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?
I genuinely enjoy thinking, but tinkering stresses me out. Is it schooling that made me so scared of that? (Or maybe lack of schooling in that sort of thing – girls were not allowed to take shop when I was in junior high!) Or other ways in which sexism convinced me it was hard?
I try hard to be comfortable doing new things with tools, but it never comes easily. I could not do what you did with your washing machine.
I remember, when I was about 30, being inordinately proud of putting up a coat hook.
I don’t know what you can do for them as a teacher in school, but I’m glad you’re trying.
Great post. Wish you had been able to participate at Educon, we talked about some of this, and your experience would have been really helpful. (I think it was just first session tech issues that got solved as the day went on. Oh well.)
I think there is a combination of a lot of issues here, a “perfect storm” of society, cultural and school influences. As a society (and I’m talking about the US) we are relatively rich. We buy new stuff instead of fixing things. It diminishes the need and then we don’t have experience in fixing or tinkering. Culturally, we have deminished the respect that trades used to have, and the apprentice systems that generated people who learned how to do the work. School reinforces all this by creating abstractions of the math and science people really need to understand the world around them. School likes neat and tidy rows, kids being quiet, and values conformity and everyone doing the same thing. Tests and grades just make that worse and force kids to think this way.
Teachers like you who fight against all these forces have an uphill battle – all I can say is it takes time. And perhaps more radicalism? What if you completely dump the videos and plans for the Lego? Let them pick the problem to solve? Might be complete chaos/crying for a few days… but then you might see more in the long run.
Love to continue this conversation…
PS Here’s an interesting Alfie Kohn article saying similar things: http://bit.ly/a5vENX
I’ve been struggling with getting my students to “tinker” with programs that I’m teaching in Logo. They can do the basic assignment but don’t go beyond that. I try to encourage them to do something else with the program, what can be changed, or what happens when I do something else. Some have no problem with this, but others tend to go into what they already know or just sit and wait for me to give them further instructions. I’m finding it hard to meet both and keep the class challenging and interesting.
Emily-exactly. I could give many more examples of this in my class but did not want to write an endless post. I had an “advanced” 8th grade technology class this year and I did what Silvia suggested with the programs Google Sketchup and Pivot.
I had them download the program and turned them loose. Some students did well, but some just kind of sat there. We made a rubric together as a class, but the main thing is they had to create something of their choice.
They did better with Pivot because it is simpler, but struggled with Sketchup. I think there is no easy answer to this but to keep pushing them to think.
Some students need support to get started and then go from there. In some students the fear of failure prevents them from trying and they give up easily.
Thanks for the link Silvia. I have read that article already.
Watch out I feel another post about this coming on!