I’ve been writing and tweeting a lot lately about the fact that I’ve got a new 3D printer for my classroom. I’ve been impressed by the new excitement and learning that it’s brought with it.
One of the first things that you learn when you put a 3D printer into operation is that it isn’t easy to use. There are a million things that can go wrong. From troubles with the files themselves to a machine that is finicky to use and needs constant, ongoing and continual care, these machines are not for the faint of heart.
Naturally, that means that you need to do a lot of tinkering to get things to work. We’ve searched for workarounds, for software solutions, for different settings and for people and groups who can help us. Luckily, the internet is filled with many patient people who have been willing to teach us a lot of things.
Some students find this need to fix up and calibrate a source of endless frustration. They want the process of creation to be frictionless and easy. Others find it fascinating. They want to work to improve things and are willing to spend the time they need to for this to happen.
As we’ve become a throw away society over the last few decades, I think that we’ve largely lost the mindset of tinkering. The childhood of many people used to be filled with construction projects, chemistry sets and exploration. My own children are amazed when I tell them how we used to take our bikes out into the bush around our community, catch frogs, make a fire and eat them.(kind of nasty as an adult, but hey, we were kids!). We used to build forts and rafts, catch fish and figure out how to turn them into something edible. One trip would see us hauling axes and rope and saws out on our backpacks and in the next we’d have a load of something else we needed.
This has me thinking about school work in general. Teachers are often frustrated with students who want to be spoon fed information and who aren’t able to make a connection to the work they need to complete. Students see a lot of the work in classrooms as irrelevant and to simply be completed as quickly as possible. They don’t see it as something to be worked on, mulled over, improved and tinkered with. From science experiments to pieces of writing, we need to work in classrooms to restore an ethos of tinkering.
As professionals, we constantly tinker with our practices. We reflect on what worked and what didn’t and adjust to do better the next time. This is tinkering. We should expect no less from our students. Students working on a piece of writing should try out “thought experiments” to see where a plot twist or the introduction of a new character will take them. This is tinkering. Students should be encouraged to think about science experiments, how effective they were, and how they might be improved. Tools like Scratch, that allow students to download the code of others and build on it and change it encourage this active mindset.
I’m currently in the middle of reading Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager’s new book Invent to Learn. It’s being called the Bible of the emerging maker movement in schools for good reason. Outlining the history of constuctivist thinking in schools as well as the benefits of making, tinkering and engineering in classrooms, this book encourages us to build classrooms around active construction.
Just as we’ve developed an ethos, a mindset, in education over the past few years of community development, we also need to think about developing an attitude of tinkering with learning of all types. This brings with it a certain type of lesson, a certain type of classroom design, and of assessment among other things. Tinkering is an old fashioned word in some ways, but I think it is also one way forward into the future of education and learning.