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.
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…