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
Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry
Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth
Doxiadis et al
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Journal of Delacroix (Arts & Letters)
No More Secondhand Art
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology
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
The Brain’s Sense of Movement – Perspectives in Cognitive Neuroscience
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
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)
Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul