What is Tinkering?

shadow rapunzel noun

  1. The definition of a tinker is a person who can make minor repairs, an unskilled worker or a clumsy worker.
    1. A gypsy is an example of a tinker.
    2. A repairman is an example of a tinker.


  1. To tinker is defined as to play around with something, or to try to change or fix it.

    When you play around with the controls on the dishwasher to try to make the dishwasher work better and you end up messing it up, this is an example of a situation where you tinker with the dishwasher.

* from http://www.yourdictionary.com/


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What does this have to do with education and innovation? There is a movement gaining recent attention, that sets up learning as a place to make (construct), hack (deconstruct), design, experiment, question, explore, discover through hands on experiences. You have likely heard of the International STEM conference coming to Saskatoon in the fall 2015 – science, technology, engineering and math integrated into innovative projects. There are many activities for students and some free events – check it out. There is a parallel movement to add the arts to the equation and make it STEAM.

steam vs stem


What are the habits of thinking we see in both the arts studio and the science lab?

  • ability to envision or imagine that which was not there before
  • connecting unlike ideas/concepts or qualities into new combinations with surprising results
  • see problems as an opportunity to discover
  • persist through failure, re/vision and redirect focus
  • curiosity about the world and asking “what if …?”
  • following notions down the rabbit hole into new territory
  • playing

To tinker implies a sense of non-urgency. Freedom to see what happens. Or what does not happen. Do we value the time to play with an idea? Can we justify this approach within a faced paced classroom, in the pursuit of meeting outcomes (not to mention assessing the outcome? Is it possible to do both?

child desk bike
Community Health article 

In an attempt to let children exercise and move while learning, this class has given them pedals under the desk. It helps them self regulate. (Hmmm. Looks like hamster wheels to me.)

We have become so disconnected from our bodies that “learning by doing and moving” is confused with “moving as I learn”. They are not the same thing at all. I am firm supporter of the self-regulation movement as it help children become self aware and to take control of the behaviour, often providing much needed relief throughout the day and they are able to become more successful. However, allowing all children (not just those with identified needs) to get on the floor, or move outside, with tools in their hands, to learn by doing with purpose, impacts the neurological development and learning for everyone.

I think it’s time to tinker with learning.

Why Kids Need to Tinker to Learn

STEM + Art: A Brilliant Combination

How will this make music?
How will this make music?
Where do shadows come from?
Where do shadows come from?
May 7, 2015Permalink


Flexibility has different meanings in different contexts. As an adjective, flexible means that something is capable of bending easily without breaking (for example, a flexible hose) or something easily modified in response to circumstances or conditions (for example, a flexible timetable) or a person who is ready to change and adapt as necessary. Think about the flexibility of the muscles in your body and as people age, flexibility decreases but can be improved with exercise. When people do not increase flexibility through exercise, muscles can become rigid and inflexible.   Flexibility is also used as a term in Math in that we want students to develop flexibility in their thinking so that they can use a variety of strategies and choose the best strategy from a repertoire to solve any given problem. Students who are only taught one way to solve a problem have a rigid way of thinking and are limited in their ability to solve problems. Although I am aware of a need for improvement, it has come to my attention that I need to develop more flexibility in my delivery of professional development as a facilitator/leader/presenter.

On November 24, 2014 we had an STF teacher-directed PD day. Our group of consultants invited Wendy James from Saskatoon Public to guide us through investigating our roles as consultants and how to implement change in the somewhat rigid area of education. She led us through a number of exercises in a thoughtful, intentional manner. At the end of the day we were to make a commitment to change something in our practice to improve our abilities to facilitate professional development and we agreed to report our experiences during upcoming PLC times. I have made a commitment to be more aware of being flexible and ironically, planning to be more flexible.

During my student teaching experience in a grade 2 classroom many years ago, I recall taking the spelling words (yes, grade 2 spelling words!) and lesson with me to the front of the class and I referred to the words and my notes frequently throughout the lesson. I did not/could not stray from the planned lesson or respond to the students if their questions or responses did not follow the lesson plan. I am pleased to report that my following lessons throughout my career were not so rigid but while I am learning and practicing, I don’t have the flexibility to “wing it”. Anytime I implement a new strategy or resource, I rely on that information in a physical form and I have to follow the plan as it is laid out. I now feel this way as a presenter /facilitator. I do not yet feel comfortable or competent to let the group lead the session and go with the flow. I feel like I need to have every minute planned to avoid those uncomfortable moments of “what am I going to do with these people for the next two hours?” – which is a regular nightmare the night before a presentation!

I decided to do some digging into flexible thinking to wrap my head around this commitment. In the December, 2008 issue of Educational Leadership there is an article called “Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success”. I gleaned onto “Flexible people have the most control” and having control issues, this relaxed me a bit to recognize that in order to be flexible, I do have control. The article goes on to describe characteristics of flexible people in that they are able “to predict how others are thinking and anticipate potential misunderstanding”. When I plan my PD sessions, there is always a topic or a focus and I do anticipate where people are at as they enter the room (figuratively, of course). However, sometimes as we go through content, although I may recognize that we need to head in a different direction, the plan is in place, the powerpoint slides are prepared, and I plough through the plan whether I respond to the needs of the group or not.

As I consider the implications of being flexible, I realize that although planning is an important aspect to delivering PD, being flexible in the delivery is important too. But, I like to be in control. I realized this a number of years ago as I began to investigate differentiated instruction in response to student needs in the classroom. Many of the strategies presented scared me because I thought I would lose control of my students. And to be honest, as a teacher, it is necessary to be planned, prepared, and in control of all situations! Yet, when we take control away from our students, they are losing out in not being given an opportunity to struggle and/or to fail in a caring safe environment. Heaven forbid they won’t do things the way we want them to! But I learned through experience that learning is more authentic and meaningful when led by the learner and facilitated by the teacher in response to student needs. For some reason, though, things seem a little different for me when working with adults.

Wendy gave some good advice – she said have a plan A and a plan B which I think I can handle because I can anticipate a couple of scenarios and plan for each – still maintaining my need for control. Also, I need to take time to practice and improve. It is challenging for me to present in front of adults – kids seem to be more forgiving when you make mistakes and from day to day, I have more opportunity for do-overs which I don’t have when presenting to a unique group for one day.   Pat Renihan was invited by the Administrators Council to facilitate the group through Change Leadership. He presented the process of Change, Competence and Development and at the moment I think I am Conciously Incompetent. I think my PD commitment is a do-able commitment for myself at this time and it is necessary to allow myself the opportunity to fail, make mistakes and feel uncomfortable while gaining experience and exercising my flexibility.

December 3, 2014Permalink

Living Learning

Chitek Lake Camp
Chitek Lake Camp

Walking in Two Worlds

Land Based Learning:
What happens to learning when you remove distractions of our modern life: beeping phones, incoming messages, tv/media overload, buzzing fluorescent lights, school bells, schedules and the never ending cacophony of voices? How much time will it take to regulate/to meditate, sitting in silence, observing nature and begin to wonder about the world? What will I learn about myself ‘living and contributing’ in a challenging environment? How do I benefit from both ancient and new technologies in the wilderness? How is learning from an elder different from learning in the classroom? These are some of the questions students and teachers were pondering during their land based learning camp at Chitek Lake May 26 – 29, 2014.

Josh shows us his catch of the day.
Josh shows us his catch of the day.

Grade 9 students from Cando and Leoville recently survived a week in a bi-cultural wilderness camp learning through inquiry based projects, working side by side with their teachers, elders and resource people as they explored, questioned, reflected and created on the land. Working together to problem solve in authentic situations (such as figuring out how to set up your canvas tent in the rain) brings out leadership qualities and cooperation skills. Tipis teachings, making tea and salad from plants foraged in the forest, building traditional shelters, carving bows, making fire, observing through the camera lens, beading, fishing, hunting, storytelling, playing games and making music – all forms of inquiry and writing happening at once.  Designing their learning and letting curiosity lead them forward, questions answered by elders and experts, guiding them on to the next piece of understanding. Finding an internal rhythm and flow, responding to the sun and rain, hunger and need to play – all done without benefit of bells.

Just in time learning
‘Side by side & just in time’ learning
New friendships formed
New friendships formed

Covering curriculum is challenging and I have heard many teachers say that there just isn’t enough time in the schedule to give inquiry it’s due attention … and yet teachers agree that learning needs to be student driven, challenging, interest based and authentic. What a conundrum. How to balance requirements of the Ministry with requirements of good learning? Every teacher is faced with professional choices about instruction and educational practice. I have seen many innovative and brave teachers who make some bold choices about programming when designing the learning. I appreciate that Living Sky School Division encourages innovative teaching and supported Cando and Leoville on this journey of discovery. Listening to teachers and students reflect on the learning reinforces our beliefs about “learning for all” in a differentiated process, that recognizes the place of wonder in education.

Flora and Fauna
Flora and Fauna

Thank you to Tammy Riel and Amanda Wood (Cando) and Baeu Vandale and Irene Bowker (Leoville) for their tremendous effort in making this camp happen.  Thank you for inviting my participation – it was a wonderful learning experience!

June 11, 2014Permalink

Use it or Lose it

When I was in high school, I was a lifeguard.  I took many training courses to be hired at the local pool and after I was hired I was required to attend weekly inservices.  During the inservice time we practiced life saving skills in the water, first aid, and we maintained a certain level of physical fitness.  As a group we also attended a number of lifeguard competitions which helped to improve our skills, reasoning, decision making and teamwork.  If a person were to collapse in front of me now, many years after my days as a lifeguard, I could probably perform some type of CPR but I would be rusty and without that kick of adrenaline, I would really have to think through and consider the necessary steps.  If this person were to collapse, I’m not sure that I would automatically think of the ABCs – I might jump straight to CPR when perhaps they were choking.  Thankfully I haven’t been involved in such a life threatening situation to test my skills.  But it makes me wonder, if I don’t use it (or practice), do I lose the skills and knowledge that I could easily recall at one time?

The first year I taught grade 7 Math, I followed the text book and read ahead of the students to be ready for my lessons and although I understood the Math, I didn’t always know or see where it was going or why I was teaching certain lessons.  During my second year of teaching the same course, I knew what was coming, I understood the importance of building upon student understanding and teaching Math was clearer and made more sense to me.  By my third and fourth years of teaching grade 7 Math, I felt like I was a pro but it made me wonder about my students’ experiences.  Here I was, an adult, with University Math classes to support my understanding, struggling at times with how to teach my students and yet they were expected to remember everything they learned in grade 6, apply that knowledge to new understandings, and hopefully become proficient with that skill in the three to six weeks I took to teach it.  Once a chapter was taught, I didn’t refer back to it again unless it was necessary for another concept coming up.  Yet I expected that my students would remember what I taught them when they went to grade 8.

We expect our students to remember everything we teach them.  It sure would be nice if they did but in reality, do we remember everything we learn?  Do we always remember the things we are interested in?  I find the differences between toads and frogs interesting but every time I wonder about the differences, I have to look it up to remind myself.  Imagine the things I don’t find interesting!  In Math we have a possible advantage in that once we teach an outcome, we can assess our students and move on.  But I think we have to remember to constantly review and remind our students about the skills and understandings they have learned as they continue to learn new information.

I had the advantage of teaching the same group of students for three years in a row.  I remember on more than one occasion when I referred to the fact that I had taught them something the previous year.  I remember being surprised that my students didn’t remember that valuable lesson I had taught the previous year, a year later, with approximately three weeks to practice the skill.  And yet, I did expect that my students would remember amongst the Science lessons, Social Studies lessons, Health lessons, reading strategies, etc. as well as other important pieces of information from their lives such as their home phone number, Mom’s work number, Dad’s work number, Grandma’s home phone number, Mom’s cel number and Dad’s cel number in case anyone needed to be contacted in an emergency.

There are many things our students must remember.  There are many things our students must learn and apply.  There are many things we must teach.  I think we must also remember, however, to provide time for practice and review so that once our students learn it, they can use it, so they don’t lose it.

March 3, 2014Permalink

Leaders Who Value Student Feedback

by Doug Drover

One of the most valuable tools I’ve ever used for professional growth and program review is student feedback (yes, feedback FROM the students, not TO the students).  It has made me a better teacher, and it’s helped promoted a healthy learning culture in my classroom.

I think we as teachers are, on some level, uncomfortable with receiving feedback from our students.  After all, we’ve been trained to be the professional “in charge” of the classroom: determining activities, lessons and units, planning the semester/year to fit the curriculum, establishing minimum expectations for behavioural norms, establishing seating plans, etc.  This is not in any way wrong.  As trained and experienced professionals, we SHOULD have this authority in the classrooms to which we are assigned.

Teachers and principals are leaders to our students and in our schools, and it is important for us to remember that there are different styles of leadership.  I have always taught my students about three: authoritative, participative, and delegative.

Authoritative leaders make decisions on their own, and they enforce this decision on others, typically through rewards and punishments.  This is a highly efficient method of decision-making, and is quite popular in politics and business… and in the school system.  It works best when the leader is the most experienced and knowledgeable person in the room.  When this is not the case, though, poor decisions can be made.

Participative leaders seek input from their teams, and consider the different points of view before making a final decision.  This is less efficient, but results in compliance because others value the process of providing input and trust that the leader chose the best option on the table.

Delegative leaders ask the team to make the final decision.  It is least efficient, but can be very effective in certain situations, especially when team members are highly motivated and skilled, or hold special expertise that the leader doesn’t.

Often, we think about leadership in the authoritative sense: that we are the experts who make the decisions.  Conversely, we often think that eliciting student feedback will be a waste of time (“They don’t know what is required to…”) or akin to letting the prisoners run the prison!  Not true!  There is a sea of difference between eliciting feedback from students and turning over the reins of the school.  As a delegative leader, my students trusted that I would honestly consider their feedback, but respected that the final decision lay with me.

For some teachers, this can be a shift in mindset, but I assure you from my own experience that asking for and responding to feedback from parents and students does not lead to a loss of authority; in fact, I’ve found that it enhances the trust parents and students have in me.

Schools are not McDonald’s; the customer is NOT always right.  But that doesn’t mean the customers – students and parents – are NEVER right.  Students and parents present many sets of eyes from diverse backgrounds with diverse needs.  They are bound to see things that you can’t, or see things differently than you.  Once we acknowledge that we can still hold authority without ALWAYS being right, we can tap into this vast pool of opinions and perspectives to find solutions to problems that either confounded us, or that we didn’t know existed.

I encourage you to read the link to this excellent article from Education Leadership on formalizing the student feedback process.

Learning from the True Customers


October 17, 2013Permalink

How does documentation differ from displaying children’s work?

by Angela Yeaman

I recently read this quote on an early childhood blog I follow (Journey Into Early Childhood, 07/31/2013 post: Documentation-pondering a quote):
“Documentation is not pretty pictures of engaged children. Rather, it captures the thinking process: What motivates [students] to begin, continue, change direction? What were the breakthroughs, the pivotal remarks or actions? How did they solve the problems? The goal is to enable whoever reads a panel to understand what the child attempted and how they went about it, to see stimulus, process, and outcome.”
A. Lewin-Benham

This reflection on a main purpose for documentation resounded with me and specifically connected to the reading I have been doing in the book, Windows on Learning: Documenting Young Children’s Work, 2nd ed. By Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke and Kathy Steinheimer.

Given the young age (3-5 year olds) of children that are a part of the projects and learning done in Prekindergarten it can often been challenging to truly share and celebrate the important learning and growth that is documented in children’s work.
Our classroom documentation then becomes a key piece in sharing the thinking, learning and growth of our students with an outside audience.
As emphasized by Helm, Beneke & Steinheimer (2007), “One value of documentation is the ability it gives us to share the importance and thought that goes into learning experiences that may not produce patently impressive products” (pg.16).

A “simple” drawing included in a display and the learning it represents for the child cannot be fully understood by an outside audience without the added narrative of the teacher.
Consider this drawing done by a 4-year old Prekindergarten student during an inquiry about plants.

Drawing of a plant
Drawing of a plant


Without the added labeling by the teacher the understanding this student is developing about different parts of a plant would not be evident.

Consider this documentation of a 4-year old Prekindergarten student during an inquiry about Spring and birds.
Learning about birds

Without the added photo and quote from the student accompanying the work created, an appreciation of what the student understands about birds and nests would not be developed by an outside audience.

As I continue supporting Prekindergarten teachers with their use of documentation I am challenged to explore how can we use our documentation to:
• Understand our students better
• Provide insights into students growth
• Inform our teaching and professional development
• Allow others to see into the learning experiences in our classroom

September 16, 2013Permalink