Tinkering as a mode of knowledge production in a Digital Age

From the “Carnegie Commons” – Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production in a Digital Age.

The MacArthur Foundation brought together educators, “tinkerers,” curators, artists, performers and “makers” to grapple with questions around ensuring that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully and creatively in public, community, and economic life.

These interviews from five of the participants were produced to provide some insights into the thoughtful and passionate conversations from that convening.

These videos make connections between tinkering, innovative ideas, the idea of making work public as in a studio, creativity and collaboration, the ability to incorporate criticism, and more. Well worth watching!

I posted my own thoughts about students having “tinkering time” with technology a few weeks ago and it’s quickly risen to be one of the most looked at articles on this blog. It’s especially important as educators work hard to figure out how to make education more relevant to students and to connect to the real world.

Seymour Papert, the father of educational computing, often used the French word bricolage to describe the kind of playful attitude both children and scientists use to tinker, build, test, and rebuild their way to solving problems. Bricolage has the additional advantage (besides being cool sounding) of implying that you are using materials that you find around you – a very eco-green idea!

Problem-solving in schools is typically taught as an analytical process with clear plans and steps, like the “scientific method.” But bricolage is clearly closer to the way real scientists, mathematicians and engineers solve problems. Sure, they make plans. But they also follow hunches, iterate, make mistakes, re-think, start over, argue, sleep on it, collaborate, and have a cup of tea. Bricolage encourages making connections, whereas School tends to like “clean” disconnected problems with clear, unambiguous step-by-step solutions.

“For planners, mistakes are steps in the wrong direction; bricoleurs navigate through midcourse corrections. Bricoleurs approach problem-solving by entering into a conversation with their work materials that has more the flavor of a conversation than a monologue. ” – Papert & Turkle

For more on the concept of bricolage and computers, Papert’s book, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer is the one to read. If you want to get a taste, the Math Forum has a nice synopsis of it on their website.


* Note: the Papert & Turkle quote is from their seminal paper, Epistemological pluralism and the revaluation of the concrete. I found this on the Edutech Wiki, hosted by the University of Geneva.

6 Replies to “Tinkering as a mode of knowledge production in a Digital Age”

  1. My head already hurts from discussions earlier today and I intended to get offline, but your post caught my eye, and kept it.

    I’m increasingly frustrated in what, I think Clay Burell, calls the “schooliness”. That “we don’t have time to play, we’ve got work to do, standards to meet, tests, blah, blah, blah…”

    What have you seen by way of tinkering, etc. that is “working” in schools that are filled with “schooliness”?

  2. Brian,
    In class, I think teachers who believe in project-based learning try to design projects with tinkering time built in. There can be opportunity for students to have some discoveries within the bigger goal of the project, and enough time to make mistakes, take some unexpected turns, etc. It takes experience to shepherd lots of kids through this, staying on track but not lock step.

    There are certainly after-school programs that fill this need as well. That’s why I always cringe when even after-school activities hinge on homework and test prep. It’s a wasted opportunity to explore Learning without School.

    Papert often used the convention of spelling School with a capital S to imply that same kind of institutional, inauthentic mindset that Clay calls “schooliness”. It is a shame that it’s so pervasive that we barely have to explain what that means.

    Wish I had a better answer.

  3. Good answer, really.

    We know that PBL is not the easiest thing to get going, but when done right (with time for tinkering and for authentic means) it can work really, really well.

    I’m glad you mentioned the after school piece. I’ve been thinking of taking advantage of a program to “tinker” with students around a combination of Lego Robotics and LogoPaths from their Investigative Math curriculum.

    Yes, it is a shame we know too well what each other mean by School or “schooliness”.

  4. Isn’t schooliness all of things we do to maintain the command-and-control hierarchy of industrial age schools? Perhaps maintaining that structure made sense at one time, but in a hyper-connected, internetworked world, it just strikes one as senseless, counterproductive dissipation of energy that could flow more easily through a network, an ecosystem.

  5. I think that Harvard’s (Project Zero’s? David Perkin’s?) Teaching for Understanding (TfU) , when done thoughtfully and not as if it were a formula to follow, also acknowledges the need for ‘tinkering’. In fact it builds it into its approach. Learning is viewed as having three stages –
    (1) Introductory (when students engage, speculate, connect, brainstorm, play around with ideas, reveal assumptions and prejudices, etc etc … in other words, tinker),
    (2) the Guided Inquiry (when students explore in a more systematic and guided way the concepts and hypothesis which emerged during the tinkering), and then
    (3) Culminating (when students find ways of expressing/demonstrating/presenting what they have learned from the process. Great educators like John Holt spoke about this kind of exploratory, seemingly aimless, play. Without it learning can be rather dull, routine and passive.

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