Category Archives: tinkering

Natural BornTinkerers?

Is there such a thing as a person who is naturally inclined to tinkering? I think so. Over the years I always have a certain kind of student who really likes to tear things apart. They are often interested in cars, skateboards, bikes, and electronics. They come to my room before or after school to borrow tools to fix stuff. They tell me stories about the things they are tearing apart at home and experimenting with.

The irony is that when I analyze myself I would not categorize myself as a natural tinkerer. I have a sense of pride about fixing my washing machine, but I did not enjoy the process. It was painful, frustrating, and there were a few fits of anger. I hate working on cars or other types of equipment.  Maybe that is why I notice this “talent” in others because it does not seem natural to me.

Contrary to Sherry Turkle’s assertion (as reported by Silvia Martinez) that tinkering is a female approach to technology as opposed to male problem-solving strategy, I have found that most of my “natural” tinkerers are boys. But maybe I am defining tinkering too narrowly and not considering how girls might choose different avenues to express their tinkering.

At some levels though all humans are natural tinkerers. We all like to feel, smell, and handle objects that are new to us. All you have to do is be a parent of a young child to experience how humans love to discover and tinker with everything (especially dangerous stuff like electrical cords).

So maybe the real issue is about what kinds of things we consider to be tinkering? While I hate fixing things, I enjoy building things and experimenting with concrete. I enjoy tinkering with

Tinkering Part II

Can’t get tinkering off my mind. Here are some other ways that we tinker in my technology class. This year I taught my first semester-long class in 8th grade. We did the same hands-on projects that I have always done in a 9 week class, but added some new computer applications. Three programs that we used were Pivot, Google Sketchup, and Scratch.

My teaching method was to have them download the program and play with it for a day. The next day we created a rubric of requirements together and then they went to work. We used Sketchup first and the students struggled with it. Since then I had a group of repeat 7th graders watch some tutorials on YouTube about Sketchup first and they have been more successful. Pivot is a much simpler program and they did very well tinkering with it.

I have used Scratch a little bit before with students and learned from the Sketchup experiment that students would need some support. I found four Google Slideshow instructions from Simon Haughton that taught students how to make an etch-a-sketch, race car maze, pong, and pacman games. Students followed these instructions and created the games. Those who finished early were challenged to make their own game. Only two students actually made something of their own. But to be fair it was the last week of the class so motivation to work was not super high.

Things I learned are that all of the students are willing to play at the beginning. But it is important that the task is at their skill level or that adequate support is provided. Students that struggle academically are often used to spoon-feeding or failure and give up quickly when not supported. The amount of support needed is difficult to judge and may be different for each student (Check out this John Spencer TAD talk video for a good explanation). I try to point students to resources first rather than helping them directly. I also have the students teach each other (and me) as much as possible.

One thing that seems to help is to start the first tutorial together as a class up to a certain point. It helps every student “get their feet wet” and builds important confidence in those that are unsure. Another technique I use is to announce to the class a problem that a particular student is having and ask if anyone can help them with it. A third thing that helped was to show examples of the best work from a previous class. My repeat 7th graders were not giving me much of a story line with their Pivots until I showed them some of the best 8th grade examples and they improved theirs immediately.

Students that are used to success in school often care too much about grades rather than creativity. They will faithfully complete the “lessons” and then help others, stall, or just sit there rather than try to create their own game in Scratch. I am now seriously considering a class with no grades to get rid of this problem. There would be no questions of “Does this count toward my grade?” or “How many points is this worth?” The class would be pass/fail based on did you attempt to learn? Experimenting and failure would be encouraged. We would talk about learning, not grades. Now to sell that idea to my principal…

Man vs. Washing Machine

Wednesday night I did a load of wash and went to put it into the dryer. It was soaking wet still; the machine would not spin-broke. Now I have worked in concrete construction for years but the truth is that I am not that good at fixing mechanical things. I hate working on cars and was not happy about my predicament. But I am Dutch (read cheap) so even though I have never worked on a washing machine before I tore it apart to figure out what was wrong. Three days later I had it fixed.


It really wasn’t that difficult-a broken coupler from the motor to the transmission. Of course I also had some problems with the machine leaking as I put everything back together. The broken machine was a challenge, but solvable.  I used some resources: internet manuals, calls to my dad in Florida, and talking to the local part store. But ultimately I had to solve the problem myself and no one figured it out for me. I spent way too long on it but there is a satisfaction in knowing I fixed it myself, not to mention that it cost me less than $30. If I had to do it again I would be much more efficient do to my experience.

The time that it took me to fix my washing machine allowed me to think about the process. I have been thinking about the concept of tinkering as expressed by Silvia Martinez (I tried to participate virtually in her Educon session but the audio and video were too poor). I agree that tinkering is a missing ingredient in our schools. As a middle school technology teacher I attract some students who like to tinker to my class. But I have been amazed this year at how many of my students shut down when I ask them to tinker.

For example, I teach Lego Mindstorms Robotics. The robots come with canned lessons with a video instructor. Students work on their own pace and those who finish early I challenge to create their own challenge for their robot. I have had very few students take me up on it (here is one that did). They want to know if it will count for their grade or volunteer to help other groups to avoid the challenge.

This quarter I had three students who are repeating my class because of scheduling issues at school. So I gave them the challenge of programming the robot to go around a 2 1/2′ x 4′ table top laying on the ground with out touching it. They had two weeks and could not do it. They fought me on it, complained, and gave up. The solution was simply to make the robot go forward a set distance and turn 90 degrees four times.

But these students would not tinker. They were easily discouraged and basically fought against thinking. I tried to support them by pointing them to the specific videos to re-watch and even set up the first part of the program for them. Still no results. One of my other students finished early from the canned programs and solved the problem of going around the table top for them in only two days. My students had plenty of resources-videos and me- and the problem was very solvable. But they lacked the tenacity to attack the problem and keep at it until they discovered a solution.


My class is mostly project based learning, but most of the projects are scripted for the students and are not terribly open-ended. I want to encourage my students to tinker more but it is so foreign to them. They are used to being told exactly what to do (worksheet mentality) and then copy it back. Most rebel when pushed to think and create on their own. They do not have the tenacity and endurance to spend 4 days to fix their washing machine. Instead they would rather pay the repairman than tinker.

How do I challenge my students to tinker, when they have been programmed to copy and regurgitate for a grade so much that they choose to shut down rather than think?

Why do some students genuinely enjoy tinkering as opposed to the majority who would rather jump through hoops?