Improving Classroom Practice Through ‘Structured Tinkering’

Improving Classroom Practice Through ‘Structured Tinkering’

HPL founder Deborah Eyre discusses the phrase 'Structured Tinkering' and it's role in the classroom.

HPL founder Deborah Eyre discusses why Structured Tinkering - with a goal in mind and in collaboration with others - will boost the impact of this and still place the individual teacher at the centre.

Good teachers rarely teach the same thing in exactly the same way twice. Teachers are always ‘tinkering’ with their practice to try and improve it. The first time, or the first few times, is about planning carefully and seeing how the lesson works. It may go brilliantly, or it may have some good aspects, or it may not work well at all. All this means that the next time around there are likely to be some minor changes and over time the lesson (perhaps the topic or scheme of work) is refined so it works better. This is a natural process in good teaching - no-one wants to repeat lessons or topics that didn’t work well or that students found unexpectedly hard to understand. My own experience of doing this was part of the spark for what I call ‘Structured Tinkering’.

General tinkering is a kind of survival tactic and a key reason why more experienced teachers seem to find the craft of teaching more straightforward than those coming new to it. Seasoned teachers have more experience about how new knowledge and concepts they will be teaching may land with a given class or age group, giving them the time and the confidence to adjust mid lesson to meet the needs of individuals. In fact most experienced teachers whose classes are going well can’t resist a minor tweak or two!

Tinkering is a well-recognised way of working what is less commonly appreciated in schools and that is, this tinkering is a legitimate way to work and can lead to really significant results. Tinkering is a widely accepted way of making change in many sectors and a very successful one. The philosopher Karl Popper (1944 ), concluded that:

“Piecemeal tinkering combined with critical analysis is the main way to practical results in the social as well as natural sciences.”

He went on to say that it is a more effective way to make change than the more conventional grand schemes. Many have followed his ideas and this concept is still much favoured.

Structured Tinkering

I have always liked the idea of tinkering and around fifteen years ago I started to look at whether tinkering with a specific purpose could be even more valuable than just random tinkering. I call this approach ‘Structured Tinkering’. Recently people have been asking me about this and it seems more relevant now than ever.

Structured Tinkering provides a way of making changes to practice, finding new methodologies which the teacher thinks will enhance their pedagogy. For example, in High Performance Learning we foreground a set of cognitive competencies that research shows help students be successful. We encourage teachers to integrate these systematically into their teaching repertoire so that students get enough practice and can master them. We don’t restructure their lessons for them, we simply ask them to tinker with a purpose. That is Structured Tinkering.

Popper, C. (1944) The Open Society and its Enemies. Abingdon: Routledge Eyre. D, (2007) Structured Tinkering: Improving Provision for the Gifted in Ordinary Schools in Gifted and Talented International volume 22 Issue 1 Hamilton, A, Hattie, J. (2021) Getting to Gold. Copyright © 2021 by Corwin Press, Inc

The drivers behind the Structured Tinkering approach are simple but powerful: Firstly, embrace the facts that teaching is a complex business and every teacher has developed their own unique teaching style, which is probably hard to change. Students vary too, and teaching needs to fit the context of the school and the class. Secondly, celebrate that good teachers are by nature reflective. Structured Tinkering sets out to nurture and encourage this critical analysis.

 Good teachers already improve their practice by tinkering alone, but we have found Structured Tinkering - with a goal in mind and in collaboration with others - will boost its impact.”

Thirdly, good teachers already improve their practice by tinkering alone, but we have found Structured Tinkering - with a goal in mind and in collaboration with others - will boost its impact.

In Structured Tinkering the teacher is at the heart of the process. The strength of this approach lies in the way it builds on existing teaching skills and knowledge and applies them to the new topic, rather than seeing innovations as something competing with or separate from good daily teaching.

Structured Tinkering is a three stage cycle:

1. The teacher recognises that it is his or her role to adapt classroom provision to incorporate the new ideas. Popper suggests that we all have an interpretative framework which helps us to solve such problems. In the case of teachers some of that framework is established in pre-service or through professional learning and then refined through teaching experience.

2. The teacher becomes familiar with the general theories, models and principles underlying the innovation they need to make. So in High Performance Learning this would be the overall philosophy, the 7 Pillars, the advanced cognitive performance characteristics (ACPs) and the values, attitudes and attributes (VAAs) and the research sitting behind it.

3. The teacher, or team of teachers, select an area of their practice which they consider would benefit from (structured) tinkering and try to improve it using the Action Research methodology. This process is carefully monitored and permanent adjustments made based on defendable findings. The process becomes a regular event, as teachers go on to focus on different aspects of their chosen topic. This is more than just experimenting. It is systematically defining the problem, intervening to bring about beneficial change and then deciding if the result is really an improvement.

I have found that this approach is very appealing to teachers because it recognises their professional skill. It also recognises the complexity of teaching and learning and attempts to take account of it. Whilst each individual change may not be large they are real changes.

Our experience shows that Structured Tinkering delivers small steps, but over time these lead to an entire evolution of pedagogy and practice.

                          Author: Professor Deborah Eyre

Professor Deborah Eyre: Founder and Chair at High Performance Learning (HPL). A globally respected education leader, academic researcher, writer and influencer with a specialism in the learning sciences and a goal of using cognition to make high student performance the norm in schools. Deborah is a Freeman of the City of London and has an attachment to St Hugh’s College, Oxford University