Bring Back the Lost Art of Tinkering

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By Peter Sims

In March, a Manhattan mother, Nicole Imprescia, sued her 4-year old daughter’s private preschool for failing to “prepare her daughter for the ERB, an exam required for admission into nearly all the elite private elementary schools,” shows.

The case may be a classic “only in New York” story, but our national obsession with testing is not, especially in an era that will be defined by our ability to improvise, create, and innovate.


Ironically, according to researchers and neuroscience author Jonah Lehrer, unstructured play turns out to be one of the best ways for preschoolers to learn. A 2007 study published in Science, for example, compared cognitive development patterns for 4-and 5-year old preschool students taught using significant amounts of unstructured play with students in regular classrooms. Two years later, the students exposed to play scored better on self-control and discipline, the ability to hold and use information, and adapt to change, all critical skills for success in school and life.

More broadly, educational historians have repeatedly shown that today’s schools were designed during the first half of the twentieth century to meet the demands of the industrial era, not an innovative knowledge economy. “Very few schools teach students how to create knowledge,” says Professor Keith Sawyer of Washington University, a leading education and innovation researcher, “Instead, students are taught that knowledge is static and complete, and they become experts at consuming knowledge rather than producing knowledge.”

As education and creativity researcher and author Sir Ken Robinson puts it, “We are educating people out of their creativity." This is unacceptable.

By emphasizing rote teaching and memorization, such as about facts that are already known, like historical information or scientific tables, there's much less room to develop creative thinking abilities, abilities to let our minds run imaginatively and to discover things on our own. We're given very little opportunity, for instance, to perform our own, original experiments, and there's also little or no margin for failure or mistakes. From elementary school through graduate school programs, we are graded primarily on getting answers right.

Despite the myths, highly creative people, like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison who were life-long tinkerers, discover new ways of doing things by improvising, experimenting, failing, and retesting. For example, when comedian Chris Rock performs on HBO or a big stage, the work is widely considered brilliantly creative, yet his routines (like all stand-up comedians) are the output of what he has learned from thousands of experiments in small clubs, nearly all of which initially fail.  And the cycle repeats, day in, day out.  They persistently tinker and discover fresh material.

So what can be done to emphasize creativity?

Perhaps the most promising solutions to the creativity conundrum will come from the rapidly growing field of design thinking.  Design thinking provides a set of creative methodologies for solving problems and generating ideas that is based on building up solutions, rather than starting with the answer. The field has been developed and refined over several decades, including at the renowned innovation center Xerox PARC during the 1970s and 80s, then later at such places as IDEO.

Design methods include rapid prototyping and experimentation, immersive techniques to understand problems and human needs, the use of strategic constraints, and techniques for imaginative idea generation.

Meanwhile, design schools are popping up all around the world.  At Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the, graduate students from across disciplines, including business, law, medicine, engineering, and education take classes at the to learn creative methods. As enrollment trends at the show, students are flocking to design thinking to complement their traditional training in order to learn methods for creating and collaborating.

Beyond that, change happens in small, achievable ways. On a visit to an experimental lab that teaches kids about design methods, I was struck by a simple example of this when a brown-eyed second grader asked her teacher, “Are there pencils in this classroom?” Now, I don’t know about you, but my second grade teacher would have just pointed to the pencils. However, this teacher said, “That’s a good question. What do you think?” After the girl replied, “I think so,” the teacher said, “That’s a great guess. Now where do you think they would be?” She paused, scrunched her face in thought, and said, “I don’t know, maybe by the markers?” To which the teacher said, “That’s another great guess. Where are the markers?” The girl then turned and pointed toward a box of markers across the room which, coincidentally, was right beside a carton of pencils. It’s in those seemingly insignificant moments when educators and parents can unleash creative thinking.

Invention and discovery emanate from being able to try seemingly wild possibilities and work in the unknown; to be comfortable being wrong before being right; to live in the world as a keen observer, with an openness to experiences and ideas; to improvise ideas in collaboration and conversation with others; and, to have a willingness to be misunderstood, sometimes for long periods of time, despite conventional wisdom.

Growing evidence suggests that these skills can be learned and developed. It starts with small actions – the art of tinkering that leads to constant learning and discovery.

Peter Sims is a bestselling author whose new book is Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.  He can be found on Twitter @petersims.  He lives in San Francisco.