Search the phrase “tinker time” and you will most likely discover articles praising schools and organizations that provide students with opportunities to work with physical materials such as wood, hammers, circuits, recyclables, etc. to design and build something. You might imagine a grandparent working on a car in the garage or a kid figuring out the inner workings of a clock. Tinkering in the modern context is a process of trying something to figure out what works or doesn’t work to find your way to the best solution, often going through many iterations, or changes, along the way. Proponents of tinkering in schools say that it builds problem solving and critical thinking skills, as well as “grit” and perseverance. And while it is often associated with work using physical artifacts, this post shows how tinkering is more a philosophy than a single practice and thus can be applied to many forms of problem-based learning. For instance, learning to code is a great example of tinkering with tech that builds math, critical thinking, and problem solving skills.
Google’s development model is an example of tinkering, as the company is constantly testing add ons and extensions, acquiring feedback from their audience, and creating new versions to make a better product for you. How can we apply that same thinking to design and facilitate tinker time in and out of school? For example, I am a rookie blogger relying on my tinkering skills to improve my writing process. As I outline and frame the topic, I am mindful that this post needs to be engaging while providing useful takeaways. I started with key words, phrases, and big ideas that have been rattling around in my head. I thought about what you, as the reader, might want to take away from the topic, and the message I, as the writer, wanted to convey. I have revised at least 10 times, Googled numerous topics, read articles from reputable sources, watched a few videos, and shared digitally using Google drive to gain feedback. Sound familiar? If I wrote a lesson for this process, I might include the following standards:
Common Core State Standards
- Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7)
- Respond to questions and suggestions from peers and add details to strengthen writing as needed. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5)
Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6)
Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.8)
ISTE Standards for Students
1.b - Create original works as a means of personal or group expression
2.b - Interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media
3.b - Locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media
6.b - Select and use applications effectively and productively.
In “Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes,” the authors discuss the science behind making mistakes and becoming experts. Experts are not made by practice alone, instead they deliberately tinker to determine which strategies are working or not working, and strategically develop areas that need improvement. Tinkering is a process for learning. The more opportunities students have to explore what works or doesn’t work in different situations, the larger their intellectual toolbox. Applying practiced skills and knowledge to new questions or problems in other arenas helps students move towards independence. Many students have not had the opportunity to be the drivers in their own education and tinkering gives them this opportunity. As educators, it is imperative that we promote learning that provides time for deliberate practice, reflection, and learning from mistakes as they develop skills that are applicable in the real-world.
Start with Why
Think about the students passing through your classroom doors. As graduates, what skills and attributes do you think they should have to be successful in the future? Now, think about the lessons and projects you have implemented. How have those learning opportunities helped students develop a diverse skillset and the social-emotional qualities to reach those expectations? As an educator, whether you teach in a classroom, are an administrator, counselor, librarian, or even a leader in an after school program, you have the power to provide students with the gift of time to explore, practice, and hone those skills. According to Forbes magazine and a survey conducted by National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE), today’s employers are seeking workers that are adept at making decisions and solving problems; working collaboratively in teams, particularly when the project leaders may not be the senior employee but rather the employee with the best skillset for the project; communicate effectively with people inside and outside of the organization; and that have the ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work using technology specifically geared towards the profession. When technology is integrated across the curriculum on a routine basis in meaningful ways, students gain the skills, knowledge, and experience needed to thrive in a global economy. Taking a tinker approach to this tech integration only enhances students’ ability to acquire these skills. In other words, the goal is for students to apply those skills to seek out the technology that best meets the needs for the problem or task.
Coming Together for the Greater Good
The purposeful integration of tinker time weaves nicely into the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), especially college and career readiness, math, science, and engineering practices. Conducting research, collaborating and communicating with peers, and developing products to demonstrate evidence of learning are all good examples. With that said, it has been my experience that the greatest benefit of tinkering is the increased student motivation to learn. Some students are always eager, but most walk into our learning environments with reluctant enthusiasm, ultimately just doing school rather than being fully engaged in the learning process. Technology opens the door to a plethora of tools and resources that foster social learning, investigation through open-ended questions, differentiation to meet the needs of all students, and personalization for deeper learning that is relevant, purposeful, and driven by the interests of students.
For example, you might begin a unit by asking students, “Who gives words power?” Building in tinker time to explore an open-ended question with many answers and develop thoughts through collaboration beyond the four walls of the classroom will lead to deeper insights. The internet allows for exploration based on interests. The tinkering process applies to researching an initial response to a question that is personal, gathering and analyzing information from multiple perspectives, rethinking initial responses, and continuing the process while synthesizing information. This process gets to key goals of the ISTE standards and CCSS. Students are inundated with information and need to develop the skills to persevere through complex text, ask questions and seek answers autonomously, give and obtain feedback from a diverse audience, and construct viable arguments. Moreover, this process promotes flexibility in what and how students learn which will increase motivation. Think about your most memorable learning experiences. My guess would be that some component included a personal connection, interest, or relevance in your life that made the experience memorable.
Promote independence through tinkering by providing voice and choice. Depending on the needs of your students, you might need to start with the same final product, but keep interest through different topics. For example, last year a colleague decided that his 7th grade students would tinker with Weebly websites during his academic vocabulary class. At first, he let them choose the topic so students selected various themes based on their interest such as art, skateboarding, and game reviews. Then he showed them examples from our high school seniors, professional, and personal websites. Next they watched Weebly’s “how to” video. After that, students began tinkering with the different features and selecting content. When they got stuck, they would search for a video or article, or more commonly the teacher would ask the class, “who knows how to do ‘X’?” The websites were built during a 30 minute class over the course of a week. What happened next demonstrates the power of tinkering. Students began building websites outside of the school day for other classes. They talked about their learning process with other students not in the class and other students began to tinker on their own. His students gained confidence, achieved a personal goal, and learned how to acquire new knowledge and skills that they applied to new challenges.
Another way to develop independence, tap into the power of tinkering, and build on the interests of students is by providing voice and choice in how they demonstrate mastery of learning. Sometimes, these choices are referred to as a “product menu.” Below is an example from a unit I developed on digital citizenship. It may be that you are an aspiring techie who is still building background knowledge around digital tools. The good news is that students can help build your menus if you provide the time to tinker with a variety of tools. Pose the problem to students, structure the expectations for demonstrating mastery, and let the students identify a list of digital tools. In the process, they are learning to “evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on the appropriateness to specific tasks” (ISTE Standards for Students 3.c) as you “Develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to pursue their individual curiosities and become active participants in setting their own educational goals, managing their own learning and assessing their own progress” (ISTE Standards for Teachers 2.b).
Tinker Time Tips
Demonstrate the problem solving aspect of tinkering to students when something isn’t working the way you thought or planned. Sometimes tech doesn’t work or lessons go awry. Plan ahead of time, because sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to. These mishaps are often user error, so show problem solving strategies including asking for help when you need it. Think aloud - Ask yourself and students how you might try to seek a solution; be a model. Know when to Google it, find another way, phone a friend, or my personal favorite … ask the students! Teach students when they need to abandon ship. Sometimes an idea or tool must be abandoned if it’s not a good fit for the task. Be okay with the fact that your students may know more than you do. Use it to your advantage. Students like to be useful and challenges are motivating. Build in extra learning time for failure, trial-and-error, and space for students to really tinker and, therefore, learn. When incorporating tinkering into learning, remember that the amount of scaffolding you will have to plan for depends on the age of your students.
Tinkering is not about the product, it’s about the process. Enjoy the journey and don’t focus so much on having a spiffy product that the students can present. There is a time and a place for presenting, but true integration is about the journey and what was learned along the way. Tinkering is messy, but fosters deeper learning because the students are doing the thinking. Embrace it. Find balance. Find relief in the fact that you do not have to have all of the answers.
Have thoughts about this post or questions about implementing tinkering in your classroom? Ask them in the dedicated discussion thread.
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Product Development Curriculum Writer for *MindWorks Resources
Currently developing technology extension activities for tinkering with tech in after school programs and starting a blog with simple suggestions for educators on the cusp i.e. want to but not sure how to.