Bob Tinker at CMK 2008

The world lost a remarkable educator on June 22, 2017 when Dr. Robert Tinker passed away at the age of 75.

If your students have ever worked on a collaborative online project, taken a virtual class, used a science probe, played The Zoombinis, or used any terrific materials created by TERC or The Concord Consortium, Bob is the reason why.

A gifted scientist, Bob was brilliant, kind, patient, joyous, and generous. Like our mutual friend, Seymour Papert, Bob spent his life helping others to learn and love science and math just as much as he did. He possessed the rare empathy that allowed him to wonder why others might not learn this or that as naturally or easily as he did. Rather than blame or shame learners, Bob designed tools not to teach, but for learning. At Seymour Papert’s memorial celebration, Tod Machover quoted Papert as saying, “Everyone needs a prosthetic.” Bob Tinker was in the business of creating remarkable prosthetics useful for embracing the wonders of scientific inquiry.

I just learned that Bob fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Alabama, just as Papert did in South Africa. This news came as no surprise.

“My Dad was the probably the smartest man I knew (MIT PhD), and he decided to pass on earning a big salary with a Defense Contractor in order to positively impact change. With my mom at his side, during the civil rights movement they moved to the South to teach at a University that could hardly afford textbooks. They marched in dangerous areas. They worked to expose climate change. They personally funded the arts and those less fortunate. They then built the two largest science/match educational non-profits in the USA. The two NGOs employ hundreds, have trained thousands of teachers, and have educated millions of kids.” (Bob’s daughter, Facebook, June 22)

A life well lived… Online, Bob’s friends remember him as a mensch.

Long before politicians and hucksters began alarming the citizenry about the need to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) subjects as a vulgar ticket to careers, real or imagined, Bob Tinker created tools and technology that not only raised the standards for student participation in those fields, but did so in a progressive constructivist context. Not only didn’t his approach to S.T.E.M. exceed empty rhetoric and vocabulary acquisition, Bob’s work brought a broad spectrum of modern scientific domains to life in classrooms. Biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, earth science, electronics, engineering, and computational thinking were all in the mix.

Dr. Tinker delighting in a teacher’s scientific discovery

One could make a compelling argument that Bob Tinker is the father of S.T.E.M. However, I think of him as the Thomas Edison of S.T.E.M. Beyond his remarkable academic preparation, Bob was not resigned to a life of writing pretentious papers to be published in overpriced conference proceedings read by six colleagues. While there was nobody better at writing successful grant proposals, Bob and his colleagues had a stunning track record of “commercializing” their ideas. At both TERC, where he was Director of Educational Technology and The Concord Consortium he founded, Bob Tinker personified Edison’s notion of research AND development. An idea could be tested, refined, manufactured, and distributed in a reasonable timeframe. Unlike so many researchers cloistered in university departments and think tanks, Bob and his colleagues turned ideas into actual products enjoyed by millions of students around the world. Like Edison, Dr. Tinker didn’t work alone. He assembled and led an incredibly competent band of “muckers” who could bring impossible ideas to life.

Those products were sound, timely, reliable, open-ended, fun and teachable without succumbing to “teacher proofing” or dumbing down the science. There was never anything condescending about Dr. Tinker’s prolific work. Bob’s considerable charm and passion undoubtedly played a role in the creation of public/private partnerships, including with The National Geographic and Broderbund, required to successfully distribute his inventions to classrooms and homes everywhere. Bob was also a pioneer in making powerful software tools freely available online. He also preceded the DIY ethos of the maker movement by advocating for the creation of one’s own science probes in 2007!

In Bob’s world, there was no reason to add an A for Arts to S.T.E.M., since the doing of science and mathematics was itself, beautiful, wondrous, playful, creative, and relevant. Papert and Tinker shared a desire for children to be mathematicians and scientists, rather than being taught math or science. They both worked to make complexity possible by making the frontiers of mathematics and science accessible and usable by children. Bob went a step further and created programs where students could collaborate with scientists online as colleagues back in 1989, two years before the World Wide Web was released to the public. My fourth grade class participated in the National Geographic Kids Network Acid Rain project back in 1990.

In an interview Bob said:

“I became inspired to teach by tutoring two kids for two years in a black college in the South. It was the best education (for me!) anyone could design because it showed me exactly how science education could reach far more learners. I’ve dedicated my life to realizing that dream and it’s been wonderful working with smart people who share that dedication. There’s always been a sense of mission. We make important advances that will affect kids all over the world and—this was my initial motivation—bring cutting-edge educational resources to under-resourced kids.”

On a personal note

I do not remember exactly when I first met Bob Tinker, but it was at a conference approximately thirty years ago. Back then, the smartest people in the world spoke at educational computing conferences. I was familiar with his work prior to meeting him. In fact, I was a big fan of The Science Toolkit, distributed by home recreational software publisher, Broderbund. The Science Toolkit was a low-cost ($79 master module with two probes and $39 add-on sets) software package with external sensors that plugged into the joystick port of a microcomputer to allow children to conduct, measure, and record science experiments at home. This was an example of what Bob pioneered and called Micro-Based Labs (MBL).

Check out the video clip from the Christmas 1983 episode of the PBS show Computer Chronicles. Note how clean and simple the software it is and compare it some of the probeware software sold to schools today.

Prior to meeting Bob, I owned my own Science Toolkit. I was especially pleased with myself for figuring out how to program LogoWriter to read data from the kit’s probes without using the accompanying software. I could now write my own programs for collecting data, graphing it, and controlling my own experiments. I nailed using the light sensor, but my temperature data I received wasn’t particularly accurate. I eventually rationalized this as being the fault of the sensor or based on the limitations of the Science Toolkit, despite the fact that the probe worked just fine with the software provided. 

Not much time passed before I ran into Bob Tinker in one of those “V.I.P.” receptions, in the crummy “suite” of the conference chair in the forgettable hotel where the conference was being held. As I told Bob about my struggles with temperature data, he grabbed a napkin and wrote calculus formulas across all of the quadrants of the unfolded napkin. Bob mentioned that reading the temperature data was non-linear, a concept this C- science student could vaguely comprehend. While I never figured out how to translate the napkin math to a working LogoWriter program, Bob’s good cheer, gentle mentoring, and generosity reminded meow something I wrote in an essay a couple of years ago, “Math teachers often made me feel stupid; mathematicians never did.”

Maria Knee & Bob Tinker at CMK 2008

When I started the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute for educators ten years ago, Bob was the first speaker I secured. He had agreed  to return in a few weeks to help us celebrate our 10th anniversary this July.

I will never forget the joy he brought to kindergarten teacher extraordinaire, Maria Knee, who was euphoric while manipulating molecules in software Bob created (The Molecular Workbench). He and his colleagues made the impossible accessible to generations of teachers and children.

I am gutted by Bob’s passing. Losing Bob, Seymour Papert, Marvin Minsky, and Edith Ackermann within an 18-month period is almost too painful to bear. They were fountains of powerful ideas extinguished in anti-intellectual age hostile to science, even wonder. The education community does not enjoy a proud record of honoring the contributions of its pioneers or standing on their shoulders. Instead we continuously rediscover that which already exists, without attribution and with diminished expectations.

More than twenty-five years ago, Seymour Papert and Bob Tinker led a crazy or courageous session at the National Educational Computing Conference in Boston. If memory serves me, the presentation had a title along the lines of “Enemies of Constructionism.” I remember them taking turns placing acetates on the overhead projector proclaiming the name and photo of one of their enemies, including their NSF project manager who happened to be in the audience. This session had to be Seymour’s idea because Bob was too nice, but I suspect that Bob wrote the proposal.

I considered Bob a friend and dear colleague, even though we never really hung out or worked together formally. We often discussed collaborating on an elementary school project of some sort even though Bob modestly claimed not to know anything about little kids. Less than a year ago, Bob introduced me to a colleague and recommended that I be an advisor for an NSF proposal. I was honored to be asked and the grant* has been funded. While searching my email database, I found another proposal Bob himself included me in eleven years ago. I am humbled by his faith in me and respect for my work.

I wonder if ISTE will honor Bob in any way or if they even know who he is? I still await even a tweet about the passing of Dr. Papert. Like Papert, Bob Tinker was never invited to be a keynote speaker at ISTE or its predecessor, NECC.

Rest-in-power Bob. We will miss you forever and the struggle against ignorance continues!


Seminal articles by Robert Tinker, Ph.D.

Read more by searching for Tinker.

The Concord Consortium is assembling a collection of tributes to Bob Tinker here.

Read Bob Tinker’s Wikipedia page.

Notes

* Read the text of the funded NSF proposal, Science and Engineering Education for Infrastructure Transformation.

 

The first step in improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) in our classrooms is to find evidence of its existence.

S.T.E.M. currently suffers from the Sasquatch Syndrome. People have heard of S.T.E.M. just like they have heard of Bigfoot, but they’ve never actually seen either.

Two years ago, I taught Masters level Elementary Math and Science methods courses. One night, I asked the class of preservice teachers currently student teaching what I thought was an innocent question. I asked, “Tell me about how science is approached in your school?” The students looked around nervously for a moment and then shared observations like the following:

  • We are supposed to do science after testing season.
  • The science teacher is on maternity leave.
  • Nobody knows where the key to the science materials is.
  • Our school is focusing on numeracy and literacy.
  • Science is supposed to happen on Mondays, but we have had a lot of holidays.

You get the idea…

Not a single student teacher working in several dozen Southern California elementary schools could cite a single incident of science being taught. Forget about engineering or computer science.

After all, it’s not like little kids are curious or enjoy exploring the world around them. You couldn’t possibly teach reading or language arts in a scientific context, right?

 

Dear School Leaders and Policy Makers:

Our university used to boast of a 100% job placement rate for MA students with a freshly minted teaching credential. The Class of 2010 faced nearly 100% unemployment. A remarkable portion of each of my recent pre-service class sessions was dedicated to questions of employment and unemployment. That’s a shame since the only thing bigger than these wannabe teachers’ graduate school debt is their desire to improve the lives of children. Despite the wholesale debasing of teachers by the media, foundations and political leaders, I am inspired by anyone who still wants to teach and am honored to help them develop.

Apprenticeship is a powerful way to learn. That’s why future doctors and teachers intern before being credentialed. The theoretical principle at work is that you learn best through the careful emulation, collaboration and supervision of a master practitioner. I remain staggered by the remarkable impact of student teaching on candidates – for good and bad. It does not matter what my colleagues or I teach in the ivory tower of academia. Those techniques, learning theories, even deeply held values might be shelved within days of becoming a student teacher. This is commonplace when student teachers apprentice with the best educators. The results are more catastrophic when assigned to less competent, generous or inspirational teachers.

A few of my student teachers report being paired with teachers who are hostile, mean or sleepwalking. That’s unfortunate, but not half as tragic as the lessons newbies are learning from the “good” well-intentioned teachers and principals. What are young teachers expected to learn from what they observe in today’s public schools? Are good teachers being required to behave in miseducative ways based on directives from school administrators?

Here are just a few of the common scenarios being reported from the field.

  1. I asked several dozen California student teachers, “Tell me about science instruction in your school?” The nearly unanimous response was that elementary science education is a lot like Big Foot. Teachers have heard it exists, just never seen it for themselves. The Sasquatch Effect may also be applied to art, music, drama, social studies or any other meaningful pursuit not reduced to a standardized test. The innate curiosity of young children is being squelched while learning is supplanted by being taught or worse – prepped. An archaeologist would be required to find evidence of thematic units, classroom learning centers, experiments or authentic project-based learning.
  2. Principals evaluate teacher efficacy based on the volume of their students. Students are taught to be quiet, compliant and work in isolation. Elaborate time-consuming systems are enforced for eating lunch in silence, walking down the hall and playing only with children in your own class, if your school is liberal enough to still condone recess. There is zero tolerance for joy, conflict, exuberance or the expression of any other human emotion. We then have the audacity to pretend that one of the benefits of schooling is socialization. Right, anti-socialization.
  3. Math and language arts instruction has been reduced to teachers delivering a script and students chanting. Neither teacher nor student is privy to the secret logic of the seemingly infinite and random list of concepts and skills being “covered” in preparation for the test. Second graders are forced to solve worksheet problems concerning half-dollar coins even if you can’t remember the last time you saw one in circulation and the chincy manipulative kit does not include them. That’s OK, because tomorrow’s lesson will be on perimeter or from the new “algebra in-utero” curriculum. Nothing connects. There is no big picture. There’s just more instruction, more quizzes, more tests and less learning.
  4. Reading is reduced to mechanical acts or a prelude to comprehension tests. Classrooms are devoid of books, except for the basal that interrupts each boring paragraph with a quiz and compels every child to read the same thing at the same rate, regardless of their ability. Strong early readers endure years of needless phonics instruction just because while struggling readers are poked, prodded and drilled. Students receive “credit” for books they race through, but only if the school purchased the computerized quiz for that title. Reading for pleasure, information or any other intrinsic reason has gone the way of butter churning. It’s now an unpleasant unrewarding chore without the yummy creaminess. Yet, in the golden age of publishing and dynamism of the information age, we pretend to be mystified by illiteracy and low rates of independent reading.
  5. Not only has the standardization of curriculum begot test-prep and boredom, but “pacing” is its toxic spawn. Teachers are not only forced to pretend that every student is “keeping up” with whatever the pacing guide throws at them, but students are forbidden from “going ahead.” My student teachers report that teachers are punishing kids for going ahead of the sacred lesson. Some teachers make these students sit in isolation outside of the classroom if they have the audacity to express understanding of what they are being taught. Make no mistake, this obscene teaching practice is a form of child abuse and demonstrates that teachers, even the best intentioned ones suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. At best, this phenomenon demonstrates that a primary lesson of contemporary schooling is helplessness. If you act helpless, your teachers will teach that lesson to their students.

Where will one find creative teachers when agency is deprived and compliance celebrated? Every subject at every grade level could be taught in conjunction with a current event like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but by whom? When?

Five years from now, will any teachers know how to seize the teachable moment and build upon student interest or connect the curriculum to the world outside of the school?

I realize that politicians and the media are kicking your ass, but it is morally reprehensible for you to compel teachers to behave in ways that harm or inhibit the natural potential of children. Invoking the Nuremberg Defense is unacceptable. Who will stand up for the children? For your profession? For what is right?

Let’s imagine that non-traditional paths like Teach-for-America are effective and recruit the best and brightest university graduates as they promise. How many of these teacher candidates would be willing to suspend their own expression what they know about learning and allow academic content to be forced through the narrowness of the standardized curriculum?

What would you have me say to the young teacher who chokes up and testifies, “I don’t want to become like that?” (referring to the terrorized, risk-adverse, authoritarians she sees in schools as a result of the high-stakes accountability movement)

Why should a young teacher work for you? After you remove all joy, creativity, freedom and individuality from education, who will teach your child?