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What is tinkering?

Pam Jones,
Educational Content Developer
United Kingdom

Through tinkering, students will be able to use all 21st Century Computational Thinking Skills.

Many words are associated with Computer Science and tinkering is one of them. Tinkering in the Oxford English Dictionary means “attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory way.” This means that tinkering is the ability to take an item, take it apart, work out how to use it and improve it and experiment with it without any structure. 

When a child of any age is given a toy, computing device, robot, or anything new, the exciting first stage is to investigate what happens if… 

That question what happens if…” is a tool that any individual can access. The excitement of something new:

  • What happens if I press this button?
  • What happens if I move it like this?
  • What happens if I put these two instructions together?
  • and much more …

The list is only limited by the imagination of the pupil and the limitation of the device. The ability to give students time to tinker with new software, devices, robotics, etc… can help them understand the functionality and this will then help lay the foundation to build their computer science knowledge upon. 

Tinkering is a computational thinking approach as students are using their 21st Century skills to develop their critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication. Tinkering is great as a pair or group activity to allow these skills to fully emerge.

There is a clear cross-over with these frameworks and all can go hand in hand.

Let’s apply Tinkering to using a robotic device like KUBO. 

You could give the student KUBO, a map, and a small selection of directional TagTiles®  to start with. Depending on the age of the students involved, would mean they receive a different start position to their tinkering. Younger students may need a starting instruction on how KUBO remembers the program by moving over the TagTiles. Older students may start with no instruction and allow them the time to explore what happens in all areas.

This way of introducing new aspects allows students, in a relaxed way, the time to explore and learn. The benefits are that making mistakes is expected within the tinkering stage as the students explore what can and can’t be done. The students are developing their own skillset to accept mistakes and learn from them.

Students therefore must be introduced to the notion that to learn, we must explore and to explore, we may not get it right all the time but we need mistakes to learn the possibilities.

Scaffolding can be put in place when tinkering to guide students to get started. These could be:

  • What happens if KUBO is not fully on the TagTile when starting to remember the program?
  • What happens if the TagTiles are not together?
  • What happens if you have a Forward Tagtile and another Forward TagTile together?
  • What happens if you do not have a start and/or stop TagTile on the program?
  • What happens if KUBO is not on a map?
  • What happens if you do not have the play TagTile?

These types of questions could be given to give students confidence in tinkering. Tinkering can be a daunting task if you are not used to having the ability to explore what happens if…

To ensure students are confident in tinkering, they should have the opportunity to tinker in a wide range of opportunities to help embed the skill and approach to problem-solving.

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