Socol’s Tool Belt Theory

Sophisticated digital tools allow texts to be annotated, videos to be produced, interactive learning experiences created, all of which further enhance student learning. However, “The only way to allow students to assemble [an] essential toolbelt for information and communication is to throw open your classroom and let the world in” (Socol, n.d., para. 17). This is a powerful quote, as it is essential for teachers to not only stock their toolbelt but to help students stock theirs too. Socol (n.d.) goes on to say,

How will your students know which calendar works for them – the one on their phone, Google Calendar with SMS appointment texting, Microsoft Outlook, or any of a dozen paper systems unless you allow them to try them out? How will your students know whether they ‘get’ a novel better by listening to an audiobook, or reading it on paper, or using text-to-speech, if you don’t let them experience all repeatedly and help them decide? Will their choice be the same when they are reading history texts? Math texts? Again, how will they know? How will they know which is the best way for them to write, by hand (either on paper or on a tablet system), by keyboard (and which keyboard), or by voice, if they do not get to try out all the kinds of writing they need to do with all these tools?

They won’t know. And you – the school, the teacher, the education system – will have deprived them of these essential skills.

It matters for all students, of course, but- as always – if you are “rich, white, and normal” it matters a bit less. You will have fewer needs, your parents will buy you more supports, you will be surrounded in your daily life by sophisticated tool users. So not bringing Toolbelt Theory into your classroom just exacerbates inequity – yes, of course – as school does in most things.

After reading those paragraphs, I felt a sense of urgency to figure out how I will implement the Toolbelt theory into my practice. How will I equip students with “Tasks – Environments – Skills – Tools” (T.E.S.T.) that show them how they learn best (Socol, n.d.)?

Socol (2008) proposed the Toolbelt Theory. This theory is “based on the concept that students must learn to assemble their own readily available collection of life solutions. They must learn to choose and use these solutions appropriately, based on the task to be performed, the environment in which they find themselves, their skills and capabilities at that time, and the ever-changing universe of high and low-tech solutions and supports. After all, few of us have a toolbox with just one screwdriver or just the tools we were given when we were ten-years-old” (para 3).

So, the Toolbelt is designed to:
• Break the dependency cycle
• Develop a lifespan technology skills
• Reduce and limit limitations
• Empower student decision making
• Prepare students for life beyond school

Socol (2008) posited the following example to illustrate his TEST model. You need to know what you need to do (the specific task: cut 20 sheets of plywood or cut down a Christmas tree, find a book to buy or find a book to borrow). You need to know where you will be doing this (the specific environment: in a forest, in a workshop, in a town with a university library and four bookstores, in a place with neither). You need to know your own capabilities (your skillset: I am strong enough to cut down a tree with a hand saw, I am experienced enough that I can cut a straight line with a hand-held circular saw, I can walk to the bookstore, I know the Dewey Decimal System). And you need to know what is available to you to help you, and how to use those devices (your toolbelt: My neighbor has a chain saw, I can rent a table saw, a bus will get me to the bookstore, if I go online and reserve that library book it will be waiting for me at the counter).

Hence, the task is the container for the learning objectives and content. To fully engage learners, tasks should be centered around an interesting problem. “An interesting problem is one that’s never been solved in quite this way before. It’s not always going to work. The stakes are high. It involves coloring outside the lines” (Godin, 2017). Ergo, the task will dictate what students learn and how they learn.

The environment is the location of the task. The more restrictive the environment, the less ubiquitous the task. In other words, if the task can only happen in a classroom, then learner access is restricted to the classroom. The more seamless the task, the more ubiquitous the learning. “The word seamless suggests that what was once believed to be separate, distinct parts (e.g., in-class and out-of-class, academic and non-academic; curricular and co-curricular, or on-campus and off-campus experiences) are now of one piece, bound together so as to appear whole or continuous. In seamless learning environments, students are encouraged to take advantage of learning resources that exist both inside and outside of the classroom …students are asked to use their life experiences to make meaning of material introduced in classes […]. (Wong & Looi, 2011, p. 2365).

Crystallized knowledge and mastered skills make up the learner’s skillset. Some learner’s skills are more developed than others, hence the need for a learner analysis in order to better understand learners and make necessary adjustments for their skillsets. Because of learner variance, it is necessary to have a repertoire of tools available to learners and any necessary training on how to use those tools in order to meet the demands of the task. “Choosing the right tool takes knowledge of yourself and the tools which are available. It takes practice in assessing the task and the environment. And in school, we don’t help students toward any of that. In school we prescribe methods and we require specific tools (the dreaded middle school planner, just as one particularly stupid example – the teacher-determined notebook style as another). In school, we tell students what they can and can’t do and we get very nervous when they really try to analyze their environment” (Socol, 2008).

In sum, “we are all tool users” and helping learners customize their toolbelts for a more complete process and acquisition of learning that leads toward individual fulfillment is paramount to the role of an instructional designer and learning experience designer. “Toolbelt Theory” suggests that we must teach our students how to analyze tasks, the task-completion environment, their own skills and capabilities, an appropriate range of available tools… and let them begin to make their own decisions” (Socol, 2008).

Socol provided a list of questions to consider for applying the TEST model to instructional design and learning experience design:

Task
1. What needs to be done? (when possible, break the task down into component parts)

Environment
1. Where must this be done (or is typically done)?
2. Under what time constraints?
3. What is the standard method of task completion?
4. How does the person interact with this environment?
5. Who is the task being done for? (specifics of teacher, employer, other expectations)

Skills
1. What specific strengths does the person bring to this task?
2. What specific weaknesses interfere with that person’s ability to complete the task?
3. What is that person’s “tool acquisition aptitude” and what tools are they currently comfortable with?

Tools
1. What tool best “bridges the gap” between the current skill set and what is needed for task completion?
2. If the tool is not already “in the toolbox” (the person has been successfully trained in its use), how does the environmental timeline match with the needed learning curve?
3. If it is not possible to use the “best tool” within this environment what is the “back-up tool”? How do we pre-train so the best tool can be used the next time?

Reference:

Godin, S. (2017). Interesting problems. Retrieved November 8, 2019, from https://seths.blog/2017/02/interesting-problems/

International University of Lake Constance (n.d.). Seamless Learning. Retrieved November 08, 2019, from https://seamless-learning.eu/en/seamless-learning/seamless-learning/

Socol, I. D. (March 2008). Toolbelt Theory for Everyone. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2008/05/toolbelt-theory-for-everyone.html

Socol, I.D. (May 2008). A Toolbelt for a Lifetime. Retrieved October 23, 2018, from http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2008/03/csun-2008a-toolbelt-for-lifetime.html

Socol, I. D. (n.d.). Toolbelt Theory. Retrieved from October 23, 2018, from https://sites.google.com/site/iradavidsocol/home/toolbelt-theory

Wong, L. H., & Looi, C. K. (2011). What seams do we remove in mobile-assisted seamless learning? A critical review of the literature. Computers & Education, 57(4), 2364-2381.

Beta-testing Designs with End-Users

Today, learners demand more customization, voice, and practicality from their learning environments (Kalaitzidis, Litts, & Halverson, 2017). Hence, instructional designers will have to upgrade learning environments in order to meet the demand of today’s learners. As discussed in an earlier post, content creation and calibration cannot be done in a silo. Content that is customized, incorporates the students’ voice, and is practical for students, has to be co-designed with students. Hence, content that is co-designed with learners is the ultimate form of personalized learning.  

Flow theory

Why should instructional designers include learners in the content creation process? First, by including learners in creating content, the learners themselves intrinsically set learning goals for attainment. In other words, when instructional designers introduce learners to the instructional objectives and learning outcomes for the units and lessons, the learners then can determine their own learning because they have been empowered by the instructional designer to customize and practicalize the content and they have been allowed to add their voices to the content creation and learning process.

Second, by including learners in the creation process, a learning flow that produces deep engagement and learner motivation can be established. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) argued that “clear goals, individual control, tasks that the individual is capable of successfully completing, and skills that must be learned” is what establishes a flow for deep learning and engagement. When learners co-create content, tasks are designed that are not too challenging or too easy. Students co-design tasks with teachers that align with their personal interests, thus placing them in a flow channel of learning.

Third, learner voice, choice, and agency are all embedded in co-designed instructional design models, as these types of models highly value empowering learners to make decisions about ends, priorities, and means (Reigeluth, Myers, & Lee, 2017). When students are empowered, then they are more engaged and thereby more capable of attaining their learning goals and the instructor’s teaching objective. 

Alpha vs. Beta testing

In many cases, after instructional designers have created their content without student input, they typically test the content in the alpha stage through the student view. For instance, instructional designers might make sure that the links work, that the dates of content release are correct, and that the aesthetics of the content is appealing. If the content passes the instructional designer’s alpha test, then it is delivered to the student without any trial run. Some would argue that this is a travesty, as students are being held accountable for content that was not given a trial run by the learners. Cars are test-driven, wine is taste-tested, and movies have trailers, all for the sake of testing the quality or operation of the product. Why then are students not given an opportunity to give their content a trail run?

Why content should be beta-tested with students

When instructional designers allow students to co-design and beta test the content, students are able to find bugs and fix them, improve content features, and optimize the distribution of learning, teaching, and assessing (Kalaitzidis, Litts, & Halverson, 2017). “In software development, the beta phase is an accepted, normal, predictable stage of product development” (Gonzalez, 2018). This is not the case in traditional instructional design. Gonzalez (2014) mentioned that “beta is a lifelong commitment to continuous …growth” (para. 4). Hence, shouldn’t instructional designers adopt beta-testing as a form of continuous professional growth? 

After doing some research on this topic, I created an instrument that not only supports mega-batching content creation but beta testing content with learners. For the instrument, click here. I also created a content rubric checklist for students that can be used for beta-testing content. This checklist is based on UC Berkley’s checklist. In sum, if instructional designers truly want to personalize learning for students, then they will not only have to incorporate the learners’ voice, choice, and agency, they will also have to incorporate co-designs that are beta-tested with end-users.

Reference:
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper [and] Row.

Gonzalez, J. (2014). Teaching in Beta: What We Can Learn from Software Developers Retrieved from https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/beta-teaching/ on October 14th, 2018

Reigeluth, C.M., Myers, R. D., Lee, D. (2017). The Learner-Centered Paradigm of Education in Reigeluth, C. M., In Beatty, B. J., & In Myers, R. D. Instructional-design theories and models: Volume IV.

Kalaitzidis, T.J., Litts, B., and Rosenfeld Halverson, E. (2017).  Designing Collaborative Production of Digital Media in Reigeluth, C. M., In Beatty, B. J., & In Myers, R. D. Instructional-design theories and models: Volume IV.