Central to the Tinkering Studio’s mission is sharing the results of our research and development, as well as the process by which we develop ideas and activities, with the field at large. Internally, we are constantly engaged in a process of being reflective about our own work, and we try to articulate our ideas and philosophy via a range of publications. Here are some of our most recent and notable attempts at putting our thoughts down on paper and inspire others.
A professional development tool for educators
One of the most interesting and rich questions that comes up regularly when we talk about our work is also one of the hardest to answer: what are people actually learning while tinkering? The question becomes really difficult to answer if one tries to quantify learning according to externally imposed measures, like the ones used in a school setting. However, anyone who has been directly involved in facilitating tinkering activities can feel that there clearly is learning happening, and that it can be very powerful.
Developed in a collaboration between the Research + Practice Collaboratory and the Tinkering Studio team, these Learning Dimensions of Making and Tinkering are our attempt to begin to articulate the dimensions of learning that are made possible by making so that both researchers and practitioners can refine their practice to support those outcomes and also be able to share those outcomes with others.
After years of developing activities, workshops, and quirky experiments in this spirit we call “tinkering,” we decided it was time to collect our thoughts, ideas, philosophies, and the friends we've made along the way, and put it all together in a delightful book. The Art of Tinkering is an unprecedented celebration of what it means to tinker: to take things apart, explore tools and materials, and build wondrous, wild art that’s part science and part technology.
The Art of Tinkering is an invitation for you to join in on this invaluable and enriching way of going through the world. In this book’s pages, we’ve profiled beloved artists who have spent time at the Tinkering Studio and who embody what we call the tinkering disposition. For each artist, there are details of their processes—their favorite tools, materials, inspirations, and prototypes — and the stories of how they stumbled upon a method that works for them. Then we talk about other makers working in a similar vein to show you all the possibilities that a certain technique can yield.
Finally, there are ways that you can tinker, too: Ideas to get you started on your very own explorations. Because we want you to get your hands dirty. We want you to engage, get stuck, and play with a problem until you come around to a deeper understanding. We find that the combination of confidence and competence that results from tinkering is irresistible — and if we make it part of our everyday lives, we’ll all be richer for it.
You can purchase the book at the Exploratorium Store.
Are makerspaces—where children can create gas-powered Roman chariots, singing greeting cards, or playdough circuit boards—just the site for a slightly wacky explosion of inventiveness? Or can these maker activities be channeled to support deep STEM learning? The Tinkering Studio in San Francisco has been developing maker activities for years. This article describes how tinkering activities can help students develop productive science learning identities—that is, to be interested in science, to feel capable of doing science, and to want to do science.
Design, Make, Play
Petrich, M., Wilkinson, K., & Bevan, B. (2013). It looks like fun, but are they learning? In M. Honey & D. Kanter, (Eds.), Design, make, play: Growing the next generation of STEM innovators (pp. 50-70). New York: Routledge.
Design, Make, Play: Growing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators (edited by by Margaret Honey and David E. Kanter) is a resource for practitioners, policymakers, researchers and program developers that illuminates creative, cutting edge ways to inspire and motivate young people about science and technology learning. We contributed a chapter titled “It Looks Like Fun… But Are They Learning?” and it is thus far perhaps the most comprehensive and articulate treatise on how we think about designing, facilitating, and supporting our work. It uses the above-mentioned Dimensions of Learning framework as a scaffold to describe all the elements that go into tinkering activities, but goes into much more detail. The chapter articulates how we design for learning, which elements of activity design, environmental treatment, and facilitation we cultivate and develop within our group, how we think about materials, tools, and the possible ramifications of each activity in terms of complexity of exploration and personal meaning. You can download a sample copy of the article:
Our first attempt at cataloguing and articulating the dimensions of learning that we value in tinkering was done in collaboration with the Visitor Research and Evaluation team, and it really laid the foundations for our current framework. The process was as rich as it was long: We started by informally videotaping tinkering sessions on the floor and discussing them as a group. Together with the research team, we tried to surface the elements that we felt were crucial to the tinkering experience. This led to deep conversations and an ongoing iterative process. We slowly and carefully defined some of the fundamental characteristics of tinkering that are reflective of learning.
The final result was a set of four main Dimensions of Learning: Engagement, Initiative and Intentionality, Social Scaffolding, and Development of Understanding. Within each, we identified specific Indicators, or behaviors that could be noticed by an external observer as evidence that learning was taking place. We also looked at facilitation and its interaction with these Dimensions of Learning, eventually identifying three main “facilitation moves” that tend to be used consistently. Finally, armed with this observation tool, the research team formally videotaped over 50 interactions in the Tinkering Studio in three different activities, and carefully coded snippets and interactions where the Indicators were evident. The end result is a searchable video library of examples that provides a window into what we think learning and facilitation look like in a tinkering context.
We have found this tool useful to reflect on our own practice, refine our facilitation techniques, and think more deeply about “learning through tinkering.” We are happy to share access to the library! You can find more information on how to access it here.