Tinker, Tailor, Teacher….

GCSE projects coming together at last. Designed and made by one of my pupils.

After a brief blogging break, (little spot of alliteration just to indicate that I am keeping up with the renewed demands of literacy across the curriculum), it’s time to pick up the torch.  No, not that one though the designers of it, Barber Osgerby, are worth familiarising yourself with if you don’t know their work.  The torch I want to run with is the tinkering torch.  Regular readers will recall the post about taking things apart and what you can learn from that activity.  Imagine how thrilled I was to come across this post; http://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/tinkering-and-technological-imagination-in-educational-technology/ on Jackie Gerstein’s blog.  As with so much in education and life in general it is always refreshing to find that you are not alone in your thinking.  Much more to the point is the awareness that almost every concerned educator I come across wants to free up the educational experience of our children, allow creativity and passion into the system and find room for greater individuality for both children and teachers.

Of course no plotician, ( that typo should have read “politician” but somehow I can’t bring myself to change it.) is going to deny that these are good things in themselves, indeed one of the declared ambitions of our current curriculum review is to free up teaching time with a slimmed down core of subjects to allow schools to develop appropriate local models for their pupils and their schools.  But the secretary of state giveth and the secretary of state taketh away.  Any genuine freedom that you give to the profession will make it much harder to measure and compare schools  in the simplistic way that we seem unable to avoid these days so while declaring freedom it seems only wise to announce a new, restrictive measure that in effect defines much more rigidly than ever the content of the curriculum; the ebacc.  As we know education will be seen to be successful if we can manage to lever into Oxbridge a larger number of pupils on free school meals than we did before.  Clearly this will not be achieved by dealing with the issues of child poverty, tackling parental attitudes to education or even, perish the thought, by suggesting that perhaps the universities might need to change.

Back to tinkering.  The most significant aspect of which is not simply that while doing it an individual learns about the thing tinkered with but that the process supports the development of a mental architecture which structures and supports learning.  The human mind is always more complicated than we can fathom and so we are reduced to simplicities in our attempts to deal with it.  Tinkering is a way of engaging with the made world that opens up new possibilities and understandings.  We recognise that play is an essential element of the way in which children explore the world and its importance in early learning but we cannot bring ourselves to allow it in the more serious zone of secondary education, still less admit it as productive for adult professionals.

There are some rays of hope.  Philosophy for children sounds much grander than tinkering but thunks, and if you have not come across these have a look, are in many ways exercises in tinkering.  The realisation that social and emotional aspects of learning and personal learning and thinking skills are a key part of what education should look like achieved some currency in the most recent national curriculum though like all good ideas they tended to be chalked up to one training event and the devout hope that this would be enough to transform the embedded practice of weary professionals.   Most recently a report hit the national news bewailing the fact that a lack of soft skills was hampering the employment prospects of the young.   The ability to relate effectively with others, both as colleagues and customers is apparently a scarce commodity, well if you have enjoyed the experience of passing through a supermarket checkout recently then you will understand the significance of these findings.  While I have to admit to a certain concern about the assumption that 450,000 young people can’t get work because of this, after all that should mean that there are 450,00 unfilled vacancies and that isn’t the case,  it could certainly be argued that in an increasingly desperate attempt to push up attainment, or as a cynic might say, meet government targets, we have lost sight of the bigger picture of what education is all about.

In the context of this blog that leads me to a recommendation.  I have recently been enjoying a little book called, “On Craftsmanship: Towards a New Bauhaus”.  It is a collection of writings on craft and design by Christopher Frayling  which provides much food for thought and is well worth having in your library.  One of the papers is a record of a public dialogue between Frayling and David Pye which articulates very well the process of designing and making.  The significance of this dialogue for those of us who would advocate  tinkering is that it details some of the ways in which we engage with the physical world.   That process is not something of value only to those who chose to pursue a life centered around making in its broadest sense but it also lays the foundations for all of our thinking.

I wonder what it would be like if we built tinker time into our schools?  Well, we have tried it and it works.  Ours was a small experiment driven by a consciousness that the curriculum was skewed badly for some of our students we arranged a “Technology for Fun” option.  It was not examined, the results were not recorded, there was no formal curriculum.  We encouraged children to pick it if we felt there timetable was too loaded with paper work for their style of working, or if they were especially interested in making things.  We gave the job of teaching the group to a flexible teacher and the brief was to learn something positive by making things.  I can’t show you the statistics, there are none.  I can give you some data fro our observations.  The students were happier about being in school and tended not to drift away through year 10 and 11.  The conversations were wide ranging and because we didn’t have to complete any specific coursework the teacher could develop them in any productive way they chose.  The opportunity for developing those soft skills, the interpersonal ones were many and varied.

A small experiment in tinkering that had a big impact on quite a number of children.  A waste of time and resources?  I suspect that Mr Gove would think so.

2 Responses to “Tinker, Tailor, Teacher….”
  1. tristramshepard says:

    Really like the shelving unit designed and made by one of your pupils!

  2. E Wheatley says:

    Loved the ‘tinkering’ idea. Some of the best moments in my secondary classes seem to come from activities like this, I just never knew what to call them! Keep it going, and thank you.

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