Tinkering School

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Fingers and Brains

Pedagogy and PhilosophySean Murray

Listen master, can you answer a question?

Is it my fingers or my brain that's learning the lesson?

--"Black Math" by The White Stripes

Picture this: it's Monday morning at Tinkering School. Seven-year-old Niko is about to practice using the power drill. He has his hands full with a drill, a battery and a bucket of screws. 

Niko asks a collaborator, "Where are the drill bits?" 

At this moment, the collaborator has two options:

A) point out the location of the drill bits and, seeing that Niko's hands are completely full, grab one for him; or

B) point out the location of the drill bits and point out that he'll probably need to put her other tools down before he can grab one.

We strongly endorse option B; here's why:

To do is to learn. Through the course of the day, Niko will have two basic kinds of learning experiences:

  • taking in facts (e.g., "drill bits are on the tool wall, above the charged batteries). This type of experience creates declarative memory
  • performing physical actions (e.g., actually reaching his hand into the drill bit container and grabbing one). This type of experience creates procedural memory

It is procedural memory (a.k.a. implicit memory) that helps us ride bikes, tie shoes, and perform actions without conscious thought, or even ability to verbalize how they are done.

When developing skills with young builders, give them as many opportunities as possible to experience, rather than just listen.

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