Demos and Tinkerings

What are the similarities and differences in “demo-ing” and “tinkering” in science? Or in any discipline? When do we, as teachers, demonstrate a concept to students, and when do we encourage play, experimentation, and discovery on one’s own? I imagine that both demo-ing and tinkering are important – I mean to spur discussion of the both/and possibilities, NOT argue for an either/or decision. In the past year, in particular, I have read and observed a great deal about the uses of demo-ing and tinkering…such understanding seems critical to me amidst the important conversations encircling 21st century teaching and learning.

On Wednesday, March 30, 2011, I enjoyed an amazing school visit at St. Gregory School in Tucson, AZ. Below you can view 4 minutes and 17 seconds of video showing a mere snapshot of what I observed in science at St. Gregory. [I have a lot of video still to produce from my school visits…but this is a start!] Dr. Scott Morris, chair of the science department, took a lot of time with me explaining the changes and transitions in science instruction that St. Gregory is experiencing and precipitating. There is a concerted effort – with much evidence of success – for the student learners to decrease their time in “sit-n-get” and increase their time “doing science.” From my brief exposure to science at St. Gregory, I would say that they are building a tinkering paradise.

As I strolled to the science wing of the high school, two boys were burning leaves with a magnifying glass. I did just this thing two weeks ago with my older son PJ. In this case, however, the StG students were fogging the space between the leaf pile and the lens. With an iPhone, the boys were recording the light cone whose finest tip was causing the burn of the foliation. As far as I could tell, they had designed this experiment. They ran into all kinds of interesting issues, and I heard them prototype their next attempt with the rest of their classmates. Those classmates were tinkering with transistors and receivers…soldering circuits that they had discovered directions for on the Internet. Another group was dismantling a radio and attempting to discover “what does this part do?” And there was evidence of the invention of a musical instrument that used electric charge and bar bending to create amplified sound.

Oh…did I mention that this is an AP class, and the students are reviewing for the AP exam. What a way to review! Of course, I realize that my limited view and time may not have revealed the full scope and measure of the class structure. However, from years of observation, I sensed that these students were in a routine…developing habits of mind…about hypothesizing, designing tests, and experimenting. They were practicing the scientific method, not just repeating or parroting it. They were being scientists.

In the middle school chemistry class, a different type of experimentation was occurring. The teacher was demonstrating a carbide cannon. But he explained there would be no boom until the reaction was recorded in writing and the equation was balanced. Watch the video below and see if they got to experience the boom. Certainly some seeds were planted and excitement generated. Those middle schoolers were tinkering with chemistry and catching the science bug – a bug that catches most all of us around age three. I believe their science teacher helped them sustain that natural curiosity and interest in their natural world. I wonder what type of experiments they might create when they get to the upper level science classes. Or even earlier…

I think the video provides an interesting look at the use of free-form tinkering and teacher-led demo-ing. Again, I maintain that both are important. Are both present in your facilitated learning? Your classroom? How do you utilize demo-ing, and how do you utilize tinkering? What is the balance of the methods for your student learners? Are they mostly sitting-n-getting, observing demos, tinkering? What recipes may result in the best tasting learning? Could the recipes be different for different types of learners? Different types of teachers? And how might those terms – students, learners, teachers – be blurred in distinction when we try different recipes and methods and pedagogies?

NOTE: If I understood correctly, St. Gregory uses a block schedule. Classes are 70 minutes in length and meet every other day. However, the AP science classes meet everyday for 70 minutes for an extended time in which to experiment and learn. I may have misunderstood however.