05 January 2011

Toolbelt Theory, TEST, and RTI - the universally designed technology effort

Karen Janowski asked on Twitter, "have you helped your students optimize their performance using tech?-color choices, font sizes, text-to-speech, readability..." and when I re-tweeted her, she added, "we'll keep preaching it until it's unnecessary. Think that will ever happen?"

But I had just read this story - which, at first glance, seems so hopeful. "But these new devices, according to teacher Chris Quist, are "exciting and fun and engaging. And even in two days, I've noticed the amount of on-task time and the quiet time." Students could use the devices to watch videos to tie in with their Michigan history lessons, Breen said. And Quist said the simple fact that the phones can show photos and other presentations in color -- unlike most classroom handouts -- is significant. "I think that my job as a teacher is to make sure that the novelty doesn't wear off," Quist said." Until you get to the last lines...

"At the end of the year, he said school administrators plan to look at how well the program worked before deciding whether to maintain or expand it. If it is expanded, the principal said administrators will determine which device is best -- from smartphones to tablet computers such as iPads or laptops -- for the needs of students at each grade level."

And there's the problem. We have these ingenious, incredible options but we will not decide what is best for each student, or even each task. Rather, as we "always" have, we will make our decision based only on the chronological age of the child.

As I said to Karen, it often seems hopeless. We replace one "single technology" system - the textbook, paper notebook, and pen for everyone - with another locked-down same-for-all technology system, even if its a really cool "system" like an iPad. And we do this because we really cannot believe that the world has changed and that industrial processing is not our students' best career hope, or because we put our needs (control, ease of maintenance) above our students' needs, or because we are so completely indoctrinated in the industrial education model. Whichever, but we do it, and we do it every day.

But at the same time we are supposedly moving toward a problem identification system in education called Response-To-Intervention. Well, let me say this simply, if we don't break the "one size fits all" model of school technology, R-T-I is impossible, and we're headed straight back to the "let's cure (or dispose of) the retards and crips" policy of the past century. That is - now that I've used the offensive words - if we do not adopt Toolbelt Theory as our guiding principle for educational technology, we cannot change the failure cycle for "special education" and other "high needs" students.

I'm not saying this because Toolbelt Theory is "mine." I have no way of licensing it to you. You will not pay me if you decide to use it, so the "self-benefit" is shockingly small. I'm saying this because I began to describe Toolbelt Theory five years ago because I saw it as the only solution. Since then, the legal, national move towards R-T-I has moved Toolbelt Theory from important to imperative.

Toolbelt Theory begins with the SETT framework of Dr. Joy Zabala. SETT, Student-Environment-Tasks-Tools, was a breakthrough way of thinking about choosing technology for students in the 1990s. But despite training in it, using it, teaching it, I struggled with certain issues. SETT became the tool of "school-based teams" too often making decisions without direct student input, and it seemed to me, that the use of the descriptor "student" encouraged this (It wasn't METT, after all, with "Me" at the start). I also hate - I mean I really - as a dyslexic - hate, misspelled acronyms (SETT isn't a word). And, though I appreciated Zabala's flexible "start at any point" concept, I thought it was missing a crucial point.

That point is that humans are tool users, that everything we do in learning is really "tool-based" to some extent, but that - at the core - we humans pick tools based on the task at hand. We do this to avoid that old problem... "if all you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail." Just as, if all content is delivered via printed book or "teacher lecture" much of it will "look" like the droning adults in Charlie Brown cartoons.

So I re-wrote "SETT" as "TEST" - Task-Environment-Skills-Tools - and I described a process I called, "Task-based, Student-centered, Assistive Technology Decision Making system."

An early conference presentation of TEST

I didn't need to say "student" in the list because the idea is that the student would be making, and learning to make, the decisions. And I did not offer "start anywhere" flexibility. No matter who the student might be, or what issues he or she might face, question one, to me, is always, "What is the task?"

Because, when I wake up these mornings, if the first question is "does my leg hurt really badly?" I'm a "cripple." But if the first question is, "how is the snow going to get off the driveway?" I'm a full human, fully engaged in the world.

Which is where R-T-I comes in. In your classroom the first question should not be, "who is reading at what level?" or "who is holding a pen 'correctly'?" but "How do we make these stories, this knowledge, this information available effectively?" and "How do we let all students communicate efficiently and effectively?"

Because if you ask the former questions you are categorizing, disabling, and seeking "cures." But if you ask the latter you are including, engaging, and helping students to find their way.

Yooper Scoopers - amazing tool
"How is the snow going to get off the driveway?" Well, the possibilities range from a shovel to a yooper scooper to a snow blower to a plow to having someone do it for me. But understand, those are the tools - the last step. In between the Task and those tools I need to know the Environment - how heavy is the snow? how much is there? how cold is it? what's the wind? is it still snowing? is my driveway a hill? and I need to know my Skills at this moment - not my "average" skills, not my skills when I was evaluated 3 years ago, not even my skills yesterday, but my skills right now... is my leg in huge pain? did I sleep last night? how many pain killers have I taken? etc. etc. Only then can I get to Tool choice. And I can only make Tool choices if (a) I know about the tools, and (b) I have access to the tools. As we all know, in most schools I might get through this entire decision-making process only to discover that the school has blown all their money on one humongous snow blower that I can't quite hold on to - or - all they've got is one bent 1972 snow shovel.

Now in your Response-To-Intervention classroom you may or may not be shovelling snow, but you need the tool choices and tool options for the tasks your students face, or you will actually have no idea whether they can complete the tasks with interventions or not.

And if all you have is iPads, or PC laptops, or one-kind of smartphone, and if those devices are "locked down" to prevent change, your students have no chance.

I, for example, am no iPad fan, but many are. It doesn't quite "work for me" most days, but not everyone is me. I like PC-based solutions, Windows Speech Recognition, WordTalk, PowerTalk, WYNN, and I like Firefox as I've "accessibilized" it. So, usually, a PC-based computer is best, unless at that moment - task, environment - a Blackberry or Android phone is best (don't discount Blackberry, with VLingo added and because the browser has a cursor, there are big advantages). But, you see, my needs are not your kids' needs. They never will be. And just like your kids, my needs vary. I have good days for walking and good days for reading. I even have good days for keyboarding (I never have good days for manual writing). But I also have bad days, or afternoons, or whatever, for all of those.

So, using WYNN sometimes, Read-and-Write-Gold sometimes, WordTalk sometimes, FoxVox sometimes, Speaking Fox sometimes, PowerTalk sometimes, VLingo (with our without Sync) sometimes, audiobooks sometimes, or sometimes an index card underlining the print in a book, I can read using my interventions - that is - I can successfully get to the information I need.

And using one keyboard or another, or Windows Speech Recognition, or VLingo, I can write - that is - I can get my thoughts into a form recoverable asynchronously, using my interventions.

But if I didn't have knowledge of and access to this variety of tools, my "response-to-intervention" would be much less successful. If I hadn't been able to test out and find the tools which help in a variety of environments and under the varying "skill" levels I experience, then my ability to respond to the tasks of my every day life would be significantly less.

So, don't buy a "system" for your students, build a tool crib, so they can build their own Toolbelts. Fill the tool crib with possibility. Laptops and desktops and iPads and netbooks. Androids and Blackberries and iPods. MP3 players and Freedom Sticks. Various browsers, various operating systems, various software for every function. Then turn your kids loose to investigate. Let them respond by finding their own interventions.

You will see them perform differently, and you will enable them to be fully human.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

stationery said...

Twitter is a fantastic method of communication