Tinkering and Technology

Before this all slips my mind, I wanted to post some thoughts about the conversation I led at Educon 2.2 last weekend called Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency. I had a few slides prepared, and a general list of things I thought would be interesting to discuss, and some questions in case there was a lot of deadly silence. Well, that didn’t happen! What happened was that we had a really interesting conversation, which wandered a bit but no one seemed to mind. That’s the cool part about Educon, the conversations are the point. I learned as much from everyone there as I hope they learned from some of the things I shared.

What I’d like to do here is provide a short skim through the topics I brought to the session. I think many of them either support themes I’ve posted about before, or will in the future. I plan to return to them in the future and explore each one in depth.

This is such a rich area for two main reasons:

  1. Unstructured time is undervalued by School.
  2. Tinkering supports technology and technology supports tinkering.

Random thoughts in no particular order:

Humans yearn for tinkering and playful activity
The popularity of the Food Network, HGTV, and shows like Monster Garage  illustrate how people want to learn from watching others DO things they love. Work is interesting when you can see it happen, and people are interesting when they work. Make magazine is awesome.

Tinkering is social
Yes, there is the stereotype of the lone tinkerer in his basement. But more often, tinkering is a shared, social experience. Social learning with no structure or single, all-knowing teacher can happen! Leveraging the power of social learning seems like something we should be thinking about in this day and age.

Bricolage
French for tinkering, using found objects, playfulness in creation. (Wikipedia)

Tinkering/bricolage vs. the scientific method/analytical design
Seymour Papert, the father of educational technology, defined two styles of problem solving: analytical and bricolage. School only honors one style. What are we losing? (Who are we losing?)

“The bricoleur resembles the painter who stands back between brushstrokes, looks at the canvas, and only after this contemplation, decides what to do next.” Sherry Turkle

Tinkering and gender
The book by Sherry Turkle that I couldn’t remember in the session was “The Second Self”. I also forgot to mention this crucial connection to tinkering and gender issues in technology. Turkle says that tinkering is a “female” approach to technology, calling it “soft mastery” (as opposed to the “hard mastery” of linear, step by step problem solving, flowcharting, and analytical design). However, these “hard” styles are often taught as being superior, with “soft mastery” styles deemed messy or unprofessional. Again, who and what are we losing by ignoring (and denigrating) alternative learning and problem-solving styles?

Tinkering requires similar conditions to project-based learning and games in the classroom. Implementation brings up similar questions
Teachers who are looking at project-based learning or games are struggling with the same issues that arise with tinkering. Time, space, overwhelming curriculum requirements, tests, etc. These all need to be solved in similar ways, and teachers are doing this all around the world. Sharing is important.

More connections with games
James Paul Gee (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy) says that we should examine the attributes of gaming such as identity and agency and how to bring those to the classroom. We are being too literal with “games in the classroom.” The attributes of tinkering are similar. We have to be willing to give students agency and allow them to develop their own identities as problem-solvers and learners.

Why is tinkering learning?
Tinkering is a uniquely human activity, combining social and creative forces that encompass play and learning.

The problem with the scientific method
A pet peeve of mine is this structured monstrosity called “the scientific method.” We teach it to children like it came down on stone tablets. It’s not how science really works. Science is about wonder and risk and imagination, not checklists.

Risk and design – what happened in engineering in the 80s
When I went to engineering school, they taught us to use the “waterfall” design methodology. Every stage was planned and went in order. Then in the 80s everything changed.

What happened? Computers. Digital design and modeling decreased the cost of making mistakes. You could try things out with little risk or cost. It’s called the spiral design method, or rapid prototyping, sort of like tinkering with an audience. It’s why Google is always in “beta”. Of course it doesn’t work for everything, you can’t release a “beta” skyscraper or tinker a space shuttle, but for digital products, what’s the harm?

The problem is that school hasn’t caught on to this design methodology. What do we need to do to get school design courses to catch up to the real world?

What can we learn from other unstructured (but successful) school activities?
This also connects back to a post I wrote called Technology Literacy and Sustained Tinkering Time which connected the ideas of Sustained Silent Reading to using technology in less structured ways. Schools have embraced Sustained Silent Reading in the face of scripted curriculum and standardized testing – what can advocates for constructivist education learn from this?

Technology literacy without tinkering time is hard to fathom
Maybe we should be talking about technology fluency anyway. Literacy is such a low bar.

Teaching risk free design is so 20th century.

More later – your feedback on what to tackle first is welcome!

Sylvia

The Technology Ecology

Today I’m heading to Denver for the T+L conference. T+L is the Technology + Learning conference of the National School Board Association. This year it’s in Denver, Colorado, October 27-29.

I’ll be doing a new session on Wednesday, Oct 28th at 3:30 PM called, “Engage Them! Project-based 21st Century Technology Literacy Curriculum”. It’s about several ideas:

  • How to develop an engaging technology literacy curriculum for the 21st century, with students in mind and with students involved
  • The difference between technology literacy and fluency
  • Developing a “Technology Ecology”
  • Why projects and technology go together
  • Showing videos of students who are doing these things in their own schools

I’m not sure I’m the first one to use the term “Technology Ecology”, but I’m starting to really like it. The big idea of this talk is that technology isn’t a subject as much as an ecology – an overarching web of opportunities that can support all kinds of subjects and areas of personal interest. So when we talk about technology curriculum, we need to stretch our minds a bit and imagine new possibilities and connections.

I think a school with a technology ecology is one that is constantly asking the participants to do more with technology, challenging the status quo, and always trying new things. A curriculum that embraces this mindset would reach outside class walls to ask students not to just learn to use a word processor, but to to create word processed documents that were meaningful and useful to the student, or perhaps to the school. Why make just movies in technology class when you could make movies that satisfy a history assignment, or help younger kids learn math, or introduce new students to your school. An ecology that looks for authentic projects and embraces the potential of youth to do important things and make important contributions, using the digital tools that they know and love.

After this session, I’ll post more about it here.

Generation YES is a co-sponsor of the T+L conference, and we’ll be down in the co-sponsor booth area, number 118. So if you miss the session, come by and say hi!

Hopefully there will be a T+L Tweetup too – if you’d like to connect, please follow me at smartinez

Sylvia

Technology Literacy and Sustained Tinkering Time

Yesterday I was reading a handout by Dr. Stephen Krashen called 88 Generalizations about Free Voluntary Reading. It summarizes the research and benefits to literacy of Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), also called Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). You give kids books, and time to read them, and they read.

Dr. Krashen is an activist for giving students more access to books, more time to read, and less coercion to do so. His credentials are impressive: professor emeritus at USC, a linguist and expert on literacy, language acquisition and reading. He’s in the International Reading Association’s Reading Hall of Fame.

I have no trouble admitting that his articulate positions and research resonate with me.

It struck me as I looked at this list that it’s a lot like what I believe about children and computers: that student choice, plus time for unstructured access to lots of different computing experiences is crucial to developing literacy and fluency with computers. My vision includes a teacher or mentor modeling passion, collaboration, interest in the subject, and offering experiences that challenge students without coercion, tricks, or rankings. If I had to come up with a catchy acronym, I’d call it Sustained Tinkering Time (STT).

Picking through his generalizations about reading, it occurred to me that some of them are very applicable to students using computers, and some seemed not to translate too well at all.

Hallmarks of Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) (adapted by me from Krashen’s list)

  • Free access to lots of different kinds of books
  • Comic books and magazines are OK, hard and easy books fine, minimum censorship
  • The teacher reads too
  • No tests, book reports, logs, comprehension quizzes
  • Comfortable space to read
  • More often and short is better than long, but rare
  • For all kids, not a reward or remediation
  • Supplement with interesting experiences about reading – trips to library, discuss literature, conferences, etc. (not skill building)
  • Good readers tend to be narrow readers (they stick to one genre)
  • Look for “home run” books

So, looking at this list, there are some things that seem really relevant to the kind of computer fluency I would like all students to have. Wouldn’t it be great if students had:

  • Free access to lots of different kinds of books software and hardware
  • The teacher reads works on computer projects too
  • No tests, book reports, logs, comprehension quizzes
  • Comfortable space to read work on computer projects
  • and that this was for all kids, not a reward or remediation?

I’ve skipped over some hard questions…
But not everything seems to perfectly translate. In FVR, the students are allowed to read pretty much anything (within reason). But for technology, I certainly would hope that aimless surfing or watching random YouTube videos isn’t what happens.

Is this being hypocritical? Is this just a way for me to pass judgement on applications that I like and think are “important” vs. ones I deem trivial and a waste of time? If I say, “no games” – am I just doing the same thing as a teacher demanding that kids only read “good” books for SSR, and thereby undermining the process?

I know in my head what I’d like to see – mindful interaction with the computer, making good things, focused collaboration, working on projects. Something that rises above drill and practice, clicking on stuff, or just watching. But what about chatting? Looking at email? What about playing “good” games? If you want technology literacy, does it matter if one student becomes fluent in making Wordles and another learns to program?

What’s the verb?
What is it that the student is doing that’s equivalent to reading? If you show language literacy by reading and writing, you show technology literacy by … what? Computing? Touching a mouse? Technologizing?

There’s something I’m trying to capture here that goes beyond the mere physical presence of a child sitting in front of a digital device. I really think this elusive concept is at the heart of what many have been struggling with as we all try to define “technology literacy.” Especially if we try to make the definition more than a checklist of skills.

You can smell collaboration in the air (especially in middle school)
There are other pieces of Sustained Silent Reading that really don’t work for technology, like the “silent” part. Sustained Silent Computing sounds terrifying. When I think about the kind of collaborative technology experience I’d hope to see, the kind I’ve seen in too few classrooms, it’s anything but silent. It’s purposeful, joyful noise, and you can tell the difference. But how do you articulate that?

It’s simply not good enough to say, “I know it when I see it.” But I’m not sure what to call it without tying myself up in semantic knots.

Pinning these experiences down with precise language deadens them like a pithed frog. (I was going to say a pinned butterfly, but when you can use pithed frog in a sentence, I believe it’s mandatory.)

What do you believe about learning?
And even if we got the words right, would it actually result in improved technology literacy? Would the lack of coercion raise the general level of technology literacy or lower it? In SSR, if one student is reading a comic book and another a chapter book, do they influence each other?

And is that part of the teacher’s job – to offer other activities that generate interest in more complex work? To model curiosity and trying new things? To facilitate collaboration and challenge students?

Without technology literacy skill tests, lessons on tools, and assigned projects, will students take more risks and try more complex things? Or will they do the least amount possible? I think this boils down to what you believe about learning – is it natural or does it have to be coerced.

Depth, not breadth
If you’ve stuck with me this long, do you see the technology corollaries to:

  • Good readers tend to be narrow readers (they stick to one genre) – is this about depth? Letting kids explore one application or theme deeply rather than the usual if-it’s-tuesday-it-must-be-spreadsheets overview of office products?
  • Look for “home run” books – is this about helping kids find the thing they really like to do? If a kid LOVES Comic Life, do you let them use it exclusively? Does the positive experience then open the door for that student to attempt other things? Or does it narrow the range of what that student will ever figure out how to do?

Yes, you…
So I’m throwing this out there to you, the dozens of folks who read this blog. Does looking at FVR help with defining technology literacy?

What would Sustained Tinkering Time look like to you?

So many questions…

Sylvia

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