STEM: Why we should do more tinkering

Written by: Rhys Morgan | Published:
Tinker teacher: Students tinkering at the Greater Manchester Engineering Challenge (Image: University of Manchester)

How can we foster creativity, open-mindedness and resourcefulness while still working towards key academic outcomes. The Royal Academy of Engineering says the answer is to tinker. Rhys Morgan explains

“Play – play – and play some more! Trust in staff that they will drive toward high standards – it’s what they do best, they have ingrained senses to do the right thing by children. But they need to be fascinated too – they need time to experiment – talk and ‘play’ with ideas together.”
Nichola Potts, headteacher, Christ the King RC Primary School, Salford

It is no secret that children are naturally curious – in fact they are natural engineers. They aren’t afraid to use their hands, smash things together and break rules. They are continuously testing, exploring and experimenting with the world around them. So it seems a lost opportunity when our education system doesn’t play to their inherent strengths.

The pressure on primary schools to perform well in English and mathematics means that the wider curriculum often gets squeezed to allow time to concentrate on these core subjects. This may limit opportunities for children to grow a wider range of useful skills and capabilities that don’t feature in our knowledge-centred national curriculum. How can we create a primary education system that continues to foster creativity, open-mindedness and resourcefulness while still working towards key accountability measures in English and mathematics?

In October, we published a new report called Tinkering for Learning, which shows how a range of skills or attributes that we call learning habits, such as creative problem-solving, adaptation and iterative improving, can be included in the curriculum through a pedagogical approach of tinkering or purposeful play.

Tinkering has been described as “exploring through fiddling, toying, messing, pottering about with a range of things in a creative and productive pursuit”. It means taking things that work and making them work better. It gives children a hands-on approach to learning through experimentation and enables cross-curricular learning opportunities outside the narrow confines of individual subjects. Our work with schools shows that subjects like computing are incredibly difficult to integrate into broader subject teaching, but through tinkering children learn to approach technology with a growth mindset. They aren’t afraid to be challenged, fail or try something different. What’s more, they’re keen to pick themselves up if something goes wrong.

Tinkering blurs the lines between art, science and technology. It encourages children to reach into several subjects at once, contextualising science, technology and maths in the real world. Approaching a project or design problem in a linear fashion of “plan and make” means pupils can only change their designs once they are completed. Tinkering gives primary school learners room to evaluate and adjust their plans as they’re working.

At home, my children and I do small “maker projects”, taking motors out of old toy cars and seeing what else we can make. They love the small, practical hands-on approach and they engage with things they can feel and see.

A wealth of resources and tinkering projects developed at the University of Manchester and tested in local schools can be found at the Tinkering4Learning website.

One of these projects, Catapults!, asks teams of students to fire a projectile the furthest distance possible in a self-made catapult. This resource encourages children to adapt to unfamiliar situations where there is no apparent solution and draws concepts from maths, design and technology and science (but can also be framed in the context of history).

Giving students such open-ended practical problems engages them and helps them to understand principles like forces (push and pull). Designing the catapults independently and repeating the process to improve their effectiveness encourages students to learn from their mistakes, making something that works better each time.

Pupils are encouraged to think creatively, using what they discover (such as which surfaces are more aerodynamic) to solve goal-orientated problems and defy established conventions. Working in groups, students also develop their communication skills, talking to each other, sketching ideas (another learning habit), drawing on one other to evaluate and analyse their designs, and developing interpersonal and problem-solving skills.

The challenge for teachers is to relinquish control. Tinkering is an active, pupil-led learning approach that requires bravery from both the teacher and their school’s senior leadership team. It’s messy, it’s risky and it doesn’t conform to the traditional didactic approaches favoured by some in education today. But this is also part of its appeal. By adopting a tinkering approach, teachers are learning too – testing themselves, their abilities and their willingness to let go.

As senior leaders, it’s important to provide such opportunities for teachers to take risks. Enabling teachers to make changes to their pedagogic practice can be a powerful support mechanism, creating opportunities for teachers to undertake their own small tests of change in the classroom and share their learning with other teachers. This type of activity is variously described as action research, professional enquiry, disciplined enquiry or collaborative enquiry.

So I hope you can already see that tinkering is fantastic. It gets kids thinking in innovative ways, supports a whole range of learning habits, builds a growth mindset and is cross-curricular. It also challenges teachers to think about their learning approaches.

What may surprise you most is that the traits that tinkering fosters combine to make spectacular engineers. Engineers’ days are filled with open-ended problems with countless variables and a million ways to solve them. Our strengths are an ability to think both creatively and analytically, to be resilient in the face of adversity, to adapt our solutions to make them better and to draw on a whole range of resources to address our challenges.

These learning habits, which we call engineering habits of mind, are essential for great thinkers, builders and innovators - these are the skills that young people will need in the 21st century.

Engineering doesn’t exist in the curriculum, because it is difficult to teach in a rigid subject-oriented curriculum way – engineering is a bit of everything. That’s also why it’s easier to teach it through tinkering. Here is some practical advice on how you can implement a tinkering approach in your school.

Speak to an engineer

As teachers, it can be difficult to understand the mindset of engineers and engineering education. Try speaking to a friend who works in any engineering discipline or get in touch with a local engineer to find out how we think. Ask them what kind of work they do, how they approach problems and work through them. Ask them what got them interested in engineering and what branches of science, technology and maths they use in their day-to-day work. You might even consider asking them to help you create a lesson plan which is hands-on and can build on different parts of the curriculum in a practical way. If you are struggling to find an engineer, contact the STEM Ambassadors initiative.

Try tinkering for yourself

Engineers learn by getting stuck in and experimenting. We take on open-ended problems and try to find solutions. If our solutions don’t work, we try again! Get a group of teachers together and work with them on one of the tinkering challenges from the Tinkering4Learning website. See what it’s like for a child to try approaching a practical problem and see how your team thinks. What kind of solutions did they come up with? How did they approach the problem? What different subjects did they draw on to find a solution? Learning to teach engineering comes from teachers tinkering for themselves.

Support your staff taking risks & trying new things

One of the most significant findings in our Tinkering for Learning research with schools was that tinkering was most successful in the classroom when it had the support of the senior leadership and the whole school. This is where headteachers play a hugely important part. It’s risky to implement a new teaching and learning approach in our high-stakes world, but it is good for teachers to try new approaches and keep learning – and the benefits in terms of developing growth mindset and self-efficacy among pupils are worth the effort. Get your senior leadership team and school governors on board, bring them into CPD sessions and decision-making processes and give your teachers support in trying something different.

In an rapidly changing world of technology, we need to equip our children with the skills necessary to flourish. It is imperative that we stretch children and bring out their talents – the workforce of the future is in education now. There is currently a greater demand for engineers in industry than there is supply and we expect this situation to continue. To address this, we need more children to think, learn and become engineers. 

  • Rhys Morgan is director of engineering and education at the Royal Academy of Engineering.

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