User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Tinkering and Technological Imagination in Educational Technology

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Given the infusion of technology in almost every aspect of our lives, the education sector is struggling on how to integrate it into the classroom.  We have seen current trends and attempts for the use of educational technology with the Flipped Classroom ala Khan Academy, Interactive Whiteboards in every classroom, and lots of discussion about what are the 21st century skills and literacies.

Most educators would agree that a major purpose of education is to assist learners in gaining the skills, attitudes, and knowledge for having a better quality of life now and in their futures.  So any discussion about technology integration should include this purpose.

Qualitative evidence points to the ease by which kids pick up their computer devices and use them as if they were brain-wired to do so.

But even as some parents and educators express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, Internet access and mobile devices so they can teach on the students’ technological territory.

“If it weren’t for the Internet, I’d focus more on school and be doing better academically,”  says one youth. But thanks to the Internet, he says, he has discovered and pursued his passion: filmmaking. Without the Internet, “I also wouldn’t know what I want to do with my life.”   Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction

Hmm.  So in the big picture, do we want students to do better academically or find and pursue their passions?  I do understand that many educators would argue for both.  The current educational climate is so centered on academic achievement and standards-based curriculum, I believe we need to make proactive, concentrated attempts to get the pendulum to swing towards semi-structured, open-ended, process-oriented and student-driven learning environments.

Two recent and interconnected discussions have implications about how technology can be used in the classroom to ignite passion, innovation, and creativity . . . technological imagination and tinkering/maker education.

Technological Imagination

Anne Balsamo, author of the Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, defines technological imagination as . . .

a character of mind and creative practice of those who use, analyze, design and develop technologies. It is a quality of mind that grasps the doubled-nature of technology: as determining and determined, as both autonomous of and subservient to human intentions. This imagination embraces the fact that all technologies have multiple and contradictory effects. This is the quity of mind that enables people to think with technology, to transform what is known into a set of possibilities, and to evaluate the consequences of possibilities from multiple perspectives (

A course being offered at the University of Washington provides this description of technological imagination.

Humans have always been technical beings. We live in and through our technology: from stone tools and woven baskets to combustion engines and computers, our society is continually altered by the existence of these technical objects. Living in a highly industrialized, networked society such as ours, one need only try to imagine life (let alone college life) without computer or Internet technologies, or any number of everyday information technologies which seamlessly mediate our daily routines; yet this is precisely what it is so difficult to do: to “think” technology, and to see its peculiar agency in our individual experiences and in our social world.  For us, this situation seems magnified by globalization and the intricate layering and interconnectedness of technical systems, complex industrial machines, and vast networks. Our needs go beyond an immediate understanding of a given technology to the development of a more reflective technological imagination in which we consider the ways technologies enable us, and shape and reshape our experience and social realities. “Developing the Technological Imagination” (Winter 2011)

Tinkering and Making

In order for technological imagination to develop, tinkering needs to be encouraged within educational settings.  In his discussion about Learning for the Digital Age, John Seely Brown presented the following slides about tinkering.

If we want more young people to choose a profession in one of the group of crucial fields known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — we ought to start cultivating these interests and skills early. But the way to do so may not be the kind of highly structured and directed instruction that we usually associate with these subjects.  Time: In Praise of Tinkering

In a discussion with Howard Rheinhold, Mitch Resnick stated the following about tinkering.

One thing we’ve seen is that the best learning experiences come when people are actively engaged in designing things, creating things, and inventing things – expressing themselves. It’s not just a matter of giving people opportunities to interact with technologies or using technologies, but if we want people to really be fluent with new technologies and learn through their activities, it requires people to get involved as makers – to create things.

A lot of the best experiences come when you are making use of the materials in the world around you, tinkering with the things around you, and coming up with a prototype, getting feedback, and iteratively changing it, and making new ideas, over and over, and adapting to the current situation and the new situations that arise.

I think there are lessons for schools from the ways that kids learn outside of schools, and we want to be able to support that type of learning both inside and outside of schools. Over time, I do think we need to rethink educational institutions as a place that embraces playful experimentation. Mitch Resnick: The Role of Making, Tinkering, Remixing in Next-Generation Learning

The full interview can be viewed . . .

More about tinkering in schools in general can be found with the Tinkering School page of Teaching with TED.

As I’ve stated before, I believe that the educator is now “the tour guide of learning possibilities”.  Educators should expose learners to the potential types and uses of technologies and then get out of the way so that the learners can tinker and develop their own technological imaginations . . .  ones not driven by state standards, competencies, outcomes, nor products.

Each educator needs to decide how to implement tinkering into his or her educational setting.  When I taught gifted elementary students, the last 45 minutes at the end of the school day was dedicated to tinkering.  I’d introduce the learners to Web 2.0 tools and hands-on technology kits like WeDo and PicoCricket.  I’d then get out of the way so they could  play, tinker, experiment while sharing their findings with me and their peers.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

December 11, 2011 at 8:04 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] I hear the concerns. It shrieks of “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and I am not immune to the need for reflection in this area. The questions are tied to other educational concerns in our community. In the big picture, do we want students to do better academically or find and pursue their passions? I do understand that many educators would argue for both. The current educational climate is so centered on academic achievement and standards-based curriculum, I believe we need to make proactive, concentrated attempts to get the pendulum to swing towards semi-structured, open-ended, process-oriented and student-driven learning environments. Read Full Article […]

  2. Hi

    Wonderful to read i have been an advocate of tinkering for many years. At Combe Mill a Victorian Water and Steam mill we are including a ‘tinkering table’ as one offer in our learning programme. Combe was at the forefront of Victorian engineering and we want visitors and learners to get their hands dirty by dessembling and re assembling every day t items. In Scotland at the National Museum we introduced opportunities to tinker and invent things based around typewriters and sewing machines and joinery. The students loved it as they had never had these practical experiences. Even sawing a piece of wood was a delight!

    Allan Randall Interpretation and Learning Consultant

    Allan Randall

    May 30, 2012 at 7:39 am

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