* Mike Petrich, Karen Wilkinson, and Bronwyn Bevan (2013): It Looks Like Fun, But Are They Learning?, in Design, Make, Play
* Luigi Anzivino and Karen Wilkinson (2012): Tinkering by Design: Thoughtful Design Leads to Breakthroughs in Thinking
* Sherry Turkle & Seymour Papert (1990). Epistemological Pluralism. Signs (journal article).
It looks like fun, but are they learning?
I ask myself this question all the time. I am convinced of the answer. I know the answer, yet I sometimes worry what it looks like to the outsider, the casual observer. For me, engagement is the number one signal. If students are motivated by a task, activity, or project without external stimulus or extrinsic demands learning surely follows. This is a key sign of intrinsic motivation, of inherent interest. Thus, I want my students engaged as much as possible. I do not wish for feigned engagement by way of bribe or punishment, but rather authentic interest. So, yes I ditch the text book and de-emphasize vocabulary. My hope is that through the process of meaningful play, tinkering, and exploration, "traditional" academic pursuits may follow.
In the article, It Looks Like Fun, But Are They Learning?, Mike Petrich, Karen Wilkinson, and Bronwyn Bevan investigate the belief that purposeful activity, creation, and construction (i.e. tinkering) leads to authentic learning. They develop the answer to the fun/learning question by watching the hundreds and thousands of guests at the Tinkering Studio at San Francisco's Exploratorium. Through time they have seen evidence of learning in people's:
"• Engagement: Active participation, which might include silent or still
observation and reﬂection
• Intentionality: Purposeful and evolving pursuit of an idea or plan.
• Innovation: New tinkering strategies that emerge through growing
understanding of tools, materials, and phenomena.
• Solidarity: Sharing, supporting, and pursuing shared purposes with
other learners in the Tinkering Studio, or with the artifacts they have
The above list is wonderful evidence of learning. I would also argue they are characteristics and skills divorced from traditional classroom pedagogies such as lecture, book work, and rote memorization. There is an emphasis on meta-cognition, on the learner understanding how he/she solves the puzzle and can duplicate the process again for future success. Inherent in tinkering are the notions of persistence and uniqueness. It is very rare that one may build something or come up with a solution on the first try. Multiple attempts are necessary and there are various routes and paths to finding success. Facilitators at the Tinkering Studio realize, "one of their most important jobs is to support learners to come to care about and persist in developing their ideas." What an awesome concept! How cool would this be for the mission statement of a school?
Near the end of the article, the authors discuss the academic concept of congruity. It is very simple for a teacher to point to illustrations in the book and have pupils memorize the definition. It is quite another thing to have students build spinning tops to discover and play around with the concept of congruity. The issue lies in who is learning. The kids that can spit back a definition sure look good on paper, as does their teacher. But are they inspired by the concept? Has the student's thought expanded? Has ambition been lifted? Was there passion? Tinkering's ability to ignite the aforementioned is evidence for the learning it produces.
In order for schools and classrooms to be transformed into design and tinkering studios, we must redefine what it is to know and learn. Thus is Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert's argument in the paper, Epistemological Pluralism. We need to accept multiple ways of thinking and knowing. This really goes for all areas in the classroom. For too long those who can read and write have been the ones deemed successful and smart in the classroom. If we open up our conceptions of knowledge to allow for multiple pathways, we may be surprised by the students who innovate and blossom. In the past, in order to be successful it has been necessary to play the game of school. Listen to lectures, write down notes, regurgitate information, and participate in uninspiring activity. This need not be the case anymore. We have the tools for people to explore their own interests, their own pathways of knowledge, their own passions. We have the tools for people to be engaged and interested. If they are, I bet they are learning.