How Tinkering Can Help You Learn

How Tinkering Can Help You Learn

Tinkering is often thought of a lot like doodling. Mindlessly playing around with things certainly can’t help you learn, right? Well, as writer Annie Murphy Paul points out, tinkering might actually be really good for learning.

Photo by ginnerobot.

Tinkering, or figuring out how something works just by poking at it for a while, is a time-honoured technique, but it’s nice to know there’s some science behind how it’s actually pretty helpful. Paul explains how this works in kids:

Research in the science of learning shows that hands-on building projects help young people conceptualize ideas and understand issues in greater depth. In an experiment described in the International Journal of Engineering Education in 2009, for example, one group of eighth-graders was taught about water resources in the traditional way: classroom lectures, handouts and worksheets. Meanwhile, a group of their classmates explored the same subject by designing and constructing a water purification device. The students in the second group learned the material better: they knew more about the importance of clean drinking water and how it is produced, and they engaged in deeper and more complex thinking in response to open-ended questions on water resources and water quality… it involves a loose process of trying things out, seeing what happens, reflecting and evaluating, and trying again.

While the bulk of that research deals with younger learners, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply upwards as well. As pretty much anyone who has tinkered around inside a computer knows, sometimes you just have to poke at it until you understand what’s going on.

The Joy of Making Things [Annie Murphy Paul]


  • Hell, Tinkering is how I got my building knowledge, beit carpentry, metal working, computers or figuring out how to live with girls, err women… 🙂

  • I was just telling someone yesterday that I learn better if I intuitively poke at something for a while and *THEN* take a class in it. (In this case, we were discussing a new programming language, and why I’d rather spend hours playing with it than the same number of hours in a course, first off). I’ve built my knowledge of coding on my own, and know how to learn a language that way. Sure, I want someone to fill in the philosophy and the bits I missed after I learn the building blocks through playing with it. But to dump that information on me first, before my brain has built its intuitive hacker model of the language, isn’t the most efficient way to do it.

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