Throughout our research on the Agency by Design project we’ve heard the word “tinkering” used enthusiastically in a variety of ways. Despite the popularity of this word, it’s not entirely clear how people are defining this somewhat intuitive idea. In order to best understand tinkering, we thought it would be helpful if we did some actual tinkering of our own. And so, we recently gave ourselves the design challenge of setting up a “tinkering table” at the Project Zero offices here in Cambridge, MA.
For inspiration on how to set up such a space, I grabbed the book Make Space by Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft, both at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University—the d. School.
While the tinkering table is a new step for us, Project Zero has been engaged in considerations of space and the design of learning environments through several projects. The Cultures of Thinking Project lists Eight Culture Forces that define our classrooms; the physical environment is one among the eight. Similarly, Making Learning Visible researchers spent many years looking at environmental factors and the connection between documentation of student work, space, and learning in schools throughout Reggio Emilia and elsewhere around the world.
As a teacher (and a lover of pushing furniture around), I have practiced one of the many tenants highlighted in Make Space, which is having a flexible approach to space. Several times each year I would rearrange my classroom (with my students’ help—once they got used to the process) to facilitate whatever new type of working practices we might be engaged in for the upcoming unit of study.
Design considerations for learning environments can span a wide continuum. They can include how people are grouped, what materials are needed, how space will be used for various parts of a project, accommodating different working styles—you name it.
Our work with the Agency by Design project has afforded us the privilege of seeing many spaces for adults and children to make, design, and learn. Each space embodies the story of learning at that organization and each is wildly different. The story of the space quickly unfolds as you watch those who regularly use the space in action. Adult maker/design spaces like Artisan’s Asylum, Flux Foundation at American Steel Studios, NIMBY, and Tech Shop were created from different visionaries and their unique stories are captured in the spaces they occupy as strongly as they are told by their creators. The K-12 spaces that we have visited are equally as diverse: the Makers Studio at the Athenian School, the i-Lab at the Nueva School, The Boston ArtScience Prize at Cloud Place, and Brightworks (a tinkering school), are as varied as their designers, their users, and their immediate communities. In each of the spaces we have visited decisions about—or opportunities for—the types of design options presented in Doorley and Witthofts’ Make Space book can be seen.
A full menu of design considerations—from wall placement to how many different types of Post-It notes to have on hand—are presented within Make Space. Though the book does not provide a specific “how to” guide for developing the tinkering table we had in mind, it helped reorient me towards looking more carefully at space, design, and materials to consider what’s possible for such a space.
As I nattered over the choices I had and decisions I needed to make—I could almost hear the authors of Make Space encouraging me to just get started already. After all, one’s initial effort is only the first iteration of many to come. I believe I will take Doorley and Witthofts’ advice and get started. Check back soon for more tales from the PZ tinkering table!