Moving Beyond Tinkering

I’ve been bothered by several educational buzzwords for a while now. In fact, it was nearly six months ago that I tweeted (@daylynn), “We need to stop talking about engagement, grit, and tinkering and start talking about empowerment, ownership, and designer.” As the new school year is fully underway, I’ve seen these words once again pop up with more frequency.

I’ve also been inspired to address the tinkering movement with today’s announcement of the new iPhone6 and iPhone6 Plus. The release of the new iPhones serve as a perfect example of why we need to move beyond the tinkering and maker movement in education. Whether you are an iPhone junkie or an Android user, follow along with this scenario and the parallels to the education sector that we see today.

When Steve Jobs announced the release of the first iPhone in 2007, I’m sure that lots of “tinkering” took place with the team of designers at Apple as they worked to create a new generation of mobile phones. However, that tinkering had a purpose. The iPhone was designed to revolutionize the way in which people communicated and it certainly did. However, the designers at Apple didn’t stop with the first iPhone. Whether a cruel marketing ploy intended to increase the stock value at Apple or simply a desire to build faster, better, and more connected technology, Apple has now released 10 different versions of the original. The designers have certainly done a lot of “tinkering” in their design process. However, the outcome of that “tinkering” has been for an intended purpose and an intended audience.

This is where I believe the tinkering and maker movement in education is currently falling short. Learning by doing is important. Trial and error are imperative in the learning process. Hand-ons, active education produces better results for most students than does passive listening. However, without having an intended purpose and an intended audience for the end product with which the student has been tinkering in a maker lab, how far does that learning really extend? It is time that we move our students into the role as designers and not just makers.

The real goal in education should be to empower learners. Producing something for which change may occur as a result should be what learners strive to attain. This won’t happen, however, unless we, as educators, guide and facilitate this process. In short, I find that many maker movement/tinker lab products are simply things that may be trashed – literally or figuratively. Instead of stopping with the tinkering phase, let’s design for that intended audience and for that intended purpose!

Several project examples have been offered on what can happen in a maker lab. Creating a stop-motion animation movie about a historical event was one such offered example. If we look closer at this we need to ask the question, is this just a research paper in disguise? What new content are the students creating? Are students simply just regurgitating information that can be gleaned from reading any variety of websites? Who is the actual audience for the movies? Instead, take a look at this example from my former colleague, Greg Wimmer, where his global studies students produced movies on global issues using future casting. The movies were then showcased at a local theatre in a true film festival.  Another such example offered by the maker movement is to have students sew a new friend or play with a soldering kit. While these skills may be useful later in life when Halloween time comes around or when fixing things around the house, what is the intending learning outcome of this specific tinkering? Make a comparison with this example, from a teacher I showcased in my book on authentic learning experiences. Brian Copes’ pre-engineering students designed prosthetic legs out of old car parts and sent them to Honduras for amputees, as well as designed basic utility vehicles for use as ambulances in the developing world region. In both cases, the authentic approach produced results that had an intended purpose and an intended audience. Similarly, Apple designers keep their purpose and audience in mind as they begin work on the iPhone7.

For now, I think I’ll keep my iPhone5 for now and wait and see what the designers at Apple have in store for that iPhone7. In the meantime, ask yourself how can you take your students beyond tinkering and utilize the maker movement as mere scaffolds for a larger, more meaningful educational experience. Perhaps, I’ll tackle the grit issue next time….

Posted in Authenticity.

One Comment

  1. Dayna,
    Spot on! Purposeful work with a authentic audience is also the bridge to the work world, where iterations toward getting it right are everyday, real life, required events. Kids are like all creators – there is no reason to do multiple drafts if their only real audience and purpose is their teacher and a grade. Thanks for a great focus for educators for the year!

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