Tinkering: A “Boys Only” Club?

Boys only?

According to the NCES, since 2004, girls have -in general- been shown to outdo boys in nearly every measure of academic success.  Girls outpace boys on nearly every one of our measures of “winning” when it comes to school.  And yet, when push comes to shove on earning degrees in engineering or computer science, boys still outpace girls by margins of 77% and 85% respectively.  The overarching assertion:  girls don’t tinker. Or at least, they aren’t often encouraged to.

Tinker. In nearly every published version, the origin of the word seems to trace back to an itinerant mender of kitchen utensils- and more specifically, those made of tin.  As a verb (of which we are obviously more interested here) it hints of clumsy, unskilled or experimental efforts.


After that little search, I’m even more interested than before.  Clumsy?  Haphazard?  Unskilled?  Somehow I have always elevated the word in my mind toward something more sophisticated.  I wonder why I so highly regard this word (and many of its associated meanings) when it seems this may not even be the general consensus at all.


Just last week I read an Education Week article entitled Teaching Girls to Tinker by author Lisa Damour.  As an educator of nearly twenty years and a father of two girls under three years of age, this article certainly gave me pause.  I’ve gone forty years (see how I slid that big number in as text) assuming that even if “tinkering” was not done with a specific purpose in mind, it was still a valuable effort.  The idea of tinkering being a valuable pursuit seems to be at odds with the definitions I found today.  And yet the truth remains…  at times, connotation means everything.  Think of how these two statements paint opposite connotations of the word:

He tinkered with the nation’s economy by regularly deregulating banks.

She tinkered with the lure in order to make it run deeper in the water.

Perhaps overall success… or gravitas plays a role here?  Of course my take on this comes through the lens of a teacher/instructional coach.  Before sitting here to type this evening, I even asked the Twitter crew what sort of off-the-top-of-your-head definition they’d give for the word.  Twelve of them responded with:

tweeps on tinkering

tweeps on tinkering

I see tinkering on par with the sort of purposeful play I so highly value in the classroom.  The kind of play we don’t do enough.  The sort of thing most NCLB required state exams force teachers to push aside.

I find it interesting that although some of the twelve Twitter responses speak of tinkering as simply “messing about,” most contain language that seems to elevate the activity a bit, such as: “investigate”, “modify”, and “explore.”  Several even mentioned it as something that leads to an actual accomplishment.  Is it perhaps that the vast majority of these people are educators?  Or is it that they are progressives?  Things got even weirder while writing this post tonight when I clicked a Twitter link to view the list of scheduled “conversations” at Educon2.2.  A quick scan down the list shoved me smack into a Sylvia Martinez presentation entitled “Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency.”  Her brief description of the session mentions that the content will surround themes she’s been exploring on her blog.  Networked digits provide digital serendipity, no?

Tinker vs. struggle?

Regardless of our take on the meaning of tinkering, apparently by some measures girls are not being afforded an equal share of the tink.  Damour points to the 1994 book Failing at Fairness which includes an observation that, “…teachers allow boys to struggle with mathematics problems long after they have rushed in and rescued girls from the same struggle.”  This seems certainly overlapped with the concept of “tinkering” mentioned here…  but it also seems to go in a bit of a different direction.  This quote speaks directly of struggle.  How much overlap do you see in these two words?

scientific struggles

I try to create struggles every day.  More often than not, it’s my classroom modus operandi.  In short, I try to engage students in a concept…  address the fuzziness between what we know and what we don’t know… point towards the structure we’ll be using to explore it…  settle on how we’ll evaluate our work…  and then allow the relatively safe struggle between learning and meaning to take place.  My role is coach.  My day to day mission is to support this type of tinkering with ideas within the framework of standards in which we work.

This tinkering takes its highest form when actually following a problem through to include actual harvesting and analysis of data followed by conclusions that lead back to more problems.  In line with data presented in the article, my females generally tend to outpace my males in achievement.  How do the numbers hold up by the time my students graduate from college?  Even with the dawn of social media, this data is still fuzzy.  So I’m left to wonder…  could I too indirectly contribute to the tinker-divide outlined by Damour?

At home

The bottom line for me is that any article that comes back to haunt me a day later is a good one.  In fact, just the other night I found this one still on my mind.  That night my two-year old approached me in the kitchen with toy troubles.  She had stuffed far too many toys into a little lunchbox that holds critters.  While holding it up to me with two hands and two big eyes, she asked me to “fix it, Daddy.”  I looked down to see both ends of the latch not quite matching up with the strain of the critter load.

the tinker box

My gut reaction was to reach right down and latch it right up for my little dollface.  However, I stopped short…  sat down beside her and coached her through it without touching it myself.  I wonder how that might have played out if Delaney were a boy.  I don’t consider these tiny struggles to be “tinkering.”  I do, however, consider them to be related.

And yes, I still open doors for women.  When you’re forty (twice in one post!) and were raised to be (roughly) a gentleman, it is just something you do as a kneejerk.  Heck, to me it is a courtesy thing toward other humans in general.  So yes, I treat men and women differently on a conscious level.  It’s the subconscious level I wonder about.


*Sculpture by iwishmynamewasmarsha on Flickr.
*Twitstream definitions by the twelve mentioned in the image.
*Classroom inquiry by me.
*Tinkerbox by me


Prior Knowledge and The Flow of Learning


A friend gives you free tickets to an upcoming concert.  Although the group is fairly popular, you are not familiar with the artist’s body of work.  Assuming you elect to go, what do you do next?

Between now and the day of the concert, here’s betting that your old pal Google comes into play at some point.

What is the artist’s body of work?  For me, iTunes previews would quickly come into the picture.  I might even scan the reviews.  Then perhaps a dive into YouTube in a quest to actually see the band in action.  Maybe even an interview with the lead singer?  Does the band have a website?  What else have they done?  What does the bio tell me about where they are from and perhaps why they do what they do?

This approach works.  We know it does.  We’ve done it ourselves a thousand times before in similar situations.


Building schema

Here-  you are building schema.  It is what you do.  In this particular scenario…  it is what our students do as well.  Schema.  In terms of learning theory, the word was first used by Piaget as early as 1926.  Apparently, R.C. Anderson, a respected educational psychologist, expanded these notions into a more solid theory.

My wife and I just recently scored tickets to see Mason Jennings at a small club in Lawrence, Kansas.  I have listened to his music for years.  Erin however, has only known him from his appearance in the many playlists and mixes heard in the car and throughout the house.  His latest release wholeheartedly scored a new fan in my wife.  She had heard my favorite tracks many times over, but she wasn’t really privy to his larger body of work.

So what did she do?  Much as you might expect, she trolled the web finding as much as she could.  Given such a rich opportunity to experience an artist doing what they do best… live and in person…  she was going to make the most of it.  It was while watching these actions unfold that it hit me how similar this very behavior is to one I strive to honor as a classroom teacher.

Mason Jennings

We’re more attuned to a musical performance when we can identify with the art as it is unfolding.  This is not “rocket science,” folks.  I doubt anyone reading this far believes so.  Therefore, a quick transfer into the classroom should be a fairly easy proposition, right?

So what is it then that prevents us from a similar approach to concepts within our core content areas?  Why would we not make an attempt to harness this simple passion for constructing knowledge in other areas?  What do we know about the flow of learning?

Learner-based learning

“But I don’t get to take my kids to something as cool as a concert.”  I get it.  I understand that external holdup.  However, aren’t we the content experts our community pays to deliver lifelong learning for our children?  Can we not impart at least a sense of excitement about some future learning goal in order to generate student engagement toward that end?  Here’s me thinking that if we are to swallow the goals of problem (or better “challenge-based”) learning as our instructional model… we had first better devour the concept of establishing an environment that honors the learner first and foremost.

A purely constructivist learning environment is one that we are not remotely able to deliver given the rigid accountability brought on by NCLB in the last ten years.  Design, yes…  deliver, no.  And yet, that does not in any way stop us from building in the essential constructs of student-centered pedagogy.  We simply have to set students up to win when it comes to grasping the core concepts of our curriculum.

pond vegetation

Aquatic example

A few weeks ago, I knew that I would be taking my Dual-Credit Biology students to the MWSU campus to conduct a couple of field studies concerning species diversity.  One of these prescribed lab events required that students sample organism populations within a gorgeous little freshwater pond found on site.

If I hadn’t started with what students know…  their current schema…  I would have driven them down a path that many were quite unfamiliar with.  Who would guess that Midwestern students weren’t intimately acquainted with the life found in a freshwater pond?  I wouldn’t exactly call my school an “urban” school.  And yet, three or four out of our group had almost zero familiarity with pond life at all.  Yes, these students had never been to a pond.  Sure, I could have asked a question to elicit this data.  However, this realization would do little good toward building student knowledge for each of my twenty students individually.  Diversity, schmercity.  That knowledge would help me, not we.

One of the main uses of our online network is rich reflection.  This reflection is found throughout all phases of learning from engagement to evaluation.  In this case, we did what we normally do.  Prior to embarking on a well-worn lab design…  we explored what we already knew about ponds.  This was done first on real tables with real chart paper, real markers, and real student conversation.  Our work then proceeded to the digital realm to find anything and everything we could about the inhabitants and structures of freshwater pond ecosystems.  Our biology textbook can only deliver generalities.  Students gathered this information and presented it to one another and the world on a forum thread at Principles of Biology.

Students with a rich schema in this area were allowed to demonstrate that reality as well as search for more in-depth knowledge.  Students for whom the pond was a mystery…  and likely wrapped in misconception…  were also allowed to explore and share.  The difference is found within the reflections posted at the site.  In this arena, at this point, student knowledge isn’t judged for its breadth and depth.  Instead, it is valued for its inherent honesty and the deep reflections that follow.

a co-examination

After the hands-on field study at the pond, students were invited to return to the site and post direct replies to their previous posts…  highlighting the learning that took place and the knowledge they had constructed throughout the process.  What we end up with is a digital record of these experiences unfolded transparently in digital space for all to see.  And they do see.  Our site analytics show a flurry of activity surrounding this post as well as others.  Principles of Biology is full of similar cycles surrounding many topics embedded within our curriculum.

As students and teacher, we know we enter any given concept at different places.  We also know that through loosely-structured (but structured nonetheless) classroom experiences we will all push our knowledge far beyond what it was prior to engaging in the topic.  We also know that this will be done not only for ourselves, but for those who live vicariously through us via the web.

Or, I could line up the curriculum goals and objectives and march forward to hit each one in step whether or not the students “get there” with the rest of us or not.  They should have studied harder.  They should have paid attention as these ideas were skillfully presented in turn…  right?

So really…  when we wonder why the next course-level expectation or state-level curriculum objective doesn’t immediately resonate with glee…  take a step back.  Marching forward down the lineup of objectives does little for deep student learning if we are the ones doing the driving.  Instead, let your students take the wheel.  Step aside.  Plug in enough structure to encourage constructive discourse and let students learn.  Learn with them.  Seriously.  You already know it all?  Don’t assume anything.  Dive in yourself.  Learn with them.  Assess your learning every step of the way.  Ask questions.  Push students to ask even more.  Build schema to the point that you can all communicate as you move forward as learners.


*schema by jeloid (away) on Flickr
*Mason Jennings by whereisyourmind on Flickr
*pond shots…  me.

Leadoff bunt in the first inning? Not this guy.

The goal in baseball is to just get by. Finishing the ninth inning with one more run than your opponent lands you with a win, and in the right game- a title. The goal in teaching should be quite different.*


Swing for the fences
Teach like you have something to prove. Because, in fact, you do. When a new year begins, you have a ton to prove to your students- and in a very short time. If inside the four walls of your room on that first week -it feels like a classroom- then you will have your work cut out for you even more than you would have otherwise.

Ask Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink) how quickly your students will size you up on that first day.
The only thing you have that, say -an interviewee for a job doesn’t- is about 179 more days with your captive audience to make amends. New teachers should hear loud and clear that with integrity and persistence you really can make up for a rocky start over time. In my opinion, the “first day” gurus such as Harry Wong, overlook this fact.


Rookie season
A teacher who has never stood in front of a group of high school students can be pretty intimidated with everything that must go off without a hitch on those first days. I have seen this several times during these last three years as an instructional coach. I mean seriously… look at this. You are pulling down a whopping thirty grand for mastering that in addition to everything else NCLB throws your way. Even the word mastering can be frustrating here. As a teacher, you won’t make a penny more or less whether you nail it, or fail it. It is one of those sad realities of the profession. Perhaps Mr. Duncan will have a thing or two to say about that. One thing we do know for sure is that he never had to spend a day worrying about that first week. For all of his extensive experience administrating schools, he’s never actually been a classroom teacher.

So how do you do just that -swing for the fences- in a classroom? Step one: care. Care about all of it, and care about it deeply. If you try to pull down something in that first week that you don’t deeply care about, then you will derail the train at the station. Your students don’t care so much that you are deeply knowledgeable about science yourself. They also do not care that you may be steeped in all of the latest instructional strategies… though this will certainly help. What they really care about is whether or not you do. I mean, I’m not a big fan of street mimes, but I’m also not about to walk by someone that committed without a kind smile lighting up my face. Bottom line- if you don’t care deeply about your mission, and it is a noble one, you might want to think about trying to get out of that contract before it is too late. Yes, I’m serious.

Is it worth swinging at?
Since you’re still reading, you can likely pass muster on step one. Step two is far easier. Step two is to identify something deep to begin with. Pick something that might typically be thought of as culminating. Don’t lay out all of the vector-physics wisdom involved with every step of arm wrestling. Beat a kid at arm wrestling… or lose… it matters little here. What does matter is that your students get a glimpse of what the end looks like. What are the culminating processes, skills, and concepts you want your kids to leave your room with in May? Pick one. Start with that. The natural world is an interesting, puzzling, or beautiful thing to all humans at some level. Where is the beauty in your subject? Where is the mystery? Where is the debate? Don’t wait until Spring to drop the really good stuff on a bunch of chronically bored kids. Don’t do that.

I know, I know… “but what about the pacing guide?” The pacing guide is a very well-intentioned piece of accountability hardware. I get it. It is all about making sure a teacher doesn’t stay with the “leaf unit” -insert other easy favorite here- all semester long. It is also about making a daunting management task a bit more manageable for a school’s administrators. I’d personally rather see a school hire a VP in charge of curriculum & instruction than to lay out anal pacing guides that make teachers feel unable to innovate with sequencing, alternate approaches, etc. I’m starting to believe that no amount of well-intentioned talk about how the pacing guide isn’t your boss will change that. Teachers are generally people who will do as they are asked. If it is in writing, hey- it’s in writing. If you had a knowledgeable VP in charge of C&I in a building, they could have real bi-directional conversations with teachers on a very regular basis about how they are going about the business of delivering the curriculum to students. This would have to be an administrator freed from the overwhelming glut of management of discipline duties a VP job normally comes with. Of course, you could argue that a strategy like this could just be trading one evil for another potential evil, and you’d probably be right in many cases.

Rethink your role
OK, back to the plan. Simply show kids where you are going. If you introduce them to atomic structure yet again to begin the year, you are asking for it. I’m not saying not to do it… just do it next week. Take week one to show them why any of those gruesome details might matter at a later date. Allow me to switch the metaphor. Essentially speaking, if your classroom were a restaurant, you might think of it as assuming the role of host or maitre d’ as opposed to the chef. Control the atmosphere. Greet them at the door, lead them to their table, introduce the menu, highlight the really good stuff, even bring the ingredients to the table… but then leave the cooking to them. I didn’t say walk away. Stay. Help out when you’re really needed. Hey- you’ve cooked a steak once or twice before, they haven’t. But let it be their steak. Don’t cook it for them. Small variations make a meal interesting, but a truly burned steak is a shame. Right?


Biology: the study of life
“What is life?” -sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? It is a typical question-led topic found in the introductory chapter of almost any Biology text. Tons of folks probably lead off with some analytic version of this lesson already. This year, like many in the past eighteen, I kicked things off in Principles of Biology by stirring up a bit of classroom discourse concerning a definition of “life.” No- I’m not talking about the one where we review a litany of characteristics like growth, metabolism, ability to reproduce, etc. Like most things, those fall dead flat without a rich context. If you’re just there for the diploma, you don’t care what a cell is or isn’t at this point. I like to ask that very same question from a more comprehensive vantage point that has relevance to all students by the time they are sitting in my class as a junior or senior.


I like to start this period with a short reading directly from “One Minute Readings: Issues in Science, Technology, and Society” by Richard Brinckerhoff. This is one of the few inspiring resources I have obtained via a textbook company in the past eighteen years. Check it out: at the time of writing this little essay, you can even score a copy for 37 cents. What are you waiting for? Check for the sample reading I have at Scribd. I wouldn’t normally re-type this much of a work like this, but since it is currently out of print and out of stock (new) most places, perhaps this will drum a small bit of interest. This book has 80 readings similar to that one. All were very current in 1992. Of course now you can only use about 40% of them straight-up. But really, you should use the others as inspiration to find your own sources and write your own questions.

The Emeril report
Here’s what I did this time around. I passed out the attached sheet while taking roll with explicit instructions for a silent, solo read. After reading, I asked my students to scribble their current thoughts onto a scrap of paper -scribbles that no one else would see. While trolling through the students seated at tables, (want a visual of the space?) I waited for a good moment to stop them for the next step. Now let me say that if your words, as well as your non-verbals, have done an adequate job of making students feel like they can speak up, then look out. This one can be amazing. Let me also say this… if you really are 22, and feel that you aren’t ready to facilitate a large group discussion that can get spirited from time to time, then might be something to observe the first time.

That being said drag this one out if you are up for it. As long as you don’t see yourself (or anyone else in the classroom) as having the “answer” to complex issues such as this, you are probably fine as long as you require people to simply be nice to one another. I have honestly had not a single issue with this lesson that transpired out of the classroom in any negative way. On the other hand, I have heard tons of thank you’s over the years for “allowing us to discuss such real things,” or for “treating us like what we say matters,” etc. Just stay on top of things with a gentle hand, and I think you’ll like the results of this one.


I usually end up reading the entire text to the class myself, aloud, as an expert reader. Of course, with this distilled little piece of text, you will end up stopping every other line and asking for input, asking for someone who can speak to the opposite viewpoint, and largely allowing the discussion to bend and twist to the needs of your kids. I also tend to follow this wonderful little quote that resides in my “stickies” file on the Mac:

“It should be the chief aim of a university professor to exhibit himself in his own true character — that is, as an ignorant man thinking, actively utilizing his small share of knowledge.” ~ Alfred North Whitehead

Be a facilitator, not an authority figure. That is a good rule of thumb in general. It makes you a real authority when you choose to actually play that role. But in the context of this lesson, it is honestly required to in order to keep the phone lines quiet in the days after the lesson. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you think. It really doesn’t. If you take the tack of an authority on any viewpoint in this lesson, you will likely deal with a kickback you don’t want.

So this year, I developed what I think is an ideal forum for the final stage of this lesson. I had already set up a classroom learning network on the Ning platform. Before class I created the discussion forum topic for student responses. I wouldn’t see them again for two days. So I asked them to visit the site in that time, and post a reflection based on the reading, our discussion, their overall reaction, their reaction to one specific element, the response they didn’t feel like verbalizing in class, whatever… their choice. I wanted a forum thread that would not only reflect the discussion of that one class period, but one that would also extend the discussion beyond the classroom. Check it out. I think you’ll see that we didn’t answer many things, but we sure engaged a few folks in the questions.


You’ll have to judge for yourself on how this worked for us. Keep in mind that this was the first online work they had ever done for a high school class… ever. That variable certainly changes the discussion in some interesting ways. I am open to discuss any of the other variables of this class in general, our curriculum, details of the setting, etc. The devil in all classroom adventures is in the details.

Let’s be real. I played baseball for years. I know that there are certain situations where squeezing a run in the first inning is appropriate. There are certain educational situations where scoring a small but easy victory early on is preferable as well. However, in my experience, more often than not I tend to step to the plate with any new concept ready swing really hard at least three times. That bravado is even more pronounced at the beginning of the school year. Hey if I strike out in the first, at least they’ll know what kind of a team they’ll be facing for the next eight innings…

*This post was originally published at The Synapse, a new professional development network for life science educators.  I collaborate there with some very inspiring educators.  More on that site later… check it out.

Artwork thanks:

*”Schilling” by mandolux on Flickr.
*”Eye” by Michele Catania on Flickr.
*”Rebirth” by James Jordan on Flickr.
*”That’s life that what all the people say.” by mohammadali on Flickr.
*”a brand new human” by Ben McLeod on Flickr.
*”unfolding” by p a p i l l i o n on Flickr.


The “School of the Future” Circa 1998

According to Sharon Cromwell in an article on Education World’s website from 1998, the school of the future… whatever that may be, will certainly “go electric with a capital E.”  She features the conceptual ideas of  Seashore Primary School, an imaginary school of the future created by the Education Department of Australia.  At the imaginary Seashore school:

  • all teachers and students have laptop computers.
  • teachers check voicemail and return students’ calls on a special telephone system.
  • students use telephones to find information or speak to experts in subject areas they are studying.
  • all lessons are multidisciplinary.
  • all students have individual learning plans created by teachers.

When looking back at their now ten-year old imagination, several of these visions seem solid to me.  However, a few others seem quite odd, perhaps a relic of their time.  The first one, concerning teachers and students all with laptop computers is pretty real.  Many schools have taken this tack in the United States with great results.  However, when planned and maintained poorly, many others have failed.  Nonetheless, this vision was a solid one.  The vision of a school where student learning becomes multidisciplinary and all student learning is facilitated by an individualized learning plan is also a lofty, but phenomenal goal for education.  Fewer schools have succeeded in the quest of these ideals.  A big detractor here would be the development of the overwhelming standards-based initiative known as No Child Left Behind, or NCLB. This initiative, instituted by the administration of George W. Bush, has wholesale raised accountability, all the while, doing little to support or sustain any creative or innovative multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning.

The other two visions of students and teachers relying on telephones and voicemail for interaction really show their age.  As a teacher since 1991, I cannot remember a time when I could conceive of an educational future dominated by telephone usage by students and teachers.

The article finishes by highlighting an initiative presented by two people, including a Robert Clarke and education official, who runs a company offering the then Sony WebTV to schools.  This company has changed hands several times since then and largely is a non-player in the world of educational technology.