Our ability to tinker was a cornerstone of American ingenuity and invention.  I haven’t thought about those kinetic learning skills in a long time.  In a recent conversation with educational expert David Warlick, he brought up tinkering as an active learning tool and I had to mull over the concept, its history and its possibilities.

I was drawn to the tinkering concept because I used to love taking things apart with my father.  We once had my oven spread out all over the kitchen floor, he was sure we could repair it with just a couple of new parts. He was correct and I didn’t replace it until I remodeled the kitchen six years later.   He was a child of the depression and learned how to keep things working long after my generation would have put it curb side for the trash collectors.  Tinkering allows you to take something apart, study it, understand it and build on it.

While researching this tinkering concept I listened to a humorous YouTube video by Gever Tulley on the 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do.  Most involved tinkering; taking things apart with tools, even power tools.  But who in their right mind would allow that to happen today?

Tulley’s argues we all should.  He offers a summer camp called the Tinkering School and that is what children do at his camp; they take radios, toasters and other electrical appliances apart just to see how they work.  And an even more remarkable experience is The Exploratorium in San Francisco, a museum of science, art, and human perception which specializes in visitors tinkering.  Their mission is a concise statement of what every educational experience should include:

We believe that following your curiosity and asking questions can lead to amazing moments of discovery, learning, and awareness, and can increase confidence in your ability to understand how the world works. We also believe that being playful and having fun is an important part of the process for people of all ages.”

In learning environments today I do see some classes focused on a form of “tinkering”, they are usually computer based and found in middle schools.  Frequently the tinkering is around students building robots.  The objectives are straightforward: “By building robots you will learn about mechanics, electronics, computers and programming. You will also learn problem solving skills, research skills and how to deal with frustration.” These are all critical skills and as I have observed these computer lab classes, the students are focused, motivated and eager to make their robots function.  Computer robotics courses come with lesson plans to make this structured type of tinkering easier to launch.

But how about a class focused on just tinkering; just using your mind and hands to create?  What if the projects where not derived from a computer but you merely engaged technology as another creative learning tool?  Could innovative classrooms take a lesson from the Exploratorium and simply provide a learning space and materials to let minds explore, question, create and build? The answer is yes and there are active learning classrooms scattered around the country, which are already engaged in this learning initiative.  Active learning classrooms are emerging in K-12 classrooms as well as on college campuses.  I believe active learning classrooms will become the classroom of the future.

Active learning and studio classrooms don’t have a front; their focus is usually a busy center.  The center can hold project tables, computer stations or other shared resources. Classroom furniture moves easily to configure into the current learning activity.  The walls feature whiteboards, projectors and screens, or flat screen monitors so students can see, hear, and interact with the content being studied.  Collaborative space is clustered around the room in small team settings.  These are not special labs or art rooms; they are active classrooms in which students of any age move freely into shared, hands-on learning experiences.  Many are project based learning environments with a primary focus on technology as a learning tool.  However, these learning environments can just as easily morph into a fourth grade classroom studying western expansion, building railroads through mountain passes on project tables while cultivating prairie grasses on a patio extension to the studio.

Studio classrooms connect active learners to a mix of learning styles but they always include hands-on creation.  The active learning space supports building, dismantling, experimentation, trial and error, personal reflection and group collaboration.  It is a flexible space that students and teacher shape to fit their learning styles.

On college campuses these tinkering spaces are housed frequently in Innovation Centers where students become entrepreneur as well.  Engineering schools, like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have been encouraging undergraduates to use lathes, laser cutters, and welding equipment driven by computers to create while they learn.   Business and medical schools are also involved in supporting active student learning through tinkering with their ideas in studios designed to foster creative solutions. The sharing of tools and technology make these higher education facilities a cost effective think tank for new business development.

So whether students are in grade school or graduate school the ability to tinker, to learn while creating is an exciting way to engage and challenge students.  Building classrooms as studios, active learning environments is a new concept based on a tradition of tinkering.

Reference material:

  • “http://www.exploratorium.edu/about/.” Exploratorium . N.p., 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2011.
  • “Robotics Department .” www.hobbyengineering.com. , 10 Mar. 2011. Web. 29 Mar. 2011.
  • “Gever Tulley 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do.” www.TED.com. TED , Dec. 2007. Web. 29 Mar. 2011.
  • “Gever Tulley teaches life lessons through tinkering .” www.TED.com. N.p., June 2009. Web. 29 Mar. 2011.
  • Lahart, Justin. “Tinkering Makes Comeback Amid Crisis.” Wall Street Journal 13 Nov. 2009. Web. 29 Mar. 2011.