TED's Facebook fans asked Gever Tulley absolutely anything — and he answered

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Today, Gever Tulley, founder of the Tinkering School and the man behind today’s TEDTalk, agreed to answer any question that our TED Facebook fans proposed. Here are his answers, accompanied by a personal note:

I thank you all for your excellent and thought-provoking questions. Since Tinkering School is itself being tinkered with, it is always interesting to share ideas and see what people think. I tried to answer as if you were sitting at the kitchen table with me now, except that I am able to ramble on unchecked.

I hope that you will all follow along on the blog as we update nightly during Tinkering School starting on July 12th.

As a father myself, I find that parents are overly cautious with their children. How do you respond to critics who claim that children can’t handle power tools which will in turn lead to death/dismemberment/lawsuits?Nick Wilson

Firstly, I try never to think of the person asking this question as a “critic”. I recognize that I am more comfortable with the notion of children being capable than most modern parents, but there is a valid concern at the heart of the emotionally charged issue of putting potentially life-threatening tools in kids hands. I put it in the context of all of the dangerous activities we participate in as toddlers — like toddling (or is that toddlering?). There is no question that a child can seriously injure themselves by falling flat on their face, but we learn, through a series of very minor bumps and knocks (some worthy of yelling about, some we don’t even notice), to put our hands out and catch ourselves before our noses meet the floor.

In their wonderful book The Body Has a Mind of It’s Own Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee describe some of the amazing science behind how, when we pick up a stick or a tool, our minds extend our sense of “self” out to the end of that stick. We can “touch” things with the stick and get a very accurate “feel” for the object we are “touching”. So, it stands to reason that a power tool is just a very dangerous stick and we can learn feel through it as well — we just need the safe context in which to learn how to mitigate the risks the power tool presents. These risks are both real and imagined in many cases and part of the learning process includes dispelling the imaginary risks by developing skill through practice.

It is often easier to teach the child to use the tool safely than it is to have a rational discussion about risk with a nervous parent or fear-mongering critic. There is an industry of child-safety specialists serve the market of nervous parents by playing on those fears. In these situations I point out that we’re not just letting the kids loose in a room full of chainsaws and hoping for the best — we never move children beyond their skill and comfort level, we often pair Tinkering School alumni with first-timers when introducing a new tool, and we start with simple tools and work up to the more complicated ones over time. A few scrapes and nicks are actually expected and are part of the learning process. These are the experiences that help the kids treat the larger tools with respect — without us having to say things like, “You must respect the chop-saw, it can cut off your finger!” which never seems to work the way you want it to.

This Tinkering School reminds me a LOT of homeschooling, and the freedom to try new ideas. Would you work with homeschoolers, too? Have you worked with homeschoolers before?Brooke Turner

Brooke, I would work with homeschoolers on a train, I would work with them on a train, in a home, or in a dome. I like green eggs and ham! Tinkering School is exploring two ideas that I think are interesting in this area. We recently started experimenting with kit-based learning and we are working on funding a project we call TinkerMobile.

Kit-based learning is interesting because it is often seen as the opposite the kinds of un-scripted, hands-on building experience that we create at Tinkering School. It is hard to create projects that you can put in a box and ship to someone in another state or country, and have them lose themselves in a semi-guided immersive self-directed experience that has no well-defined conclusion, and in fact leaves them with an appetite for more — and teaches them something about “friction” or “chemistry”. I reject some of the goals of the current commercially available homeschooling kits, and their attempts to recreate a “school-like” experience in the home. So, we started conceiving of a sort of “Cat-in-the-Hat”-like experience where opening the box would unleash the imagination. If parents had a certain amount of trepidation about ordering a kit from us because their children might, in a curiosity-induced frenzy of self-directed learning, cut a new window in their bedroom wall (because they need room for the telescope or smell-o-scope or time-portal) — then we’d know we were on to something. Let me know if you’d like to beta-test our kits.

The TinkerMobile is an attempt to create a traveling school that stops in communities and unfolds, somewhat circus-like, and brings the Tinkering School experience with it. The idea is that rural communities (here and in other countries) request a visit and some fancy algorithm from Google Maps would create monthly or yearly itineraries that would bring the tinkering to you. Parents could take evening sessions and get more comfortable with tools and learn some of the techniques that we use when we are working with children (our pedagogical methods, so to speak), and children could come during the day and do projects that incorporated the kinds of scrap and native materials available locally.

In support of both of those ideas, we are working with a homeschooling (both unschooling, and curriculum-based) group in Santa Rosa, California who are allowing us to experiment with their children (cue cartoon-ominous laugh).

Do you think this experience can be replicated by parents with their children? Or does this work better in a group environment with lots of kids and parents? How would someone go about making this happen in their own community?Will Duke

I think it entirely depends on the relationship that the parents have with their children. In my experience, some parents seem to have trouble letting their children make mistakes as part of the learning process. In these cases we have better success with the children when the parents are not around. On the other hand, I have met homeschooling parents who seem to have no difficulty with creating a very experiment-positive experience for their children.

One of the key ideas of Tinkering School is that we don’t follow recipes for the projects. We start from doodles, and that means that we often run into problems (in fact we expect them). A small group of children can maintain a positive attitude and project-momentum when faced with a complicated problem, where a lone child can often become frustrated. The collective seems to express greater creativity than the road-blocked loner. That being said, we have had our share of really gifted loners, and everyone seems to need a little time to work something out on their own — so we deliberately structure the projects to support that as well.

We are working with groups in Seattle and Baltimore to take the Tinkering School pattern (fully open-source) and implement it in their cities next year, and some interesting conversations are happening in with folks France, China, and Australia. But, making it happen every year is a little like putting on a big musical; there’s details like insurance and materials to buy, tickets to sell, and no matter how well you plan things get crazy right before the kids show up. It just takes a little bit of self-confidence, some bravery, and a couple of friends to sign up their kids to get started. We invite you to (and if you are going to call yourself a “Tinkering School”, you must) volunteer to come and work at our camp for a week with the kids. We’re also developing some seminars to help explain how it works.

READ MORE: See Gever’s answers to questions on Tinkering School scholarships, standardized testing in today’s schools, Tinkering School for grown-ups and structured learning. This school seems cool, but it also seems like a place reserved for the children of relatively well-to-do parents. Do you offer scholarships or otherwise make an attempt to bring in the children of parents who don’t have the money to send their kids to special schools? Would you stress this as an important focus for other such schools, should they emerge?Sammy Packard

Approximately 30 percent of the kids are on full or partial scholarships — the reason that it’s not higher has mostly to do with our location and lack of anything other than Internet-based publicity. The money we charge goes mostly to materials, expenses, and tuition. I think it’s really important that the cost never be barrier to participation. A TEDster has recently made a generous offer to help seed a scholarship fund, which is very exciting and I think will help us reduce that financial barrier even further.

As a school board trustee, I find that creativity, critical thinking, and social/emotional skills, which are not easily measured on a standardized test, have been undervalued in our current accountability system (NCLB nationally and TAKS here in Texas). Do you agree that these skills are essential to student success, and if so, how can we collectively move policy to focus more heavily on these areas?Mike Falick

Yes. I think it’s quite likely that the ability to be comfortable in a rapidly changing problem space and come up with consistently creative solutions will have far more value than being able to score 95 percent on the next test. It is my supposition that we shouldn’t even teach the testable topics until we have helped children develop good creative skills, the ability to focus, and to express themselves clearly.

If we are to change public policy around testing, we will have to show that not-testing works better. Tinkering School is an experiment in one aspect of that, but their are some courageous efforts out there like the Sudbury Valley schools that have been creating an unschooling-like experience in a school-like facility for more than 30 years — and showing that it works. Almost 90 percent of kids from those schools go on to higher education after graduating — and that’s after never haven taken a test in their lives.

As an educator, mom and life long student, I LOVE what you do! Any chance you can get schools to add this great idea to their programs? And how about Tinkering School for us grownups? I want to tinker, too.Peggy Isham

I believe in Tinkering School for grownups, but largely as a way to create opportunities for more hands-on experiences for the children in their lives. I figure that you’d be a lot more comfortable letting your daughter operate a power-drill if you were more comfortable with it yourself. But it’s not just about skills with the tools — it’s about becoming comfortable with making things. Can you imagine sitting at the breakfast table looking at your daughter’s drawing of a wagon with wings and saying “Let’s build this!”? I find that most parents don’t want to open Pandora’s box — you start building, you need some tool or material, you have to go to the hardware store, and then the two of you realize that a real wing has internal braces and the cardboard you hoped was strong enough isn’t … where does it stop?

The answer is “It never stops!” and that is, in point of fact, the beauty of the whole idea. You keep tinkering with it, and you make it work, and then you improve it, and then it becomes something else, or you need the parts for another project — it never stops. And years later, your child is faced with an insurmountable problem like climate crisis and she thinks, “I made a flying wagon when I was six, how hard can this climate crisis be?” and she starts tinkering …

What are your thoughts regarding structured learning and its role in a child’s learning process? Does it have one? If so, how should it be balanced with free exploration?Rob Brown

Structured learning … it could be trivialized as an oxymoron, but the notion deserves more respect. I haven’t had a lot of personal experience with structured learning in public institutions, but I consider any time spent deliberately learning a topic via book or lecture to be structured. By way of answering, let me explain two interesting terms we are using at Tinkering School lately: Collaborator and Consultant. The Collaborator works at an almost peer-level with the kids, often just holding or tightening things that the kids lack strength or dexterity for. The Consultant is a domain specialist with specific knowledge that the project team needs or that one of the kids needs. In practice, the roles are often blended, but we treat the roles as separate. When the kids discover that they need to know the physics behind why something broke so that they can build it better, they engage a Consultant. The Consultant contextualizes formulas, books, websites, and whatever other elements they need to convey the knowledge and understanding. We emphasize understanding over “learning” because the former is a useful goal and the later seems more like an activity. But, the skill of learning is perhaps the most important skill we try to teach, and we mostly teach it by creating experiences that make the kids want to learn something.

So, I think I would say that structured learning supports, and is driven by, exploration, and in that way two are intertwined.


All the best, and remember: pocket knives make excellent gifts,

– Gever