Unstructured Studio is a not-for-profit organization developing learning technologies, activities, and resources to foster a tinkering mindset. They engage children from under-resourced communities in STEM-rich tinkering experiences and empower them to become creative and responsible problem solvers of the future. Their work is inspired by Mitchel Resnick's four guiding principles (4P's) of Creative Learning: Projects, Peers, Passion, and Play and based on research at MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten.
Mihir Pathak is a project-based learning facilitator based in Gujarat, India. A self-designed learner & passionate educator, Mihir has been working with children and young adults from diverse socio-economic backgrounds for the last 7 years. A facilitator at Unstructured Studio and founder of LearningWala Studio, he designs and facilitates unconventional learning experiences immersed in Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Mihir calls himself a children’s certified storyteller.
Read below our conversation with Mihir around tinkering, its relevance in kids' growth, and educators' role in facilitating it:
Tell me a little bit about your background and how did you stumble upon Unstructured Studio? What about tinkering resonated with you?
I have been working with kids for the past six to seven years, focusing on project-based and experiential learning and simultaneously following the work of the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab. Srishti Sethi (one of the co-founders of Unstructured Studio) has done her master’s from the same research group, and at the time of the first lockdown, I saw her organization-related post on social media. I immediately reached out to her and expressed interest in working together on tinkering projects. Since June of 2020, I have been working at Unstructured Studio as a Learning Facilitator. In this role, I work with children and engage them in tinkering and creative learning activities remotely via WhatsApp and other communication mediums. I also help build connections with local schools and educational organizations and involve them in our programs. For example, we organize teacher training workshops to equip them with the necessary skills to facilitate tinkering in a classroom or after-school setting. My role as a learning facilitator is flexible and broad, and it also includes me in the organization’s strategic thinking, brainstorming, and questioning.
What is tinkering? How is it different from other modes of learning steeped in science-based activities?
Tinkering is about playfulness, hands-on experiences, and experimentation with physical materials. It is about spending "unstructured" time without any rules or constraints with the materials. You first discover something, then play or interact with it, and as a result, lead to a completely different outcome than expected. Sometimes, it can also lead to inventions that offer solutions to real-life issues. It is like "खोजने कुछ और निकले थे, मिल कुछ और गया (You went out in search of something but found something else)." Tinkering is an open-ended process; there is no final discovery or outcome; it is constantly evolving. And, the final product could be anything from a technological device to an artistic masterpiece. Tinkering is not just science–writing a story also involves tinkering with words and ideas. Tinkering helps develop soft skills such as creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration; these are 4C skills, considered the essential skills of the 21st century.
How can educators support tinkering in a classroom setting?
Tinkering can be used as a tool and a medium to enhance soft skills. In addition, it can help open up one's mind to explore different possibilities. What sets tinkering apart is that it draws from the body's wisdom (using our five sensory organs), unlike the traditional education system that primarily focuses on the brain and cognition. Young kids from preschool to the 4th grade are able to learn better as they experience the world with their five senses at that age. Only focus on "cognition" could be limiting and may shut them out from other forms of learning experiences. As educators, it becomes our responsibility to engage students in using their heads, hands, and heart to enable their best learning. It could be through simple materials such as wood, paper, cardboard, natural colors (turmeric powder, soil, flowers, etc.), sounds, light, etc. But, what is critical here is to pose questions to help students reflect on their process, learn from their mistakes, and find their answers. For example, in the Vichitra Yantra activity that focuses on the concept of gear, instead of theoretical teaching or even audio-visual learning aid, children learn how to make it themselves with tinkering. That gives foolproof clarity to those who wish to understand the working and applications of a gear. Tinkering's fundamental philosophy is based on creating whole and complete individuals who are aware, conscious of their thinking processes, and can empathize with others.
Could you share some tips and techniques for educators facilitating or designing for tinkering?
Facilitation is a loaded word. It determines the direction of a conversation or an activity. Facilitators must be careful not to dump their ideologies, prejudices, and beliefs onto the students or lead them toward particular ideas or outcomes. Instead, they should empower them to derive for themselves. The facilitator can set the broad theme for the tinkering activity or project. For example, while working on a light-related activity, they can begin by showing examples of kaleidoscopes, butter paper as a light diffuser to arouse curiosity among the students and lead them to a WOW moment. The goal is to inspire and not influence. Upon being asked questions, the facilitator can guide them, ask counter questions that trigger the student’s thought process and empower them to find their way through the challenges.
Could you take us through the tinkering process at Unstructured Studio?
Currently, all tinkering workshops and facilitation happen virtually. There is a project guide with tips and tricks in written format and audio notes for facilitating tinkering. These tips help set the context for the project. We kick-off an activity by showing a demo and asking questions such as: Where have you seen this demo before?, What is its use?, Can you relate this concept with a real-life phenomenon?. We also provide a demo video explaining the process. The facilitators and the kids are connected via WhatsApp; the social messaging app. The kids ask their questions in the group, facilitators ask them counter-questions, and avoid giving straight and readymade answers. We follow a week-long process where the kids explore the activity, create their prototype, and share it with the group for feedback. After several iterations, they upload the finished project on the studio’s website: ZubHub (which is like YouTube for tinkerers).
What is your favorite tinkering story?
I have a background in arts and humanities. I create short films along with kids, do drama, and make things with cardboard. मेरी भी एक जर्नी चलती है (I am on an ongoing journey too). When I see kids tinkering, I go through a lot of emotional churning too.
Once, we were doing a project for kids in Kutch, a desert region in Gujarat. As part of the tinkering project, we asked kids to make natural colors. Now, you can imagine that an adult would've been in a fix, not knowing how to procure the raw materials in a scarce land. But not the kids–they managed to find flowers and boil them in metal pots on firewood. The example video had a particular process, but the kids adapted to their current context and made the project possible. They showed great adaptability and a problem-solving mindset. The beauty of working with kids on open-ended activities without fixed outcomes brings impressive results. We have a practice of encouraging children to name their tinkering projects. In another incident, we were making a box-type machine. A brother-sister duo, Om and Nirja, made a box and called it "Om-Nirja Ghumakkad Chakkar," isn't it such an appealing name?
The seed of learning is there in children already; we need to "just" nurture it through facilitation so that learning can start budding and children can grow. And, children with communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking skills will grow up to become adults who strive for harmony. Overall, I believe that tinkering can help cultivate peace and harmony in our society and the world.