What do we want? More replicants or a next generation of students who can think for themselves?
21 December, 2015: Interview with Mike Petrich and Karen Wilkinson, designers at Tinkering Studio — an “immersive, active, creative place” at the Exploratorium museum of science, art, and human perception in San Francisco, California, USA.
LEGO Foundation (LF): The Tinkering Studio is described as being based on a constructionist theory of learning which asserts that knowledge is not simply transmitted from teacher to learner, but is actively constructed by the mind of the learner. Please elaborate, in plain language, about what the Tinkering Studio is?
Karen Wilkinson: To us, the Tinkering Studio is a physical place for people to come together and think with their hands. Tinkering is a marriage of play and inquiry. We host activities that involve science, art and technology – all in the service of people coming up with their own ideas and trying things out.
Mike: It is a learning lab, for visitors and for us to develop new ideas and to see what kind of learning experiences we can design and facilitate.
LF: What is your vision for learning?
Mike: Learning is messy. It’s unexpected and life-long,filled with moments of getting yourself stuck, reaching the edge of your understanding and developing the capacity to push yourself through until you can make sense of something.. It is a contentious process, a circle of reaching, finding, exploring and moving past your current understanding. Learning can happen in schools, but it also happens on street corners. It happens on the bus, on the playground, at the kitchen table. Any moment where you can develop the capacity to think for yourself. That’s learning in a lifelong way — a trajectory about thinking about learning.
Karen: At its core, learning is playful, personalized, purposeful and prolonged. We start the moment we’re born. If you look at the time a person spends in formal school — where we traditionally think learning is happening — it’s pretty small over a course of a person’s lifetime. I think it’s much more about developing a joy for learning and of playing with ideas that follows you through grade school and beyond.
LF: You have been around for 20 years; can you see any progression to your way of thinking about learning?
Karen: The Tinkering Studio has been open for seven years. What has happened simultaneously is the growth of the Maker Movement, and this idea of tinkering and DIY. It's a more direct, more organic way of thinking about learning that is much more learner-driven and learner-centered. Parents and teachers are now asking different questions, in some ways dissatisfied with the experiences their children are offered today in school.
Mike: The change we have noticed is that experimenting with things, building things, and sharing them with each other is now implemented in more classrooms across more subjects. For us, this approach became interesting to us long ago when we started working with scientistswho said “We build our own labs, often construct our own equipment, and we are always tinkering with new ideas. Whether it's the way a sound vibrates or a shadow moves. We explore new materials and new media, and we think about how we understand the world through the medium and materials.” This is very similar to the artistic process of exploring phenomena and expressing a new idea or viewpoint. The process for both is very similar. I think the change lately is that both artists and scientists have become better advocates for supporting this time of tinkering, and we are noticing it in school and outside school, in community settings, museums, and libraries.
LF: Did you see yourself up against a different discourse? Maybe compared with five–ten years ago?
Mike: We are up against that discourse even today. There have been a lot of efforts in the past to support inquiry-based science projects and in hands-on science. Exploration, like tinkering, has always played a role in the ecology of education. But the question today is, who is taking it seriously? Teachers want to do this type of work and we are trying to find out how to support it, and to make a legitimate case for the importance of tinkering.
Karen: Like the word play — people dismiss the work of tinkering as frivolous fun. But for us play is absolutely essential to learning for young children, but it is also important for adults to have a playful mindset. When you think about your job or your work, a playful mindset is incredibly useful, so we are trying to advocate for this mindset.
LF: The other mindset, which questions whether or not play and exploration are a waste of time, is still strong, despite the Maker Movement and more advocates, you say?
Mike: Yes, and our concern is about the teaching methods we are choosing as a society — whether they be homework, lectures, or tests — we are trying to design mechanisms for true learning and many current efforts in education become mechanisms for organizedschooling. That is the schism. Unfortunately, a lot of people think that tinkering is just about throwing a lot of random things on a table and asking kids to have fun with them. That’s not what this is about. Tinkering is fun, but it’s also a highly choreographed, sometimes painstaking, deeply discussed, and a well thought-out discipline, so that we actually can facilitate peoples’ thinking through initial starting points that might lead to complex new directions.
Karen: Learning is deeply personal and if we could be granted one wish for kids of today, it would be for each of them to truly learn how they learn best and to have that nurtured throughout their schooling and beyond.. I really hope that looking back 20 years from now, we see a real shift in the way we think about schools and learning.
LF: If you were to approach a politician or a government official, arguing: “Look, play and tinkering enable in-depth learning, and this is the pathway for future generations to become confident, independent resourceful citizens.” How would you connect the dots for them?
Mike: Tinkering enables you learn how to learn. You are developing a practice for how to ask questions, making careful observations, thinking for yourself and experimenting with the new ideas that you have, and it is a practice that takes time. So often we talk about learning as something terminal, but learning is not terminal — that’s the point. There is no end to learning. There is no point where you say: “Okay, now I’ve learned it, I’m done.” It is a cumulative process that takes time to develop the practices for learning how to learn, which means that you can think for yourself and not only think about what your teacher just “taught” you.
Karen: Seymour Papert is really known for his idea about Constructionism. The powerful idea that by constructing something real, building with bricks or any kind of material, color, light or code, and “creating something tangible”, you internalize ideas in a different way and your knowledge is much more durable than when you just “learn” about something abstractly.
Mike: We are asked often about the testable outputs of tinkering — because it is often seen as just a nice humane philosophy. But in everything we do there is always some deep underlying scientific content or artistic practice that people can come away knowing more about. If we are constructing a little object, placing and testing it in a wind tube, there is a lot to learn about the symmetry of the object, the surface area, the speed of the wind, the rotation of the wind that is moving through the tube. In each of the things we are exploring — no matter how random they might appear— there are aspects of the phenomenon that allow you to experiment with something real.
LF: How do you envisage a school environment in which teachers meet their goals, stick to their curriculum planning and yet also facilitate tinkering?
Mike: Even though I’m asking at what point controlled and structured schooling actually supports deep learning, I’m not arguing that we should replace everything that happens in school with tinkering. More that it can be a complement. How can tinkering or the “learning through play” approach actively support real experiences that children have with materials and tools, or a phenomenon? So that when they are listening to a lecture or asked to do more traditional research as part of a lesson, their tinkering experience is an important complement (and in some ways a foundational experience) which they can map these new experiences onto.
Karen: In the many places, “hands-on” learning often reveals itself as an activity that is still very much directed: for example step1) take your paper, step 2) fold it in half, step 3) make an airplane step 4) do this or that as long as everyone else is doing the same thing at the same time. What tinkering opens up is the chance for the individual to explore their own ideas with various outcomes. At the onset of any tinkering activity, we don’t know where each person will take it. We have a sense of the direction or possibilities and that should be of comfort for the teachers, But we should celebrate the unusual things that come up. I would lobby for the inclusion of a tinkering studio, an atelier environment or a workshop that allows you to explore in combination with some more direct teaching methods. It is when you don’t have such things that direct teaching falls short.
Mike: Some say you should do the tinkering exploration with materials before you start the “serious” teaching. Others say you should do the tinkering afterwards, to test whether or not the students understand the concept. I would say it is a lifelong practice of going back and forth and becoming interested in something, developing questions for tinkering with, and then going to a book, or Google, or another person, and exploring more abstract information about it. Whatever helps to raise new questions about the topic, rather than looking to understand something completely - which is a difficult thing to do at any age.
LF: The openness you give children or provide them with might be very scary for some children.
Mike: It is scary until you have developed the capacity to think within that zone. It is challenging to go into blank-page scenarios. When some children enter a room where they immediately have to think for themselves or develop something from scratch, they are sometimes uncomfortable. Instead of just saying: “Go ahead make anything you can imagine”, we are trying to carefully choreograph moments where you enter into a situation and find something of interest to start with. It is not “whatever” you want to build with our light play setup. We are asking: “What do you notice?” “What are you curious about looking at more?” “What might you want to change?” “What might you like to construct now that you have become more familiar with the material?” and so on.
I think there has to be a scaffold for the tinkering explorations where students are offered the ability to develop the capacity to be imaginative while using tools phenomena and materials to explore new ideas that are important to them. Then they are more able to face these open-ended environments later on.
LF: So you thought a lot about framing the tinkering environment?
Karen: Tinkering requires good facilitators. It is not enough to design new rooms and fill them up with materials. You need confident teachers engaged in changing practices and this has to be endorsed throughout the school system so it isn’t just another intervention coming from above and teachers asking: “Now what — is this an extra thing we have to do?”
Mike: We are often asked what tinkering can do for a child’s learning? But an even more important question is what can tinkering do for an adult’s practice of their facilitation skills with children? How can tinkering help them design the next generation of activities and projects? How can tinkering help educators today become much more versatile to support different interests, abilities, skill levels and skills sets that children are coming in with? Meeting them where they are and taking them beyond that, just enough so that they start thinking more deeply. The impact that tinkering can have on educators is as profound as it might be on the learners or the young people we are working with in these situations. The Tinkering Studio is a place where children learn to be confident in exploring, and adults learn to be more confident in the role of facilitators.
Learn more about Tinkering Studio at their website>>.