Tinkering Towards a Definition of Tinkering

In an activity inspired by the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, participants in a tinkering workshop at Il Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia in Milan experiment with making scribbling machines.

In an activity inspired by the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, participants in a tinkering workshop at Il Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia in Milan experiment with making scribbling machines.

How do you define tinkering? This question is important to the Agency by Design team, because we’re interested in trying to understand how people think through tinkering. Through our visits to schools like Brightworks, the Athenian School, and the Nueva School, our many great conversations with folks associated with the maker movement, and now with our new tinkering table, we’re convinced that tinkering is a cognitively distinct mode of learning. So the question of how to define it raises an interesting challenge: What would it be like to tinker toward a definition of tinkering?

Gever Tully, founder of Brightworks and the Tinkering School, says that tinkering often begins when you have a model of something that gets you started, but you know it isn’t right yet. So let’s start by looking at a definition of tinkering that isn’t yet right, and see where it leads. According to thefreedictionary.com, to tinker is to “make unskilled or experimental efforts at repair.” According to Merriam-Webster, it is to “repair, adjust, or work with something in an unskilled or experimental manner.” I think about the visitors to the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio who experiment with carboard autmota or soft circuitry, or the students at the Tinkering School who tinker their way through complex, open-ended building projects—and these definitions feel far too thin. They fail to capture the “messing around” aspect of tinkering and its playful dimension. Nor do they capture the maker/DIY movement’s celebration of the pleasures of tinkering or its power as a mode of learning. Plus, there’s a whiff of old fashioned prejudice in the emphasis on unskilled effort.

Tinkering moves along by experimenting with various approaches, so let’s try another definitional approach: synonyms. Here are the synonyms for tinkering offered up by the online thesaurus fiddle with, dabble, doodle, fix, mess with, monkey, muck about, niggle, play, play with, puddle, putter, repair, take apart, toy, trifle with. This approach feels like progress. Terms like “fiddle with,” “mess with” and “play with” seem to get at the flexible, iterative process that’s at the heart of tinkering, though the terms “trifle with” and “niggle” still have an air of condescension in their suggestion that tinkering is a lightweight activity. Let’s keep tinkering…

A tinkerer at Gever Tully’s “Think your way out of this!” exhibit at the 2010 Maker Faire.

A tinkerer at Gever Tully’s “Think your way out of this!” exhibit at the 2010 Maker Faire.

Another way to approach the definition game is to look for exemplars—real people who embody the character trait in question. As I think about exemplary tinkerers in my own life, three friends immediately come to mind. The first I’d call a tinkerer in the classic sense. He has a garage bursting with tools and saved parts, and most of the surfaces in his house are occupied by projects in various stages of completion. He has an incredible ability to envision different options and solutions (call it mental rapid prototyping), and he has a genius for bricolage—for making things with whatever materials are at hand (duct tape is almost always part of the process). The second friend who comes to mind is a tinkerer of ideas. A scholar in the field of education and a philosopher at heart, he loves to analyze the components of educational challenges and ideas and fiddle with ways to reframe them. His tinkering projects are theories and conceptual frameworks: “What would it be like to look at the learning process through the lens of baseball?” “How can an educational system be designed to educate for the unknown?”  My third tinkering friend is a teenager, and he’s the kind of young person that fits easily into today’s hacker culture. A self-defined geek, he loves messing around with computers (both hardware and software), and much of his learning and sharing takes place online. But he’ll tinker with anything that’s at hand, and delights in making things that are whimsical, inventive, and often musical (my recent favorite is an Aeolian harp he made from an aluminum gutter).

What do these three friends have in common? They all take great pleasure in the process of making things, they’re eager to experiment with new approaches, and they aren’t deterred when things don’t work out as planned. Also, they are all quite purposeful in their pursuits—none of them seem to tinker without a specific goal in mind. A difference among them may be that my two older friends tend to focus on making useful things—a mooring line for a sailboat that doesn’t chafe; an educational framework that doesn’t dumb down the curriculum. Interestingly, my younger friend’s tinkering is inspired as much by the pursuit of nifty as by the pursuit of utility. Perhaps it is a generational thing; the niftiness factor seems to be very much a part of today’s tinkering culture.

The workshop at the Eli Whitney Museum (not unlike my friend’s garage), where staff believe in the serious business of tinkering.

The workshop at the Eli Whitney Museum (not unlike my friend’s garage), where staff believe in the serious business of tinkering.

Standing back, I notice that looking at exemplars seems to be a promising way to think about tinkering. Perhaps this is a good place for this experiment in definitional tinkering to stop. But tinkerers tend to keep tinkering, and the exemplars approach brings to mind a related but less common variation of the definition game: symptomology. Consider the many symptoms of the flu: fever, headache, sore throat, ear ache, and so on. Or, more pleasantly, consider the many symptoms of love. Not everyone who gets the flu or falls in love gets every single symptom, but most people get many of them, and the particular composition of symptoms tend to vary across cases. So what are the symptoms of tinkering? We’ve touched on several already: experimentation, fiddling around, love of process, purposefulness, inventiveness, playfulness. As I think back on all we’ve read and seen through our work on the AbD project, many more possible symptoms come to mind: curiosity, engagement, focus, perseverance, thinking-through-doing, pleasure in process, interest-driven skill development (think weekend welding classes), a hacking mindset, functional flexibility, disciplinary boundary-crossing, rapid prototyping, learning from failure. I’ve also noticed that a common symptom seems to be pleasure in personalization: tinkerers generally don’t aim to make things that are standardized. And a new symptom seems to be developing:  a collaborative mindset. Despite the old fashioned stereotype of a tinkerer as unskilled mender of things working solo in a backyard workshop, today’s tinkerers seem to flourish in a culture of collaboration that includes everything from Maker Faires and tinkering schools to computer clubhouses, open source programming, and hobbyist blogs.

This brief experiment in definitional tinkering may not have produced a new definition of tinkering, but it has certainly given me some new ideas. And the experiment doesn’t seem over: I’m particularly mindful of today’s fresh interpretation of tinkering that underscores the value of collaboration and learning from others. So how would you define tinkering?

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About Shari Tishman

Shari Tishman is a Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Senior Research Associate at Harvard Project Zero, where she recently served as Director. Her research focuses on the development of thinking and understanding, the role of close observation in learning, and learning in and through the arts. She currently co-directs Agency by Design, a project related to the maker movement that is investigating the promises, practices and pedagogies of maker-centered learning. She also co-directs Out of Eden Learn, an online learning community, currently being used in over 700 classrooms worldwide, that is linked to National Geographic journalist Paul Salopek's seven-year walk around the world. Past notable projects include Visible Thinking, a dispositional approach to teaching thinking that foregrounds the use of thinking routines and the documentation of student thinking, and Artful Thinking, a related approach that emphasizes the development of thinking dispositions through looking at art. The author of numerous articles and books, Tishman is currently at work on a book on 'Slow Looking.'

19 thoughts on “Tinkering Towards a Definition of Tinkering

  1. Nice joint you have here! I think you pulled out a great deal of what amounts to tinkering. I might add:
    thinking with fingers and stuff
    communication with materials

    Also very worth emphasizing is the iterative nature of tinkering and how it builds a sense of a material’s or system’s capabilities and potential. In my experience early tinkering seems to be about the starting goods/ ingredients… just poking a probing and considering and watching removed from any agenda/design problem. While late stage tinkering is when I start folding in other, external things I know like:
    What glues might work on this material or
    Where I can work in clothespins – (one of my go to ingredients)
    How could I store it
    Where else (new) might it come in handy
    etc..

    • Thanks for the comment! I love the phrase, tinkering with fingers and stuff. And I totally agree about the iterative nature of tinkering. I like your thoughts about early and late stage tinkering. It does seem like there’s an importnat difference there. Your comment also makes me think about what a capacious concept tinkering is, in terms of the range of drivers of the behavior. For example, as you point out, you can tinker in a sense aimlessly with a pile of provocative materials. But you can also tinker with a very clear goal in mind, such as when you’re tinkering with something in order to fix it or make it work better.

      • “THINKING with fingers and stuff.” I should have said “concrete thinking with fingers and stuff” I’m glad i came back… I have a larger point to make so I’ll start another comment.

  2. An interesting approach to identifying a critical element of the creative process. Another dimension lies in Michael Michalko’s book,
    CREATIVE THINKERING (2011). Michalko defines “thinkering” as “a combination of the words “tinker” and “thinking.” Enfolding the two words into one word–“thinkering”–symbolizes how both the creative personality and the creative-thinking process–like form and content in nature–are inextricably connected.” The problem for most, I suspect, is the confidence to move from the tinkering stage to the creative action stage. That requires sincere encouragement to experiment and follow the path that opens up. Sadly, our education system does not value that kind of activity.

    • You make a great point Jim—that the tricky part is moving from tinkering to what you call the “creative action stage.” I’m wondering, would you call that move to action “agency?” Given the research interests of the Agency by Design project, we’re interested in understanding what drives the tinkerer to take action beyond tinkering. But we’re also curious to know if there is agency within tinkering itself. What do you think?

      • At the risk of squatting on this thread…

        I don’t get the distinction between tinkering and a “creative action stage.” (I’m a fan of Michalko’s “Thinkertoys” and will look to pick up this new one.) Some projects or explorations should remain sketches or rough, tinkery experiments. If you learn that the subject is not sufficiently interesting or another appeals more why ride the first into the ground? Just to show you can stick to it?

        I’m ready to hear the elaboration of the “creative action stage.”

  3. I knew there was something I forgot. That unskilled idea is close but here is the beef: tinkers have media they understand and prefer. My child will first try paper and masking tape or stickers as the amendment of choice. Some have subtraction or replacement as their instinctive first experiments. I have a wood shop so my tinkering tends to employ wood. Early in life I was given free reign over the supply of clothes pins and string. So years later they regularly appear in prototypes and as clamps for gluing etc (clothespins, don’t get me started – they are awesome)… For a while Epoxy was my go to goo… All of which are examples of how tinkering is the intersection of a problem or otherwise interesting object and a tinker’s existing set of material experience and available tools/processes. Out that intersection grows more experience and a changed item and a changed tinker.

    This creates an important issue for working with children. They necessarily have a smaller materials vocabulary/experience bank to call upon. Ditto for their sense of what different tools can do and how well etc. I built a solid body guitar as a first grader but used chipboard. Neck broke immediately. Very sad and very useful experience. I don’t remember being helped to process the experience and iterate forward and I’m pretty sure there was no back-slap for positive overreach. But there should be.

    With young tinkers there needs to be an extended materials discovery experiment period. Idle discovery and fiddling. While I have met teachers with limited feeling for materials, very often the folks who will jump in to help have the most experience with materials and forget how hard earned that is through direct experiments and jump to the “project” to “get it done.”

    The days when a child could be presumed to arrive at school having already whittled enough wood to know a dry from a wet twig or folded enough paper to have preferences for different papers or card stock for different paper crafts are gone. I’m certain most can get up to speed. But it will require time to generate this base level of experience and material smarts.

    Idle fiddling first, tinkering second. Learning always.

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