this with money - creating a "Glass Room" quieter space at one high school, buying shelves which roll in many elementary libraries - and we've done it without money - dumping old VHS tapes and magazines and other stored items, and eliminating librarian offices to create quieter spaces, music studios, and maker spaces in others.

We've done it buying new soft seating and we've done it with kids and volunteers padding windowside shelves and turning them into window seats. We've done it with commercial furniture from Bretford and Turnstone and we've done it with stuff from the seasonal clearance piles at Walmart and Target.

A hand-me-down created "quieter space" created from what was,
for ten or more years, storage.
We've cut down or eliminated space-hogging circulation desks and bought boxes of wet wipes to clean up food and drink spills. We've created open computer networks which let kids connect their own devices and we've built "tool cribs" of differing devices for our students to use.

Changing "Teaching Places" into "Learning Spaces" is
primarily about the attitudes we adopt.
The point is that the time for excuses and complaining is over. Whoever you are, wherever you are, outside of say, a KIPP school or maybe the city school districts of New York and Chicago (thanks to mayors Rahm Emanuel and Mike Bloomberg), you have the power to undo your teaching place and create a learning space in its stead. The trick is to begin.

- Ira Socol

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.