A large part of our mission is to be reflective about what it takes to support tinkering activities as rich opportunities for learning, and then articulate those ideas and disseminate them throughout the field. One of the most effective ways we have found of doing so is by offering in-person introductory and advanced Professional Development workshops, to support educators in developing a practice and ethos of tinkering. In trying to define what we mean by “tinkering” we discovered that it is most helpful to think of it as an approach or attitude, a lens that can be useful in designing activities, thinking about facilitation strategies, and building an environment that can support whatever learning goals you are striving for. There are myriad ways of structuring a tinkering activity, or to take an existing activity and tweak it in subtle ways to make it more “tinkerable.” Our PD efforts are aimed at providing tools for practitioners and leaders to develop a tinkering practice that suits their goals and programs, not simply by following a recipe or replicating what has worked for us in the Tinkering Studio, but by delving deeply into the fundamental qualities of the work and developing a practice of reflecting and iterating. Here are some of the ways that we have disseminated our ideas.
The most venerable and practiced way of sharing our thinking and knowledge about tinkering takes the form of in-person workshops. Each year, we host about three workshops at the Exploratorium; over the course of three days we craft a series of opportunities for participants to engage in tinkering from a learner’s perspective, literally rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty making, building, dissecting, prototyping, iterating, and testing out ideas. Each experience builds upon the previous to develop a vocabulary of tinkering and mechanical skills that culminate in a collaborative, large scale project. At the same time, we are careful to use each experience as an opportunity to step back, switch to an educator perspective, and reflect on the qualities that make the learning experience rich, inspiring, challenging, etc. We provide thinking tools and routines to make sense of the structural qualities of the work we’ve done together, and to workshop ideas for implementing a tinkering approach in a way that makes sense within the reality of each participant. We have also traveled to other institutions, festivals, and cultural events, domestically and abroad, to directly train local staff and help shape their own tinkering spaces. These are wonderful opportunities for us to think deeply about the cultural conventions of our own work, and how to adapt and evolve our designs by keeping the core ideas true to our vision while being respectful of different contexts, sensibilities, interests, availability of materials, and learning cultures.
Community of Practice
A community of practice is exactly what it sounds like: a group of practitioners who get together regularly to discuss and share ideas related to doing tinkering work on the floor. Originally it started during the ASTC conference, when a budding collective of practitioners from several institutions had the idea of creating an online virtual get-together to share practical tips: where to get materials, how to organize them, which hot glue guns are the best bang for your buck, etc. Over time, the size and scope of this group has grown by leaps and bounds: it now is a publicly-accessible bi-weekly live video hangout organized by the Tinkering Studio, with guests that vary from fellow museum workers, University professors, makers and tinkerers, and out-of-the-box provocateurs. Topics have ranged from the eminently practical to the quirky and offbeat, but the community that has built around them is amazing, supportive, and now over 400 participants strong!
“I'm learning that my goal needs to be helping children meet their goals, not for them to meet my goals.” – MOOC participant
In an effort to disseminate and make available our thinking and resources at a scale simply not possible in person, we recently embarked on developing and releasing a free online class about the Fundamentals of Tinkering through Coursera. This MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) presented us with several challenges, chief among them the fact that tinkering is by definition something that needs to be experienced directly and physically to be truly understood. Would a video-based course support that? We are also a group that is constantly reflecting and updating our own approaches and ideas about the work; would putting our thinking down in a “permanent” medium such as video feel too constrictive and not representative of our current thinking? Setting our reservations aside we created a six-week course on tinkering, using some of our circuit-based activities as the commonly shared experiences around which to structure conversations and discussions. We dove into both the minutiae of how we develop an activity and choose materials, as well as the high-level conceptual thinking that guides our choices. We interviewed some of the artists whose work was inspirational to the activities, or who work in similar media and with similar techniques. We chatted with some of our mentors and “critical friends,” whose insights and experience we rely on to keep us on the right path. Finally, we wanted the class to be useful for teachers who were thinking of incorporating a tinkering practice into their classroom curriculum, and so we worked with a local school to try out adaptations of our activities, and captured their thinking and reaction to their students’ response to the work. What we were not prepared for, and have been delighted and humbled by, was not only the popularity of the course, but the enthusiasm and quality of the community that formed around it. The discussion forums that accompany the class became fertile ground for exchanging ideas, debating the value of teaching in this manner, and tackling notoriously thorny questions like “what are kids actually learning through tinkering?” We also discovered the wonderful and creative adaptations of our work by people all over the world, substituting hard-to-find materials with local alternatives, remixing and innovating our designs, and simply trying new things that we hadn’t thought of. We thought the value of the course would be in the carefully prepared material we produced, but discovered that it lies much more in the vibrant conversations and meaning-making between students and participants.