“All Learning is Ultimately Personal” an Interview With Tinkering School director Gever Tulley

“At the heart of (our) approach is the notion that all learning is ultimately personal.” 

PlanetShifter.com is developing a companion channel called PlanetShifterKids.com that will give kids project space and collaborative tools to tackle sustainability-related issues in their neighborhoods and beyond. Please describe how you would advise us as to your work in Kit-based Learning? Do you prescribe the process and the possible results for the kids?

We have a term that we use to describe what we look for in a kit-based experience; “projectory”. A simple mash-up of the notions of “project” and “trajectory”, projectory is a project that leaves the child on a trajectory that extends the experience beyond the end of the project.

For example, suppose that the project is to build a rope-ladder using recycled materials – there could be elements of rope-making (perhaps from plastic grocery bags), knot-tying, and rung-finding – a simple idea, but one that only leads to others. Somewhere along the process of making the rope-ladder, the tinkerer will realize that they are building a ladder into a tree – but then what? “I’m going to be sitting up in a tree, I should have a seat…” The ladder provokes ideas, the future expands and unfolds in the child’s mind, taking them beyond the contents of the kit and the initial definition of the project.

Regarding prescribing the process, we choose which projects will be undertaken at Tinkering School, not because kids are bad at coming up with interesting projects to work on, but because we have so little time. Within that initial project definition, we allow anything to happen. With just one week to work with them, it’s really important to make sure that their velocity (creative, intellectual, and productive) is not hampered by materials or tools. Choosing which projects we are going to work on in a given session allows us to stock the shelves with everything the kids might need. That being said, the projects are fluid and often change as the tinkerers embrace the ideas and take them in surprising directions. Each project is inevitably a creative collaboration, and when it comes time to move on to the next project, we’re often torn between seeing where the current endeavor can go and
seeing what the new project will bring.

Please answer your own question! “Can countries achieve competitive advantage by teaching their kids to be more innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial?”

I think it’s quite likely. There is always someone, somewhere, with more resources than you, that will be able to learn the newest technologies before you can, but being able to think, to
problem-solve, to make things work even when the “best” solution is not available will always be more valuable. If there is a single great lesson to be learned from Web 2.0, it may be “everything you make will become someone else’s brick.” Which is great from a sharing perspective, but it creates a lot of competition for the people making bricks.

The person who can move fluidly between conceptualization and implementation (whether in software, hardware, science, or social systems), shifting effortlessly back and forth between those mental modes will have the advantage over the people who can only operate in a single mode. It is easy to find labels for single-mode thinkers (engineer, programmer, designer) and when we meet true multi-mode thinkers we have to start hyphenating. We describe them as designer-developer or architect-designers, and it becomes clear that we don’t really have good language for people who are just good at stuff.

Our current educational system promotes the development of single-mode thinkers. Some would say that it’s a natural consequence of the industrial revolution – factories needed workers with standardized qualifications in mass quantities and schools responded. But the world doesn’t need another person who can operate a CAD program, it needs a person who can solve the problems they face using the tools and resources available.

The Tinkering School is not about values, then? Or is it? Can you ID some?

Tinkering School is really about ideas, but we have values – if that makes sense. We value unscripted, real, hands-on experiences for kids. We value the minor scrape and bruise and lessons that they teach. We value the plans that go awry, and the ideas that are just so big that they must be attempted. We work to re-open the world to children who are increasingly treated like exotic animals kept in special cages and fed a diet of pre-digested ideas lest they become upset. We value the empty lot next door with abandoned car rusting in the weeds. We value the really good stick and the lovely bit of string.

Do you know about Facing the Future’s Service Learning program (www.facingthefuture.org)? Any feedback?

What’s not to like? I’m going to need to spend a bit of time to really dig into what you are doing there, but connecting young thinkers to actual issues can only help. Who knows what you set in motion when a child starts thinking about a problem?

How much learning at the Tinkering School is individually based vs collaboratively based? What is your theory on this aspect?

At the heart of the approach is the notion that all learning is ultimately personal, but the context is collaborative more than individual at the Tinkering School. We always have some solo projects, but even those are in a collective scope. If we are all making tabletop motorized vehicles, then we see co-evolution of ideas as well as punctuated equilibrium in the design space.

You can see this idea in how we talk about our volunteers as well. On any given project we divide into “collaborators” and “consultants”. Collaborators work at a peer, or cohort, level with the kids, whereas consultants move between the teams and provide specialized technical insight on an as-needed basis.

One of the things that is so interesting about developing kit-based experiences and books is trying to stay true to the notions of collaboration and personal discovery, and avoid creating an experience that feels like its on rails.

Do you think that most parents feel up to date on the latest computer hardware and software as compared to their children? How can this be corrected?

Young children make no distinction between the magic of the computer and the magic of the power-drill, or the dishwasher. So it’s natural that they would approach these devices with equal aplomb. This puts our generation at a disadvantage when it comes to embracing technology – in point of fact the very notion of “embracing technology” is an idea created by people who don’t. We are still marveling at the pace of innovation, but the kids accept rapid evolution of technology as a given.

Does it matter that a child’s understanding of the computer and the internet is more nuanced and complete than their parents? History shows that the models we make internally are slow to change – our vocabulary for describing the complexity of the internet relies on metaphors taken from household plumbing – a child’s non-vocalized internal model of the internet has got to be better than that. The way to close the gap between parent and child models might be to wait until the child can describe it to the parent.

How much risk is acceptable in a kid’s life in play or at school? How do you measure and evaluate risk at play?

Let’s talk about the mitigation of risk, rather than the quantity or severity. You don’t hand a child a chainsaw (to pick a deliberately extreme example) and say “Have fun!”, you start with a hand-saw, or a pocket-knife, and you build a foundation of skills and techniques that make using a chainsaw safe.

If there is something to be gained, then some risk is acceptable. But we always look for the catastrophic risk, the danger that can’t be mitigated. After the roller coaster project a few years ago, I started sketching Ferris-wheels of various designs, but have never come up with one that doesn’t drop one kid onto the others when it breaks – so we haven’t done a Ferris-wheel project yet.

I often try to look at the value of play, and the potential for learning in the activity. Tinkering School has a long tradition of after-dark hide-and-seek tag – a game that started in our house the very first year. The game is played in total darkness, and involves much sprinting and screaming. Watching the kids play it is enough to make any parent faint, and yet we have never had a hide-and-seek tag related injury. Every year we talk about hide-and-seek tag, and every year we decide that it is just so much fun, such a total sensory integration, that we allow it to continue.

It is common to try to defend play by adding protective modifiers to it. There are people studying “serious play”, “exploratory play”, “creative play”, “object play”, and “competitive play”. When I managed an innovation group at Adobe Systems, I hosted workshops on “playful development”. These are all efforts to make the notion of “play” more palatable to a corporate and scientific world.

Stuart Brown, at the National Institute for Play (www.nifplay.org), got it right when he said “Play is the exploration of the possible.” We encourage play, both within and outside the scope of the projects. Playing with the materials builds a deeper intuitive understanding of the properties of the material, playing with tools helps develop motor-skills, muscle memory, and leads to better control of the tool when the time comes to build something precise.

Please tell about your work with SETI.

I am personally intrigued by the notion of a message hidden in the signals we already receive from space. The data is stupefyingly enormous, and the chance that we’ll catch a meaningful signal is slight – but what an interesting challenge! I participated in some early discussions about creating crowd-sourced tools to allow anyone on the internet to participate in the process of sifting the categorizing the signals.

How do you evaluate the success of the Potential Energy Vehicle Kit?

The PEV kit is a work in progress, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s already a success. One of our beta-testers, after building the vehicle, questioned the notion that the “energy is stored in the weight” when the weight is lifted, and then decided that the energy was really stored in the relationship between the Earth and the weight. Setting up that kid for that epiphany alone was worth the development time put into the kit so far.

What we are learning by working on the PEV kit has more to do with kit-based experiences and manufacturing than the specifics of the PEV. There is a lot more to do on the PEV kit to achieve “projectory” status and to blur the boundaries between the kit and the materials that each child can incorporate.

Your lament about the “disappearance of the pocket knife is interesting. What has replaced it?

I get a lot of email from rural parents who are still giving their children pocket knives, and urban parents who can’t give their kids knives because of school rules. The true cost of violence in our schools cannot be measured simply by the injuries and deaths, but must also include a reckoning of the loss of opportunity for kids. In urban settings we replace the pocket knife with the video game and the cell phone, but do those tools encourage children to interact with their environments in the same way that the knife would? A pocket knife is a screwdriver, a pry-bar, a scraper, a cutter, a drill, and a poker – how can we logically deprive kids of this science-lab-in-your-pocket experience?

Do you approve of the tools, programs and rewards in the Boy Scout program?

I take umbrage with the gender bias and impositional aspects of the rewards in Boy Scout programs, but anything that creates opportunities for kids to get out of the house is a step in the right direction. I’m especially concerned with the fund-raising systems wherein kids are roped into becoming part of a marketing engine for a cookie manufacturer or magazine publisher, and would much rather see some kind of service-based experience where the kids could raise money by doing good. I’d pay a dollar a pound to have Boy Scouts remove plastic from beaches, or five dollars an hour to have them repair homeless shelters or wash trucks for the fire department.

Can you dumb-down your ideas on why “throwing things” is good for us?

There are structures in our brains that don’t grow correctly unless we use them as they are developing. Our brains are fierce optimizers during childhood development and unused neurons are quickly re-tasked or re-absorbed unless they get fired and tuned. This means that if we take up throwing things later in life, we have to develop whole new structures in our brains – we can’t just awaken dormant connections that we ignored earlier in life (or at least not in all cases).

Throwing is just an example of an activity that forces us to interact with all the complexities of the real-world. I liked to spin things when I was a kid, still do in fact, and now can reliably spin anything from a tiny pebble to a wheelbarrow. I am especially good at fruit and coins. And, throwing, or spinning, things is just pure fun. Fun is good for the whole brain, it reduces stress, lengthens life, and helps us be more creative.

I like your idea about the value of understanding the “parts” of larger complex structures. Where did this come from?

It starts with the idea that anything, from the simple to the complex, the natural or the manufactured, can be understood. The idea that big complex things, like a truck, are made of smaller things, each a little simpler, is an important element of the foundational concepts that allow us think about and solve big problems. The further realization that this applies across enormous scales, from the galactic to the sub-cellular, paves the way for a deep understanding of the nature of complexity and organization.

Take a part a dishwasher and every part can be decomposed into smaller parts until you are left with a pile of pieces, each of which can be completely understood by visual inspection. Computers obfuscate their internal details by hiding them in chips and invisible traces buried in layers of circuitry, but the concepts still apply. After having taken apart a few simpler machines, the kids seem to have no problem accepting the idea that even though they can’t see inside every chip, there is still something in there that can be understood (give time and tools).

How many new tools have your kids invented, if any?

There is some ad-hoc tool construction when kids are building, mostly clamps and odd support systems, but there has not been much actual tool development. This may be due in large part to the plethora of tools available to the tinkerers. It’s really a question of keeping their creative attention focused on the project.

These were some great questions. All the best, -g

Gever Tulley

Tinkering School c/o Gever Tulley
P.O. Box 370721,
Montara, CA, 94037


Young children make no distinction between the magic of the computer and the magic of the power-drill, or the dishwasher. So it’s natural that they would approach these devices with equal aplomb.

About the School

The Tinkering School offers an exploratory curriculum designed to help kids – ages 7 to 17 – learn how to build things. By providing a collaborative environment in which to explore basic and advanced building techniques and principles, we strive to create a school where we all learn by fooling around. All activities are hands-on, supervised, and at least partly improvisational.

Grand schemes, wild ideas, crazy notions, and intuitive leaps of imagination are, of course, encouraged and fertilized.

Sessions are limited to 8 tinkerers.
The cost is $1200/week.
To reserve a spot, half must be paid in advance.
Cancellations must be received at least 30 days before the session starts.
Parents/guardians will be expected to complete the big scary liability waiver.

Tinkering School is taught primarily by me, Gever Tulley, aided of course by my indispensable wife Julie Spiegler and the inimitable Robyn Orr. By day, I am a Senior Computer Scientist at Adobe, writer, and practicing sculptor. Julie is the XD Playground Monitor at Adobe (and we both teach paragliding at the Advanced Paragliding School), and Robyn’s secret identity is still kept secret but she only uses her super-organizational skills for good and the Tinkering School.

I started the Tinkering School because it’s the kind of thing I would like to have been able to go to myself.

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