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Notes to New Tinkerer

A few years ago, a teacher in New York asked me to describe how I would do a simple project in a classroom setting that retained key elements (open-ended, self-directed, engagement-based) of the Tinkering School pedagogy.

Doodlebots – an exploration of kinetics

Materials
There are six important ingredients:
- batteries (AA)
- wire (almost any insulated wire will work)
- motor (http://bit.ly/amI7ik – $1.09 each if you buy 10 or more)
- duct tape (although we’ve had some good results with scotch tape)
- pens (felt-tips produce the brightest marks)
- stuff from the recycle bin (plastic tubs, cardboard, lids, etc)

You may also want some scissors, a utility knife, and some stiff wire (home improvement stores sell a soft iron wire for tying rebar together that is easy for kids to work with – we keep a couple of rolls around just because it’s so handy).

Project Stages
Remember that this is an exploration, not a series of goals per se. We want the kids to discover the properties of the materials, share their discoveries virally, and build on each other’s ideas. The adult collaborator is there to help and should only offer suggestions when specific questions are asked. Avoid getting the kids into an “ok, I did that, what next?” cycle by never directly answering the “what next?” style questions – the kids will look to each other for inspiration. Only if there is a real drop in momentum should the collaborator actively nudge the kids in a direction (and often the best way to do this is if the collaborator starts building something themselves – the kids will see what they are doing and start to emulate it, then discover a new path).

Finally, don’t reveal all of the materials at once.

Stage 0 – prep
If the kids are young (say less than 6), cut some 6 inch lengths of wire and strip the ends (you need about 1/2″ of bare wire on each end of a wire). Each kid will need two wires. If it’s bigger kids, just put the spool of wire out and give them the wire-strippers to cut and strip their own wires.

Cover the table with butcher paper to protect it from getting covered in doodles.

Stage 1 – playing with motors
Put the motors, the wire, the tape, and the batteries on the table (one motor and one battery per kid). I like to say “These are for you.” to make it clear that they each now “own” a motor and a battery. Allow the kids to discover how to get the motors going. There is no potential for disaster here and when the kids get the motors going they will revel in their success. Often there are a few kids with enough of an inkling of how motors and batteries work that they will get things going. If after 10 minutes of fooling around, no one has a motor going, the collaborator should demonstrate. Once the motors are going, let the kids play with them for a good 10-20 minutes. If there is active exploration of spinning motors, let it keep going.

Stage 2 – Vibration
All it takes create motion is some vibration. The easy way to do this is to put tape on the shaft of the motor, or tape something to the shaft of the motor. Often a hunk of tape is sufficient.

Stage 3 – Chassis
Bots need bodies. Introduce the collection of recycled materials. No two creations will be the same, and it’s not a competition (although sometimes kids will compete with each other spontaneously) so it’s not important that everyone get exactly the same materials in this stage. Just put the pile out and suggest that they might want something to attach their motors to – the kids will pick out the things that inspire them. This stage takes a while. There are an infinite number of solutions to the problem of getting the motors to move the bots, so let the kids discover these the same way they discovered how to get the motors going – let them fool around.

Stage 4 – Doodling
Bring out the pens. You hardly have to say anything, but if they get distracted decorating their machines (a perfectly acceptable behavior), select the most disengaged child and ask if you can “try something”. Add the pen to the bot in the least sophisticated way possible and set it down on the work surface to see what happens.

Resources:
Lots of people have done this project in one form or another, but the Exploratorium also has a nice write-up for use in the classroom.

I am a fan of the work of Jane McGonigal, but as I think about the details of the actual school day at Brightworks and consider the use of game mechanics to engage children in the day to day tasks of keeping the place shipshape, I face some concerns. Ideas like Chore Wars certainly have some appeal, but I wonder what the long-term effects of this kind of experience might be.

Rewards and the Implication of Authority
The notion of a reward, some kind of benefit for having done something measurable, carries with it the idea that someone (be it person or algorithm) has judged your effort and found it worthy. At Brightworks, we deliberately avoid judgement-based evaluation of the children’s work and try to let the work speak for itself – both to the child and to the world. If a team of children builds a sailboat and it sinks on the maiden voyage, nobody has to tell them that the boat didn’t work right – the boat tells them that directly, and in a more nuanced and appropriate manner. We may need to help them see the event as just a momentary setback on the journey to building a great boat, but they understand that their boat didn’t work. Likewise, if they make a great boat and sail it across the bay, we don’t need to give them a gold star or an ‘A’ – the boat does this as well, and again, in a more nuanced and appropriate manner.

To Dream The Impossible Dream

In a (somewhat infamous) project at Tinkering School, we built sail-powered carts that we intended to use in an empty field near the seashore. Despite the excellent construction, and the voluminous sails, the carts never moved under wind power. Had this been a gamified experience, the kids might have received no points for completing the project – and yet this project remains a durable and valuable memory in the history of Tinkering School. The kids who worked on these carts remember the experience in vivid detail and can explain in enormous detail the whys and wherefores of the failure. Simple game mechanics would not award any points, but I defend the experience as immensely valuable. Perhaps this is why the role of the human dungeon master in Dungeons & Dragons is so important to the experience – life is complicated, and learning experiences are doubly so. The long-term benefits of an experience cannot be summarily judged and awarded in the moment. The value may be cumulative and not visible or even meaningful until years later.

Do we habituate ourselves to external validation by always expecting an award for doing something? It seems to me that we might undermine our ability perceive our own efforts and the efforts of others as positive without some sort of score or reward. As in most things, a polarized view of gamification is probably not useful. I am certain that making chores fun by awarding experience points has its place and in and of itself is not harmful, but as we see gameplay introduced to more and more of our lives, we should keep an eye on the net impact. If awarding points gets more people contributing to social good, then I have a hard time seeing that as bad. But I fear that over time we may forget how to perceive value for ourselves (unless… we can be awarded points for having an internal perception of the value).


Kevin makes the excellent point that I’m taking a very reductionist approach to thinking about gamification:

I’m sure the popular notion of gamification is the gold-star interpretation, but games don’t have to point-based. I think the bigger benefit to games in many contexts, like education or business, is the shift from linear to-do lists into holistic/systemic thinking about things encountered. One of the strongest elements of gaming is the narrative that give the mechanics life. I love the notion of businesses having DMs, not PMs.

Which Daniel also backs up with a relevant example:

… Compare Gowalla’s design (which emphasizes curating a digital “passport” or story of your life and travels, and discovering and exploring new places and cities) with Foursquare’s design (a points-based system nominally about retaining “mayorship” of the places you frequent) and I think you get a very good contrast of two wildly alternate takes on “gamification.”

And Tim Gill of the Rethinking Childhood blog adds:

Agree. Say no to star charts! My friend the UK child psychologist and writer Jennie Lindon has written about where you end up when children are told “If I’m good, they will give me stickers.”

Chad Calease wonders:

could it create a “play backlash” where counterculture rebels against “gameful influence”? counterculture eventually bcomes culture

And, on the pro-gamification side, there is this recent talk from TEDxBrussels, where Gabe Zichermann makes the point that gamification, when done well, can be a really good thing.

John Conti thinks it boils down to something fairly simple:

All important points. For me, the distillation of all this is:

  • Adult Encouragement => Children feel loved
  • Children allowed to fail and then learn => Children feel confident
  • Children earn points for actions => Children learn how to be a player, in a system, a cog…

And Richard Bartle, speaking at a conference in Barcelona, thinks that it might not be very fun once everything is gamified (because the experiences are not being designed, just gamified):

The big thing about social games that they don’t like to tell you, is they’re not actually social. Games played on social network sites is what we mean by social games … These games are categorized more by the platform than that they are social themselves. The way they engage their players is not through interesting gameplay, it’s done through extrinsic rewards — basically bribes. … The difference is, social games rely on the extrinsic rewards so as to be compelling. People keep playing the game because it keeps giving them things — rewards. This has led to gamification. In the hands of designers, this has a great deal of potential, but unfortunately it’s not in the hands of designers, it’s in the hands of marketers.

Daniel Bigler (in a recent tweet):

Gamification backfires for Khan Academy. Interesting comment section, too.
…The creators of Khan Academy added badges to make it more interesting and motivating, not to make you ignore everything else and just aim for the badges. [full story]

In the Afterlife...

I was chatting with a friend about ghosts and ancestor worship recently, and put forth the notion that if a genetic mutation allowed you to exist (in some form) beyond the death of your body, and *if* you could influence the physical world in some way (however limited), then you might behave in a manner that had a positive benefit for your surviving family members.

Imagine that you are a ghost and you can stand watch over your family at night to wake them up (perhaps by disturbing their dreams?) when danger looms. The family has the uncanny sense that they were lucky that they woke up just in the nick of time, but in reality they are awake because of the direct beneficial efforts of you, their dead relative/ancestor. These minor acts of supernatural disturbance constitute a benefit for the surviving members of the family and they have a small advantage, genetically speaking, over the other members of their tribe who cannot come back as ghosts.

Then I happened upon this interesting description of an experiment that showed good evidence that the brain might be able to send information backwards in time to itself in order to shorten nerve response times:

All of which got me thinking that there could be a whole slew of cognitive-effect mutations that would be hard to detect or test for, but that might still be beneficial to the survival of a genetic line. Things like “luck” might be explained by extending the reach of the backwards transmission of information described in the video, and once you have a durable consciousness that outlasts the body, you can imagine that it might sometimes take up residence in another body (something we might call “possession” in the aggressive case, or reincarnation if it happens early enough).

Just as there are viral explanations for vampirism, it’s fun to come up with plausible explanations for psychic abilities. Although, being born a Kennedy aside, it does seem like we would have noticed by now, if some families or individuals really had a paranormal advantage.

Some of my speaking engagements have been captured on video and rather than keep digging up the links every time someone asks where to find them, I now keep this list updated.

TED 2007
Five Dangerous Things (you should let your children do)
Some thoughts on the dangers of over-protection and five (or six, depending on how you count) simple things that every child should be comfortable doing.

TED 2009
Life Lessons Through Tinkering
A taste of what Tinkering School is about.

Big Ideas Fest 2009
Experience First – a radical approach to curriculum development
I share the “secrets” of Tinkering School as I explore the core ideas and guiding principles.

TEDxAtlanta 2010
Re-imagining Education
In our approach to public education we should dare to do less and let children do more.

Maker Faire 2010
Natural History of Danger
Exploring the notion that our ideas about what is and isn’t dangerous might have very little to do with the inherent risks. This talk is also available as a comic book.

For many of my teenage years, I assumed that I would grow up to be a jewel thief. Please keep in mind that I was a child of the 60′s and largely considered rich people to be exploiters of the common man – especially those with the excess income necessary to acquire jewelry. It was a phase.

Diamonds

I spent a lot of time thinking about what it would take to really steal a jewel from out of a locked safe somewhere in a house, or from drawer in a bank vault. I was a realist (of sorts) and truly imagined something complicated and fraught with peril – altogether unlike the scenes in movies where everything is beautifully lit and dramatic. No, I imagined waiting for hours in the tight confines of an air-conditioning duct or spending weeks learning how to pick a certain lock strictly by feel.

As time passed, I came to realize that the life I was imagining would be one spent wading around in a moral quagmire. How would I decide which jewels to steal, what to do with the money, and how many would I steal before I had enough money? Would I end up living just like the people that I was stealing from? It seemed like a slippery slope and eventually I let the idea go completely.

Point in Santa Cruz, California
Years later, I found myself standing on this very cliff in Santa Cruz, California, about to jump into a surging ocean of unknown depth. We had seen kids jump from somewhere along this cliff earlier in the day while we were body-surfing further down the beach and thought it would be fun to try. “Time it with the swell,” suggested my friend.

As I stood there, gazing down at the dark water, I had a minor epiphany – this moment is exactly like the moment just before a jewel thief cuts through the glass to grab the goods. So, with one last look, I took a half-step back and then hurled myself out into space as far from the cliff as I could. Gravity took hold, and the fall stretched into seconds as I accelerated towards the water. The sound of the air rushing past was thrilling and horrifying as time expanded and then contracted suddenly with a whack.

Talking about it later, I proposed four meaningful stages common to jewel thievery and cliff diving:

  1. Conception – you have the idea to jump off of a cliff, or to steal a jewel. You begin to plan, you climb the cliff, you buy rope.
  2. Conviction – you are there, you could back out now and everything would go back to normal – but you don’t. You cut the glass case, you leap off of the cliff, you are committed.
  3. Point of No Return- the glass is cut, your feet have left the cliff – there is no going back. The safest plan of action is to continue.
  4. Execution – now it all depends on your skill, your training, your planning, your momentum, and your will. With or without you, the story will have an ending.

I brought this up over breakfast recently with a few friends and we decided that most great undertakings share these stages. From creating great art (where every brush stroke or touch of the metal grinder carries you one step closer to completion or calamity), to tinkering (where your idea unfolds or unravels before your very eyes). So, embrace your inner jewel thief and have the conviction to carry your ideas past conception – but remember to time time your jump with the swell.

I agreed to an email interview for a blog recently, and then let the questions get buried in an inbox avalanche. Some time later, and very late at night, I noticed an urgent reminder from her… here follows my somewhat philosophical answers (most of which did not make it into the article).

1. What is your background? (I understand you are a software engineer and also a paragliding instructor but was hoping you could give my readers a bit more background about who you are).
Where does a personal history start? Was it when I was four and my brother and I spent every day wandering around on empty beaches and climbing on the wreckage of an abandoned wood mill? Perhaps it was when I spent three and a half months in a full-body cast recovering from a corrective spinal surgery at the age of fourteen and the staff of an alternative school program decided they would help me continue to go to school every day. There are dozens of events in a childhood that seem pivotal when viewed in hindsight. Without being able to point at any single event, I can say that those collective experiences laid the foundation for a life-long habit of self-directed learning that gave me one guiding principle: “do the most interesting thing you can.” What success I have enjoyed as a software architect and an innovator, I owe to that simple idea.

2. What inspired you to start the Tinkering School and ultimately write this book?
If my life and the way that I approach life was formed by pivotal experiences in my childhood, what does that imply for the children who are over-protected and see the world more from the backseat of a car than from the branches of a tree they climbed? Not only was I seeing children that didn’t get to explore the world on their own terms, I was seeing them grow into apathetic adults who lacked the basic skills and curiosity necessary to engage with the world. And can you blame them? When high school is just something that you survive, and college is only exciting because you get to drink, what kind of feeling does that create for learning in general? Tinkering School is an on-going experiment in fostering life-long learning, an attempt to instill the kind of persistence and failure resilience that helps us see problems as puzzles rather than barriers – the antithesis and antidote for apathy.

3. What are the benefits of allowing kids to do the things you describe in your book?
At the heart of the book are two important ideas; children will be safer and more able to mitigate risk if they are given a chance to practice, and that by letting children experience the world in a hands-on way, we lay the foundations of creativity and innovative thinking. The book creates a context for parents and children to have a rational discussion about danger, to examine the benefits of an activity and weigh them against the potential hazards.

4. What feedback have you received on the book and by who? – I imagine there may be some outraged parents…
I’m happy to say that aside from one child psychologist in Australia, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. A few people in the media and some parents have wondered if the book “takes it too far”, but there is no consensus on which topics are too dangerous. At a book signing event recently, one parent took me to task for suggesting that children should climb on the roof of a house, and before I could explain the thinking behind that activity, another parent said that she used to eat her lunch on the roof as a child and that she lets her children do it too.

5. Do you think you may be pushing the boundaries a bit too far? Why or why not?
The book encourages parents to be clear about what they are and are not comfortable doing, and to share and discuss those boundaries with the child. No topic in the book should be attempted unless both parent and child are ready to do it in a safe and responsible manner. But having said that, we (as a society) have to ask who is responsible to for defining those boundaries? If we let the bureaucrats and lawyers do it, there won’t be any more parks, bicycles, or recesses. Every parent should decide for themselves, what the boundaries are, and instead of calling the police when we see a child playing in the yard unsupervised, we should applaud. Let us choose as a society to relish this moment, arguably the least violent in human history, and go outside to play, to experiment, and explore.

6. Some safety regulations are in place for a reason, have you thought of an alternative approach to teaching kids how to make something rather than putting power tools in their hands?
The experience is not about the tools, it’s about the ideas. We use hand tools, we use improvised tools, we make new tools, and yes, sometimes we use power tools too. Part of the point of the project format is to make it work with you have. If we’re out building something in the woods, we’re not going to have power tools – but we’re still going to explore the idea.

7. You don’t have your own children, correct? Do you feel it is a hindrance or a benefit for the work you do with children? Why? ( Frankly, as a mother myself, I wonder how your approach would differ if dealing with your own children).
I think that we are all responsible for the safety and well-being all of the children – that’s the promise that we make to them as a society. I may not share the unique bond that a parent has for their child, but that also gives me a perspective that is different from the parent point of view and I may be able to see the benefit of an activity more clearly. That being said, I know that my parents raised me with an unusual amount of freedom, so I’m fairly certain that I would be that sort of parent my self given a different set of circumstances.

8. Who has influenced you as a person most in your life?
Certainly my parents and my brother have had a huge impact on who I am, and my wife (collaborator on both the book and the school), as well as the huge extended family of Beatniks, artists, musicians, film-makers, poets, tinkerers, and lost souls that my parents welcomed in our house over the years – most of whom still call me ‘kid’. Teachers who were patient with me as I abandoned the curriculum, and those employers brave enough to look at what I had done instead of what degrees and diplomas I didn’t have. And Mose Allison, because I still want to be able to play piano and sing like that.

9. What books are on your night stand for pleasure reading?
In no particular order…

Metaphors We Live by [METAPHORS WE LIVE BY -OS]
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Leviathan
Scott Westerfeld

Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry
Lenore Skenazy

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth
Doxiadis et al

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Jon Krakauer

Skull Session
Daniel Hecht

Journal of Delacroix (Arts & Letters)
Eugene Delacroix

Seeing Voices
Oliver Sacks

No More Secondhand Art
Peter London

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
Twyla Tharp

Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology
Gregory Bateson

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s
John Elder Robison

Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath
Michael Paul Mason

Thinking with a Pencil
Henning Nelms

The Brain’s Sense of Movement – Perspectives in Cognitive Neuroscience
Alain Berthoz

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
Matthew Crawford

The First Time I Got Paid For It: Writers’ Tales From The Hollywood Trenches
Peter Lefcourt et al

Thinking in Pictures (Expanded, Tie-in Edition): My Life with Autism (Vintage)
Temple Grandin

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
Stuart Brown

Book 2.0

It took us a year to make a book, but we spent almost 8 months pitching various versions of the ideas to publishers and waiting to hear responses. This is time that is lost, never to be reclaimed, and the best I can say for that period is that we learned a lot about a business model that is stuck in a view of the world that hasn’t changed since 1950.

During this period we were forced to conceive and re-conceive our ideas so many times, that we began to see the mutability of book-ness in our modern age. Without even trying we managed to think of dozens of ways that our book could be experienced by “readers” including: paperback, hardcover, serialized in magazine, social nexus organized by topic, podcast, bookcast (episodic delivery of topics), video podcast (dramatic reading and demonstration of each topic), TV show, serialized curriculum, regionalized books with locally pertinent topics – and so forth.

Without the rigorous classic structure of a book to guide us, we had to invent a new way to create the book that would support all of these possible opportunities. Rather than re-tell it, I include here the last page of the book, which tells a condensed story of how the book was made:

How This Book Was Made
It all started with a mention in a presentation at TED 2007: Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do (http://on.ted.com/272G). The presentation was posted online where more than two million people have watched it, many of whom started asking about the book. After trying several different approaches to get it published by traditional means, we decided to do it ourselves.

We began by collecting potential topic ideas in a Google Spreadsheet. Each topic was marked with a list of possible dangers, expected duration, difficulty, and so forth. That list grew to more than 80 possible topics; from there we sifted and sorted until we had the best 50. While the list was being refined, versions of possible page designs (inspired by after-market car repair books) were generated and reviewed with friends and designers. That said, all of the poor design choices herein are the fault of our own inabilities to execute on the excellent advice and design feedback we received.

Each topic was expanded into a separate Google Document and versions were sent to volunteers to review and test. Meanwhile, illustrations were created in Adobe Illustrator. Because the topic categories (Activity, Project, Experience, and Skill) had yet to be finalized, every illustration had to be created in a way that let us pick the base color at the last moment.

As feedback came in, the topics were refined and updated. The final layout was still not quite ready, so these versions of the topics were ported to XML so that they could be ingested by Adobe InDesign. The book template was set up so content would automatically flow into whatever became the final design (made more interesting by the fact that this was the first time Julie had ever used InDesign). Perforce was used to version-track all of the XML and InDesign files and scripts (and should have been used for the illustrations as well).

While Gever was at a conference in Qatar, Julie threw together a cover design in Adobe Photoshop and an alpha test print of the book was produced to check colors and margins. Little did we know, her Photoshop project would take on a life of its own and be the on-going hiccup in our otherwise orderly Illustrator/XML/InDesign-based workflow. Third-draft versions of the topics were updated in XML to fit into the latest, and near-final, version of the page layout. These were sent to a smaller group of dedicated testers. Colors for the topics were chosen and two copies of a beta-version of the book were printed. During this review (which included extensive fact-checking), hazard icons were created, the book front and back cover designs were refined, and the front-matter (foreword, introduction, table of contents, etc.) was finalized as well. Final feedback was integrated and the last tweaks were made in InDesign. This page was written, and then the book was rendered as a PDF and sent to the CreateSpace print-on-demand facility.

Total elapsed time: three months of continuous effort while laundry and email piled up. Because of the process and the tools we are using, this book can easily be rendered to different page sizes and different output media. Every bit of this book was made by Julie and Gever, but we couldn’t have done it without all the help from family and friends. Your suggestions and feedback will help us improve future efforts: gever@fiftydangerousthings.com
gever & julie, december 2009

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