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.

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!


13 Replies to “Tinkering and Technology”

  1. This appears to be a giant strawman. There really isn’t much difference between tinkering and the scientific method (SM). There’s an underlying SM present with all tinkering.

    “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.”

    How do you think the SM came to be as the preferred method? Perhaps because it is a more successful approach.

    ” It’s not how science really works. Science is about wonder and risk and imagination, not checklists.”

    Wonder, imagination = hypothesis
    risk = testing. In terms of beta releases, beta releases are just public testing.

    I’m a design engineer. We “tinker” all the time. I don’t know a single engineer who doesn’t use trial and error. We also, of course, rely heavily on the SM. We come up with a design, we test it, does it meet our requirements? Yes, sweet. No, let’s tinker, review, and test it again.

    I just don’t see these as mutually exclusive. I don’t see why one would be heralded in lieu of the other.

  2. Hi Colin,
    I’m not sure you got what I was saying. Of course engineers tinker. That’s the whole point. What gets taught in schools is not to “tinker, review, and test again” but to follow a specific process.

  3. I don’t think it’s I who misses the point. Tinkering needs to be clearly defined in order for it to be useful. Maybe I’m using the wrong definition for this discussion.

    To me, “tinker, review, and test again” is very much a specific process. It’s really just the SM, but it’s employed in such a way that it’s second nature. As I pointed out previously, the SM is taught in schools because it is largely the preferred and more advantageous method utilized in the sciences. It “won” in the marketplace of ideas, if you will, rather than being handed to us on inscribed on stone. Similar to how we arrived at base 10 number systems and the utilization of zero.

    To be honest, I probably couldn’t tell you the 7 (or however man) steps there are in the SM as taught. I see teaching the SM in its formal manner as analogous to drilling multiplication tables. It’s about laying a foundation so that it’s second nature in the future.

    If there’s some definition that I’m missing, then I’ve wasted a bunch of time. If there’s some valuable method of teaching “tinkering” and how it reinforces a scientific approach, then discussing that seems more fruitful than building this tinkering = awesome, female vs. SM = outdated, boring, male strawman.

  4. Colin,
    Again, the problem is not “the scientific method”, it’s the way it’s taught in school. If that wasn’t clear in this post I apologize. It’s something I planned to talk about in more detail in another post. I certainly don’t think I made a perfect argument in 2 sentences. That’s what Twitter is for 😉

    In many cases, kids are handed a worksheet with the title “The Scientific Method” and asked to memorize the steps, but never actually DO anything. Even when they do something it’s a canned “experiment” that is contrived to fit the steps. I’ve seen this enough times to know it’s a widespread practice. This is ALL I’m talking about.

    I”m also against drilling kids on multiplication facts, so it’s apparent that we differ in some fundamental ways about learning.

    I also don’t think tinkering needs to be clearly defined before it can be of any use. Thinking out loud about learning and how education is structured in schools is useful and important. I learned a lot by sharing these ideas, even if they are not fully formed. The physical and virtual audience who joined me in this conversation were willing to toss some ideas around and I hope they got some food for thought too.

  5. Colin,

    In elementary education, the scientific method is often taught as a set of steps that students move through to complete a science task. The question is often given to students and they are required to complete each step. Curiosity, ingenuity, and problem-solving are often not the focus of the scientific method in elementary classrooms.
    Tinkering encourages curiosity and problem-solving in a playful environment.


  6. Sylvia,
    I think that you and Colin do not really disagree. This is my take: You are talking about the same thing. You are objecting to the rigid way that scientific method is taught in many schools. I agree that it is sometimes a canned experiment/methodology, but the real problem is certainly not scientific methods, but the fact that we “do” the experiment- often even giving the student the hypothesis to start with, tell them what materials to use and how to use them ( not why these choices are made), rush through it and move on. Many teachers rarely go back and explore what happened, why it happened and what would happen if… x,y, z. Many experiments in schools are closed systems- do this, do it this way and write it up- no wonder, no tinkering about. Tinkering in science should follow the scientific method- it works… but give tinkering/playing around/questioning/etc… time and follow up on the ideas generated. If it is a “classic” experiment- figure out why. When I was observing at SLA last week the kids were figuring out the best way to extract DNA. Is there an established procedure- sure there is… Will their way work? Maybe? Will they get different results? Why? Why not? Will they follow scientific methods- sure hope so.

  7. I see what you are both saying. As an ex-science teacher and as a current ed techie, tinkering is what I do and it is all about problem solving and imagination and admittedly some “soft mastery”. The scientific method that most often gets taught is very formal and is frequently taught with little flexibility. It is formulaic: just plug in and follow the linear road to an answer. We fail to provide our students time to connect, play, imagine, apply to everyday life. We don’t connect what we teach as problem soving in science, math, etc. to other subjects. I have a BLAST in my current position tinkering away whether the issue is pure fix it, curricular, instructional or whatever I’m called to help with. It is a shame we have so little time to allow our students and teachers the time and flexibility to tinker and problem solve, to laugh and argue with each other as we work and play and learn. It is what I crave in my career and my personal life. We owe our students the same thing.

  8. Well, drilling arithmetic is superior for mathematical development than any “new math” methods I’ve seen out there. India uses it, China uses, and they kill us in math. I’ll trust those guys. Sometimes the boring crap works, but the foundation it leaves enables the fun stuff later on to be both enjoyable and fruitful, rather than just fun and self-serving but with little educational value. And I’m not saying some improvement can’t be made to current elementary education protocols. I just think the OP wrongfully pitted the SM and tinkering against one another. And I think boring proven methods get a bad rap in the edusphere.

    I don’t know, I guess my experience was just different than all of yours. I did the drills. I remember memorizing the SM. I forget if we did any beneficial experimenting at that time (long time ago). I don’t remember laboriously reciting the steps in every science class for the rest of pre-college college career. I do recall having a considerable amount of fun in elementary school. I guess a lot of my “tinkering” went on at home and away from school, but I suppose that’s a separate subject.

    “It is what I crave in my career and my personal life. We owe our students the same thing.”

    We owe them an education.

  9. I am in the midst of re-reading Papert’s book “the Children’s Machine”. As he explains his theory of learning that he calls “constructionism”, he references Jean Piaget’s learning theory – that there are stages of learning – pre-operational, concrete, formal that are understood in the context of child development. To be able to really know something, one needs to experience it concretely. Papert makes the case that we should not see Piaget’s stages of development in a linear, sequential frame in time (i.e. ages 7-11 concrete operations, 11 and up for formal (abstract) operations), but rather in the context of a learning frame. The concrete operational stage of learning is not limited to the young minds of children, but is a stage that all learners go through as they construct knowledge.
    Makes sense to me.

  10. I had been using computer technology in one way or another for 20 years before I took any formal courses. All I learned in that time was from tinkering. I really only started taking courses when it became necessary to have pieces of paper to prove my knowledge and skills. I know of kids on our middle school GenYes team that are on the same road. One is well on the way to teaching himself AppleScript essentially by trial and error and reverse engineering the sample scripts that came with his laptop.

    I wish I could encourage the same approach with more people in my district, especially the adults. I find that there is often an expectation for step-by-step training on any technical task that is being asked of teachers. There are a few who, once pointed in the right direction, will take off and figure things out for themselves, but they are definitely the minority. Many of the rest expect descriptions down to the level of each mouse click, and if the process later deviates at all from the training, they tend to be on the phone for support. When I look at the approach to teaching technology of the two groups, I see the same pattern reflected. The minority group are willing to give kids general guidelines and let them figure things out, providing help and guidance as needed. The majority expect to have to give kids the same direction, down to the most minute level, that they would want themselves.

    If I were a student in a classroom where the latter approach was in use, I would be a behavior nightmare! At a minimum, I would be constantly jumping ahead, and would probably miss things as a result. Beyond that, I’d probably go looking for more interesting things to do with my computer, which would likely not go over well.

    On the other hand, I recognize that the tinkering approach cannot be the sole solution. I know from my own tinkering that sometimes the result is understanding that can resemble swiss cheese – lots of random holes. Sometimes bricolage leads to ways of doing things that, while they may work, may not be the most elegant or efficient way of getting the particular job done. Sometimes they create bigger problems down the road. Example: ten years ago I taught myself Filemaker Pro and built some pretty complex databases for my district. I’ve since worked with FMP developers who’ve sometimes told me “sure that works, but you’d save yourself a big headache and a ton of work if you did it this way instead.”

    Another example is internet research. Kids figure out quickly how to search using Google, and can tinker with their search strings to get some refinement. However, after that they can really benefit from more formal instruction on how to do the research process effectively. The result will be that they spend less time on searching and get more effective results, as well as improved critical thinking skills.

    We need to recognize the value of tinkering as an approach, but at the same time ensure that we provide the means to find and fill in the “holes” it sometimes leaves. That kind of support is where the skilled teacher becomes absolutely vital to the process.

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