May 13, 2013

The Tinkering Table Comes to Class

A wearable puppet theater made by a student in the Perspectives on Learning class.

A wearable puppet theater made by a student in the Perspectives on Learning class.

Perspectives on Learning is a course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that focuses on Project Zero ideas. This semester the class met in the Project Zero conference room, just beyond the tinkering table installed by the Agency by Design team. Graduate students are busy folk, and although some of them looked longingly at the table as they hurried to class, few had time to stop and tinker. So when the AbD team was invited to visit the class to talk about our project, we knew what we had to do.

The Studio Habits of Mind.

The Studio Habits of Mind.

On the day of class, we filled two baskets with paper, wire, pipe cleaners, felt, and other assorted materials, and placed them on large tables in the conference room. After a few words of introduction, students were given 20 minutes to make something of their choice in response to an open-ended prompt. The AbD team was pleased to to provide students with an opportunity to dig into the materials, but we also had another purpose. We wanted to engage students in a making experience that they could later reflect on and examine for signs of thinking. Toward this end, we enlisted two members of the AbD team as observers, to watch for signs of thinking while students worked. We gave them lists of thinking dispositions from two art-related Project Zero frameworks to guide their observations. The Studio Habits of Mind framework features eight habits of mind that learners develop through exemplary studio art instruction. Similarly, Artful Thinking features six thinking dispositions that help people think deeply about works of art and other complex things. The observers used both lists to help them look for signs of thinking.

Not surprisingly, the AbD observers quickly saw signs of thinking related to both frameworks. For example, one student created an exhibit that displayed the multiple properties of red tissue paper. Our observers noted that he showed signs of close observation as he worked—a form of thinking featured in both frameworks. Another student designed a wearable puppet theater—a sure sign of the “envision” disposition in Studio Habits of Mind. Our observers noted many other examples of thinking as well.

A student in the Perspectives on Learning course explored the properties of red tissue paper when the tinkering table came to class.

A student in the Perspectives on Learning course explored the properties of red tissue paper when the tinkering table came to class.

Although the Project Zero frameworks drew attention to certain signs of thinking, what our observers quickly realized was how much they didn’t capture. For example, neither framework mentions the moment of convergence when open-ended tinkering coalesces into an intentional goal. Nor does either framework mention the ongoing calibration that occurs as students’ hands learn about the affordances of materials they’re working with. (Tissue paper can’t be torn in a straight line; pipe cleaners only support so much weight before collapsing). The limitations of the two frameworks shouldn’t be surprising, since neither of them were developed with thinking-through-making in mind. But their limitations make it clear that the AbD team has plenty of work to do, if we hope to gain a better understanding of how to look for signs of thinking and learning in maker experiences

The Artful Thinking Palette.

The Artful Thinking Palette.

Watching the students work with the materials also left me with another thought. We have much to learn from research in embodied cognition—an area of cognitive science (and philosophy) that explores how cognition is enacted through bodily experiences, and how knowledge emerges through physical engagement with the environment. Frameworks like Studio Thinking and Artful Thinking identify several thinking dispositions that are relevant to thinking through making. But they don’t help us recognize signs of these thinking dispositions when they’re embodied in physical activity. For example, consider question-asking (from the Artful Thinking framework), which is surely a sign of thinking. We know how to identify a question when it is asked through words. But what does a question look like when it is asked by the hands? Classical concepts of cognition emphasize the importance of mental representation and symbol systems, and it’s easy to default to the view that mental representation comes first, and doing second: We conjure up thoughts in our minds and then carry out those thoughts with the body. But the concept of embodied cognition challenges this dualism. As the AbD project moves forward in its investigation of thinking through making, we need to avoid construing the activities of making simply as outcomes of thought, and instead learn to understand them as instances of thought. Perhaps eventually we’ll be able to reformulate the idea of thinking dispositions with the vocabulary of the body in mind.

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