Archive for the ‘ideas’ Category


This is an experiment in tracking how, when, and why, big structural engineering concepts come up in Tinkering School. I’m not sure “bingo” is striking the right note, but this is a portion of a little chart I made for myself as I head into another big Tinkering School summer.

When I speak at conferences, my distaste for grades, and most forms of measurement applied to student learning, comes across quite clearly. This stance often leads to a question of the form “If we don’t test them, how will we know they are learning?” The answer is, simply, if you knew them, you would know if they were learning or not – and if they aren’t, testing isn’t going to help you understand why. “So,” someone will ask, “if we don’t measure the kids, what can we measure?” I believe that it might be useful to measure the school; how well is it engaging the students? how happy are the students and staff? how excited are students and staff to start the day? how much after the school day are they talking about the ideas of the day? are they making excuses to stay longer at school? This chart is a small experiment in measuring and documenting my own practice.

In my 12 years or so of Tinkering School, the kids that have come multiple times have developed strong intuitions about structural engineering. Structural engineering is a discipline, and I like this definition from Wikipedia:

Structural engineering theory is based upon applied physical laws and empirical knowledge of the structural performance of different materials and geometries. Structural engineering design utilizes a number of relatively simple structural elements to build complex structural systems. Structural engineers are responsible for making creative and efficient use of funds, structural elements and materials to achieve these goals.

Look at any of the past years of Tinkering School projects and you will quickly see the emergence and use of “relatively simple structural elements to build complex structural systems”. These patterns are near-perfect examples of basic structural engineering concepts, despite the fact that we hardly ever do anything that resembles a lecture about engineering (although in Overnight camp we do sometimes have a morning “vitamin” that looks suspiciously like a five-minute lecture/demonstration). There is a strong rolling culture at Tinkering School that is fostered and maintained by the alumni tinkerers. A major component of that culture is the accumulated knowledge, both tacit and explicit, about structural engineering. It is quite common for an older tinkerer to give advice to a younger tinkerer and to frame it in terms of previous projects; “When we were working on the windmill tower…” For example, large rectangular frames of wood are often easy starting points for new constructions, and as one comes together, the alumni student will (more or less gracefully) suggest that a corner gusset or diagonal member would be a good way to keep it from skewing over sideways and turning into a trapezoid.

When we are working with the kids, we use all of the real terms from structural engineering (“lever”, “moment arm”, “compression”, “tension”, etc), and then explain as needed in the context. These terms don’t always stick on the first encounter, but by the end of the week, they start reliably popping up in conversations.

We’ve never looked really closely at how the topics come up and which contexts create the most durable learning moments. So, I created this chart of the most common concepts and at the end of each day during our team reflections, I will see which boxes I can check and write anecdotes to capture some details. It’s not perfect, but I’m curious to see what it looks like at the end of the week and to see if there are any patterns to the anecdotes.

Here’s the full chart.


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Assume that numbers like 121 and 23432 are interesting because they are palindromes (rendered in bright green), and that numbers like 122 and 22432 are kind of interesting because they are almost palindromes (rendered in a shade of gray corresponding to how palindromic they are). Now calculate and render that for every pixel in a 1000×1000 image, with pixel 0 being in the upper left hand corner and pixel 999,999 in the lower right, and you’ll end up with something like this:

Palindromic numbers from 0 to 999,999

Code developed in Jupyter notebook, here.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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I had occasion recently, to deconstruct an all-in-one printer/scanner/fax/copier. As the parts came off the machine, I carefully separated them into piles; screws and springs, gears and wheels, optical components, switches and sensors, and e-waste. I stacked up the impressively cost-engineered multi-layer circuit boards, pausing to wonder at the computational power of the custom surface-mount devices, and was struck by the irony that the sensors and switches were now going to be attached to an Arduino – a device with a tiny fraction of the compute power. What a waste…

If manufacturers design their devices for re-use and re-purposing, then we could create a special category for extended life recycling, with a lower recycling tax base. The first step is to define a minimal reprogramming USB protocol, which automatically burns out a read fuse to prevent access to the proprietary ROM data on first use – functionally turning your printer into an Arduino-like object the first time you plug your USB cable directly into the circuit board.

Is there an e-book reader sleeping inside your old printer? How long would these devices last in new incarnations? How many more students around the world could create innovative derivative products based on obsolete down-cycled hardware?

We demand universal access to the compute resources we purchase.
If it lasts forever, let us make it work forever.
Require reprogrammability.

Addendum: Paul Bostwick (in the comments) adds this brilliant idea:

Maybe the original seller could roll out the secondary use ideas as a follow on product: Imagine a page that prints out after 100,000 pages printed or 4 years. “Dear owner of the Bubble Jet 3 series MFP. As your MFP enters its final months of usefulness, please consider the following options: The large molded plastic parts are all #4 so if you’d just like to have some destructive fun and your community recycles #4 plastic, you should be able to, with a phillips #2 screwdriver, render your MFP down to some bits in your recycling bin and just a few less easy to recycle parts. Among the harder to recycle is the controller board, it can (in a non reversible way) be turned into a simple MP3 player with our Remixer kit. Or a more sophisticated one with the Remixer Delux. The following website is dedicated to reemploying the controller boards and keypads on these devices so you can send these parts working or not to them and they’ll either safely dispose of them or integrate them into their projects – at no cost to you.”

In the less fanciful case of items that could not print their own organ donor instructions, I’d be more likely to fill out a warranty card if I knew I’d get at a later date some end of life tips and help on responsibly moving the goods along.

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