Tinkering, Learning, and Equity in an Afterschool Setting

By Shirin Vossoughi and Meg Escudé - June 2015


Vossoughi, S., Escudé, M., Kong, F. & Hooper, p. (2013). Tinkering, learning & equity in the after- school setting. paper published as a part of FabLearn Conference proceedings. Stanford University.


This paper draws on ethnographic data to bring equity to the fore within discussions of tinkering and making. Vossoughi, Escudé, Kong & Hooper argue that equity lies in the how of teaching and learning through specific ways of: designing making environments, using pedagogical language, integrating students’ cultural and intellectual histories, and expanding the meanings and purposes of STEM learning. The authors identify and exemplify emergent equity-oriented design principles within the Tinkering After-School Program—a partnership between the Exploratorium and the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco.

Research Design 

This paper draws on ethnographic methods (participant observation, audio-video analysis, photographic documentation of children’s artifacts and writing, interviews with children, parents and program staff, and examination of tinkering artifacts over time) to offer a preliminary description of teaching and learning in the Tinkering Afterschool Program. Ethnographic research emphasizes the immediate and local meanings of educational interactions as defined from the participants’ points of view. The authors also utilize social-interactional analysis of educational discourse to identify key pedagogical practices and shifts in student participation over time. Finally, the authors (a research-practice team) draw on collaborative and participatory design research to co-design and co-analyze teaching and learning.

Research Findings 

The authors begin by identifying a central problem within the field of making and tinkering: a lack of explicit engagement with issues of culture and equity. Though the Maker Movement is responding, in part, to narrow, test-centric school curriculum, the question of how best to serve students who bear the brunt of these policies—working class students and students of color—is not often at the center of public conversation. When equity is addressed, they argue, it tends to be framed around “access” to high-quality STEM learning & making opportunities, without adequate attention to questions such as: Access to what? For whom? Towards what ends? The authors therefore sought to analyze the pedagogical “how” of creating learning environments that are deeply responsive to students’ needs and strengths, and rooted in a critical and historical analysis of educational inequity.

The focal setting of this paper, the Exploratorium After-School Tinkering Program, collaborates with Boys and Girls Clubs in San Francisco to develop a sustained tinkering curriculum focused on interdisciplinary forms of STEM learning. The program predominantly serves African American, Latino/a and Asian-American youth (K-12) from low-income urban communities. Building on the work of the Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, the After-school Tinkering program aims to develop teaching and learning practices that cultivate “tinkering dispositions” and shared experiences of intellectual possibility. In line with the philosophies of the Boys and Girls Clubs, learning is also grounded in youth development and play. Adults, teens and children meet in a workshop setting to design and co-create artifacts such as scribbling machines, stop-motion animation films, shadow plays, wooden pinball machines and musical instruments. Tinkering is defined as a disposition towards design and making characterized by iteration and playful experimentation. While tinkering activities have particular parameters and goals (making a musical instrument or a working pinball machine), they are intentionally designed to support multiple pathways and to imply a range of solutions.

The authors found that equity-oriented goals influence the pedagogical practice of tinkering in particular ways. They identify emerging equity-oriented design principles, such as building generous learning environments that emphasize shared activity; valuing process and iteration over final products; cultivating play, imagination and creativity; widening definitions of learning, intelligence and science; and grounding learning within purposeful and social endeavors. This final principle includes making STEM concepts and practices explicit in ways that are organic and meaningful to the activity. The authors then provide a series of ethnographic examples that exemplify these design principles and highlight a number of additional themes. These include, for example, how a focus on iteration and process can reframe “mistakes” or “failed attempts” as drafts (unsettling dominant definitions of intelligence) as well as the range of ways students took up this value in practice. They also highlight the developmental role of talk and meaning making, and the specific pedagogical practices (such as scaffolding of discourse within a group “circle time”) that support and deepen students’ sense-making.

Through interviews with parents and students, the authors also examine how practices and ideas “travel” across settings in ways that both validate students’ everyday experiences and productively expand narrow views of what it means to be successful within an educational setting. Finally, analyzing the ways students themselves wrestle with dominant definitions of science, the authors argue for opening up these conversations and respecting students’ critiques and questions. They conclude by considering how children’s relationships with their own learning may shift with greater recognition of play and the process of making and figuring things out as deeply intellectual activities.

Theoretical Basis 

The analysis is organized around socio-cultural approaches to learning. This tradition defines learning as shifting and deepening participation over time, a social process that contributes to the practice (and the environment) itself (Rogoff, 2003). Accordingly, the authors argue for paying close attention to the organization of opportunities for young people to experience themselves as knowledgeable participants and contributors to tinkering activities. This involves inquiring into the kinds of development valued and therefore emphasized in a particular setting (Matusov, 1998) as a precursor to looking at how learning unfolds. This approach can help make visible shifts in participation, roles and relationships that may otherwise go under the radar. Socio-cultural perspectives also complement constructionist views by focusing on the social accomplishment of learning and the role of pedagogy or teaching. Finally, this theoretical approach argues for recognizing and leveraging the cultural, linguistic and intellectual resources students bring to the setting (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003). The pedagogical leveraging of everyday experience is all the more pressing for youth whose home and community lives are treated as deficits to be overcome rather than rich resources to draw upon (Gonzalez, et al., 2013).

Implications for Practice

Though “facilitation” is a common word within making spaces and other informal science learning environments, the authors caution against shifting away from the word “teaching.” As they argue, minimizing the role of the teacher can shortchange the many generative aspects of pedagogical talk and interaction and forego opportunities to share valuable knowledge with other educators. They emphasize a more collaborative approach that treats interactions between experts and novices as fluid opportunities for sharing and co-developing valued practices and skills. As they state: “Engaging with new tools and materials alongside experienced others who are actively working to support learning and who have a historically grounded understanding of inequity creates a particular context for the kinds of shifts we are interested in cultivating and documenting.” In parallel fashion, the authors question the emphasis on children’s implicit (rather than explicit) experiences with STEM phenomena and practices. The authors found that in the context of equity-oriented practice, it is important to experiment with making STEM concepts and practices explicit without compromising the playful, inquiry-led spirit of tinkering activities. This includes leveraging and designing opportunities to connect children’s ideas to the big ideas of science, engineering or physics. If approached in careful ways, they argue that making STEM concepts and practices explicit can be a form of intellectual inclusion rather than exclusion. At the same time, the authors highlight the interdisciplinary and artistic aspects of learning in the context of tinkering activities, and assert the importance of cultivating rather than collapsing this multiplicity.

Related Briefs:

  • Shea, M. (2015). An Overview of Learning through Making and Tinkering: An ISE research brief discussing Vossoughi and Bevan, Making and Tinkering: A review of the Literature. National research Council Committee on Out of School Time STEM http://rr2p.org/article/383
  • Shea, M. (2015). How “making” projects can promote deep learning: An ISE research brief discussing Blikstein's, “Digital fabrication and ‘making’ in education: The democratization of invention.” http://rr2p.org/article/385
  • Shea, M. (2015). Rethinking Diversity: Hybrid Language Practices in the Third Space “ An ISE research brief discussing Gutierrez’s, “ Rethinking Diversity: Hybrid Language Practices in the Third Space.” http://rr2p.org/article/371