Learning To Tinker

Donna LindnerI remember the day my 3-year-old daughter came to me and announced that, after watching a Reading Rainbow episode, she wanted to be an astronaut. I asked her what she needed to make her vision a reality, and after 45 minutes of rummaging through our house, trying out various materials, problem solving and troubleshooting, she was headed to space wearing snow boots, a snowsuit, a paper bag and baseball cap all covered in aluminum foil, with headphones on for talking to her father while he was at work and she, the moon.

Back in the day, if someone had asked me how we spent that afternoon, I would have said, “We played.” These days, our experience might be described as “tinkering.” The current educational movement of making, tinkering, and engineering is rooted in an historical, philosophical basis for learning and teaching. This philosophy asserts that children actively construct new knowledge when the learner is engaged in a personally meaningful activity outside their heads.

Back in the day, if someone had asked me how we spent that afternoon, I would have said, “We played.” These days, our experience might be described as “tinkering.”

We know that girls learn best when they are given opportunities to engage in the acts that are part of tinkering and engineering such as collaboration, problem solving, hands-on designing, and hands-on failing. Yet we are challenged by a world that has historically told girls to take risks — but only after they know the rules, necessary skills, and content for successful engagement.

Most of us have engaged in the acts of making (creating with an end product in mind), tinkering (playing around with materials to problem solve, design, and create) and engineering (applying understood science principles to invent) our entire lives in our everyday work and play. What strikes me as an educator are the implications for learning and achievement when we start to consider our classrooms and our homes as spaces for tinkering.

In their book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager make the observation that scientists aren’t hired because they have the periodic table memorized. They aren’t even hired because they can follow the scientific method, which, “… may work for testing a guess about how the world works, but is not applicable to things that don’t yet exist,” (p.45). They are hired because they know how to tinker. They plan, make mistakes, argue, collaborate, step away from a challenge to reflect and then return, make connections, and fail…more than once.

…Schools should make time for students to engage in a maker space.

But aren’t those skills that all of us use in our jobs, regardless of discipline? And, if the answer to the previous question is affirmative, don’t we owe it to our children to make sure they are prepared for a world in which knowledge of content matters, but the ability to think, devise, reflect and play with content matters even more? I believe so, and that is why schools should make time for students to engage in a maker space. It is why after-school programs should offer classes in knitting and/or coding.

At home, keeping a stock of everyday materials readily available can provide hours of opportunities for children to learn in unfamiliar ways using familiar materials. Such materials might include electronic parts and tools, craft and art supplies, building materials and traditional tools, recycled goods (paper towel tubes, yogurt cups, yarn, buttons, office supplies) and plastic bottles. Old machines and toys also provide a chance for exploration and discovery. An old rotary telephone, for example, is a perfect toy for a child to take apart, analyze, and perhaps even try to put back together.

We should celebrate the success inherent in our children’s failures. To do that, we owe all kids the time, space, and opportunity to believe they can be their own version of my daughter’s astronaut, and the encouragement and permission to confidently jump into the messy process of getting to the moon.

Donna Lindner, Lower School Director

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