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


Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at http://nashworld.me


  1. Interesting ideas. I too, wonder about the points you raise. The fact that I am a female science teacher – does that make a difference? Or the dynamic of the group in terms of gender balance – I have 2 parallel classes – one is virtually all boys with a couple of girls, and the other is about half and half. Though similar standards, they respond very differently in the classroom.
    I can relate to your response to your daughter’s overstuffed lunchbox too. Kids of parents who are teachers (and both science teachers at that) must always be prodded into thinking! We are trained to answer questions with more questions, and this has to carry through to our home lives as well.
    As to boys being better tinkerers – when I look at my own 2 kids (one boy, one girl), this is certaintly true. My husband is more apt to tinker than I am. Yet Tinkerbell is a girl fairy!
    Thanks again for another thought-provoking post. You always manage to make me think!

    • Parent… teacher… trained scientist… blogger. You’re certainly spot-on there. That likely also explains why our conversations from literally half a world away seem to click more often that not, huh? I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it makes perfect sense.

      Pretty good example of how possessing similar sets of background knowledge allows two people to view an issue similarly at some level.

  2. Sean, I want to start by saying thanks for the comment you left on my new blog. Being new to all this, and you being my first response, it made me feel like a little kid on their birthday.

    Two things came to my mind while reading your post. First a Ted Talk that you might find interesting, Gever Tulley at Tinkering School http://www.ted.com/talks/gever_tulley_s_tinkering_school_in_action.html

    Secondly, my own childhood. The dominant male in my life was my brother in law. He wanted a boy which he never got, I wanted a father which I never got, but I would do anything to please him. He wanted me to build things so I did. Recently at mid century in my life I finally fulfilled a life long dream. I built a house from scratch with no plans, no professional help, and with my own two hands. It was all about tinkering.

    I’m much more apt to tinker then my male partner. I’m at a loss how we help female students who haven’t had that hands on tinkering opportunity early in their lives. In my science classes students often have to build things and I definitely see female students’ confidence and ability soar IF I can convince them they can do it. Since I can’t always convince them, I surmise that they have been taught by our culture that they weren’t meant to be tinkering. I don’t think boys are better tinkerers (is that a word?), I think they learn to be better tinkerers.

    • 1) The quote from that video that sealed it for me: “…we keep the landscape of the projects tilted toward completion.” Wow. How great is that characterization of the role of an educator? That is some of the best wording I have yet heard of the educator’s role within a constructivist environment. The world depicted in the video is, of course, and example of fully open inquiry. That really isn’t possible within US public schools today… but I would argue there is a ton we can learn from that model.

      2) You built a house with no plans, nor help? Holy moly. Pics?

  3. Sean – what a great post! I read it earlier, and have been reflecting for a few hours. I keep thinking back to my own childhood, some of which you are familiar with. A “bleacher-brat” weekender, and a playmate of three older boys (my brother and the Banker boys). I didn’t think I was truly a tinkerer, unless you count changing the changeable wheel on my Barbie Tonka Truck, but I believe now that the environment I was exposed to may have been the breeding ground for one. Play with the boys usually consisted of Star Wars battles, in which I of course claimed the Princess Leah action figure only to be killed off in a matter of minutes!
    But I also remember building, exploring, and creating with my brother when we were home alone in the country. Mom and dad worked in town which left us to ourselves for a few hours each day after school. We once built a mudslide in the back yard that lasted for three hours and washed out a good portion of the gravel driveway!
    The atmosphere of being raised around boys had its challenges, but more importantly, a great number of positive outcomes.
    I have my own set of tools and mow my own lawn. I can hang insulation and change a power outlet. I can perform home maintenance with the best of them, yet still create a mean lasagna.
    It would have been a shame if I had not been exposed to the tinkering side of human nature. With tinkering comes problem solving and independence. Though the natural human nature in us leads us to do the tinkering for our loved ones, as you wanted to do with Delaney, I agree that the educators in us have to step back and let our kids/students take control. If you are doing this for the girls in your life and in your classroom, you are doing them a great service.

    • No wonder we get along so famously. Here’s proposing a social meetup akin to the old 3-6 days. We deserve it.

      PS- I still remember you as a bleacher rat back then. To think we would grow up to be professional colleagues is a kick in the seat, huh? 😉

  4. Interesting thinking, Sean. I was a little girl who tinkered. I didn’t take things apart the same way my brother did, but I loved to construct things…building blocks, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys. I loved to figure things out and I loved to do it without the rules, which is why that day in your classroom I said I’d love to learn about the jelly fish but not be tested over it.

    I suppose that’s why it was easy for me to have boy. I too wondered how I would have behaved if Jake had been born of the opposite sex. Would I have cut my finger for her, like I did for Jake, the day I bought him the coolest microscope that any boy his age had, just to see what blood looked like “close up”? Would I have trekked across the country each summer, by ourselves, camping in a tent, if it had been just me and a little girl?

    Now, the bigger question is: do I allow enough tinkering in my Com Arts classroom? I don’t know, but it’s a conversation I’d love to pursue!

    • “I loved to figure things out and I loved to do it without the rules, which is why that day in your classroom I said I’d love to learn about the jelly fish but not be tested over it.”

      Watching your learning style play over the few years I’ve known you is pretty fun stuff. You are as “right” and “parallel” as they come. A female comm-arts instructor who doesn’t read the directions on _____ before starting? Oh my.

      I love it. 😉

      And by the way- the motherhood stories remind me of much of what I see in Erin’s personality. Great mini-stories.

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