The idea of school as a workshop for ‘tinkering’ isn’t new. John Dewey and others like Reggio Emilia, were early exponents of experiential learning and a great believer that schools should be an extension of home-life and society. Dewey writes in the School and Society (1912):
There is little of one sort of order where things are in process of construction; there is a certain disorder in any busy workshop; there is not silence, persons are not engaged in maintaining certain fixed physical postures; their arms are not folded; they are not holding their books thus and so. They are doing a variety of things, and there is the confusion, the bustle, that results from activity. But out of occupation (not akin to work), out of doing things that are to produce results, and out of doing these in a social and cooperative way, there is born a discipline of its own kind and type. But the school has been so set apart, so isolated from the ordinary conditions and motives of life, that the place where children are sent for discipline is the one place in the world where it is most difficult to get experience – the mother of all discipline worth the name.
Some years ago, Gever Tulley created the Tinkering School. It began as a six day program to “explore the notion that kids can build anything, and through building, learn anything”. Tulley saw that new insights often emerged when problems become puzzles to be solved. It’s a powerful reminder of how capable children are – especially ones with power tools!
The best-selling Australian children’s author, John Marsden, has also created a school, which is philosophically similar to Dewey’s approach to education. Candlebark challenges traditional approaches to learning and teaching by emphasising the importance of experiential learning within meaningful social contexts; where the learner is not an observer but an active and valued participant within the learning community. From its website:
Candlebark believes that children flourish by experiencing life at close quarters. We regard first-hand experiences as generally superior to second hand experiences. We try to say “Yes” as much as possible – yes to new ideas, yes to experiments, yes to innovations. If the school has a motto, it is “take care, take risks”. We encourage an active engagement with the world. According to our assessment of students’ maturity and abilities, we may teach them to use axes, log splitters and chainsaws. During maintenance activities students may be up ladders, on roofs, changing light globes, using hammers, saws, mattocks, vacuum cleaners and electrical tools.
What seems to separate these schools from the traditional mainstream approach to schooling is time. Students at Candlebark and Tinkering School have time to tinker, explore, problem-solve, build and reflect. These students are ‘learning by doing’ or in the case of the Tinkering School, ‘learning by building’. When students tinker with materials and ideas, ideas develop in a process that begins by being open to ideas and can end in a ‘happy accident’ as the doodle illustration below shows.
Noone knows the importance of ‘tinkering time’ more than the creator of the BlackBerry. Mike Lazaridis has not only been described as the father of the smart phone revolution but is founder of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, whose alumnus includes Stephen Hawking.
In his recent address at the Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, Lazaridis admits that his most prized possession is his education. According to Lazaridis, the basis of a great education is one that provides students with opportunities to tinker with ideas, take risks and even fail. He believes that nothing beats “creating, hands-on learning and teaching” and speaks warmly about his own high school education.
In Singapore, giving students more time to create and innovate was prioritised nationally when, in 1997, the ‘Thinking Schools, Learning Nation‘ initiative was launched. As a result, Singapore’s curriculum and assessment have been changing; for example, Ng Pak Trak from Singapore’s National Institute of Education explains:
Syllabi, examinations and university admission criteria were changed to encourage more thinking outside the box and risk-taking. Students are now more engaged in project work and higher order thinking questions to encourage creativity, independent and inter-dependent thinking. (Ng, 2008 in Darling-Hammond, 2010).
The results of this national step are evidenced in the example of Ngee Ann Secondary School:
Among other things, students are given seed money to start their own small business, and the funds they make go back into the school. They prepare a concept proposal and a business plan. Those that are selected can use the small stalls lining one walkway to sell their wares, which may include everything from creating and selling baked goods to designing and selling computer or video games. The businesses are licensed; if they violate regulations, they can be closed down for a week, as in real life, so students learn how the world operates (Darling-Hammond, 2010).
Lazaridis believes that while we are now surrounded by very powerful devices, these are just ideas and it will be new ideas that will take us even further in the future. Admittedly these ideas may come to fruition in 20 years from now but we have a responsibility today as educators, to encourage the ideas of students, to promote tinkering and to ensure opportunities for blue-sky thinking that could one day hold the key to solving complex health, ecological, economic or social challenges.
The challenge for schools is to move learners from desks to workshops; from classrooms to learning spaces; from wielding pens to ‘power’ tools. And while we can only imagine what the future will bring, I’d like to hope we are close to seeing every school as a place where children and ideas flourish simultaneously and where there is time to tinker.
Steven Johnson developed this interesting presentation on the concept of ‘where good ideas come from’. In thinking about how to develop ideas in collaboration, it’s worth a look.