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In the COVID -19 world of e-learning, tinkering might be one of the easiest ways to engage students in learning and ensure challenge according to Merriam’s Webster Dictionary; tinkering is “to repair, adjust, or work with something in an unskilled or experimental manner”. When we tinker, we engage in critical and creative thinking. Tinkering requires problem-solving skills, along with flexibility and reflection.

Most of us have tinkered at some point in our lives, although you might have called it something else, like “fiddle with”, “mess with,” or “toy with”. Anytime you modify the use of something or build something new, you engage in tinkering. Tinkering has been around as long as humans have questioned the world around us; it’s what we do. The industrial revolution, flight, refrigeration, the technology revolution are all a result of tinkering. Tinkering isn’t just making something; tinkering is about HOW you make it or WHY you alter it. Tinkering is problem-solving improv. 
One aspect of tinkering is that the goal evolves as we learn more about the task at hand. For example, I might start out building an app to measure the speed of a rollercoaster but end up with an app that measures the change in direction (acceleration). Maybe I discover, in the process of making the ‘speed’ app, that it is the change in speed and not the speed itself, that makes the difference in why I like a ride. 

Tinkering is typically a personally driven endeavor, as it requires flexibility in the outcome. Usually, we are tinkering because we are curious. A question has been posed that we want to know more about, and getting to know more about it requires us to build, rebuild, or revise something. Sometimes we tinker because there isn’t anything out there that does what we want or because we want it cheaper but not of poor quality. Then, of course, there is the DIYer who tinkers just because they like it.

Tinkering, because it is a personal endeavor, is well suited to flipped, blended, and virtual learning environments. For best practices on virtual learning, see Transforming and Teaching Blog: Effective Teaching Online and Arizona State’s 7 Guidelines for Effective Teaching Online
Best Practices for Tinkering:

  • Before students choose a question/context and or problem, ask the following:
    • Is there easy access to materials, tools, and resources?
    • Can ideas be shared? Are there opportunities to learn collaboratively?
    • Is there past or similar exemplars that can be explored?
  • Teachers (classroom) and/or Students (e-learning) should dedicate an area for tinkering. The size and place depend upon the tinkering context, which is best defined by student interest.
    • Tinkering might be done in a flipped classroom. Students tinker with questions at home to find applications to content learned in the classroom, then share or demonstrate their learning to the class. 
    • Tinkering might be done in a blended setting. Students may receive support at home or during an afterschool program in addition to the classroom. 
    • If multiple students show interest in the same questions, teachers might set up a virtual collaborative environment (like Moodle or Google Classroom) for student groups to meet and tinker together. 
  • Although clear, objectives should be broad enough to allow flexibility and/or choice – change in direction happens frequently and is an expected part of tinkering. 
  • Be sure you include these opportunities during tinkering time:
    • Challenges, Puzzles, and Games – discourage noncollaborative competition
    • Collaboration and brainstorming with peers and experts – Novice groups should be highly structured. 
    • Sharing successes & more importantly, Failures
    • Reflection time
    • Revision & Retesting time
 Some Examples for Integrating Tinkering with Content:
  • Simple Machines & Mechanics –– finding, redesigning or building machines to solve problems, combining them to create complex machines, combining them with simple electronics to create robotics 
  • Simple Electronics – Robotics, IT devices, components like circuit boards. Skills like soldering and reverse engineering. 
  • Engineering – challenges/problems in mechanics and/or electronics and/or in processes, procedures, and systems that require creating/building something new.
  • Coding – debugging and programming for security, apps, robotics, and engineering that require communicating with and/or between computers.
Start Small! 
Add one small open-ended challenge or problem to a lesson and provide structure for student flexibility and choice about how they answer or solve it. Resist the urge to jump in when students are struggling. Productive struggle allows students to achieve the skills and characteristics of the SC Profile of the Graduate. Resist the urge to consult (help) students, especially if they seem to be heading in a direction that doesn’t make sense to you. This direction might lead to very interesting applications, OR they might prove to be great learning experiences for the students. Failure is a much better teacher than success.

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