Reflections on Tinkering-Based Learning & the Power of Play

In a recent blog post, Peter Skillen offers a fresh take on project-based learning. With most frameworks for using project-based learning, it is suggested that the teacher or learners start be devising a compelling, deep, thought-provoking, driving question. The project emerges from one’s pursuit of an answer to that question. Or instead of a question, some projects start with a real-world problem (sometimes called problem-based learning) or a challenge (challenge-based learning). Focusing on a contrast to question-driven projects, Skillen points out the value of what he refers to as tinerking-based learning, projects that naturally emerge from tinkering and play.

Looking at Peter’s background, I see that he spent many years in a school context, but also has a persistent interest in learning beyond formal schooling. There is something about spending time in more informal learning communities that helps us to appreciate new ways of thinking about learning, what I sometimes to refer as “learning in the wild.” I have started to ask more people about what drew them to pursue their passions as part of their life’s work or an important knowledge-base in their work. More often than not, it seems to come down to informal and often playful or experiential formative moments. As an example, I rarely find an engineer who didn’t tinker with something in their youth. They were rarely tested, standardized, or questioned into work that aligns with their gifts, talents, abilities and passions. Instead, that seems to come from playing, experiencing, or tinkering.

Especially in this age, much of schooling is driven by standards, outcomes, goals, and assessment of student progress according to some common measure. At a time like this, comments like Skillen’s are an important balance. We have several schools of thought that help us with this.

  • Mimi Ito draws our attention to the powerful learning that happens as young people hang out, mess around and geek out; things that that tend to occur beyond the confines of the traditional school day.
  • In 2007, Jim Gee opened our eyes to the learning and new literacies that people cultivate amid the playing, experimentation and negotiated meaning-making in video games.
  • People like Jay Cross, Paul Matthews, and Saul Carliner have written about the importance of value of informal learning.
  • Authors like Stuart Brown and David Elkind remind us about the power of play.
  • Then we have Mark Hatch, David Lang, Curt Gabrielson, Karen Wilkinsen, Sylvia Martinez, and others inviting us to consider the power and possibility of creating maker spaces, places to tinker, experiment and explore apart from the drivers of standards and high stakes assessments.

All of these remind that there are limitations to the structure of a traditional curriculum, the battles over state and national standards, and the push for increased testing. They remind us that there is so more to a rich life of learning.