Tinkering Toward a Deeper Understanding

A few weeks ago, I wrote about reframing failure in the light of one of the key findings from Project 2025 — namely, that we need to prepare students to be “risk takers and self-starters that grow from failure.” But what does this look like in the classroom?

Today I’m excited to share with you a reflection from Mr. Geoff Sahs, one of our seventh grade humanities teachers.  Mr. Sahs also offers a Selectives course called “It Might Get Loud” where, among other challenges, students design and build a functioning amplifier. Whether they are constructing machines or analytical arguments, Mr. Sahs’ students enjoy tinkering and getting messy. Enjoy!

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I am a tinkerer. I don’t know if I was born that way, or if it developed over time, but as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in how things work.

Some of my favorite memories from my childhood include lying on the ground with my dad while he worked on our car, watching my older brother build a crystal radio, and constantly fixing my bike after various crashes and escapades in the neighborhood.

As a young teen, I found the parts to a moped engine in a box in our garage. Seeing those components brought forth images of freedom, wind in my hair (I had more when I was young!), and raw speed. I fully assembled that motor, and after storing a few parts I had left over, I prepared to hit the open road. Well…that was also when I encountered my first major failure. I never did get that moped to work – even after rebuilding it two more times! 

I remembered those childhood events as I watched my Selectives class at the board, drawing a layout for the guitar amplifier we are building, and I marveled at the way they worked together. Splitting the class into two groups, I gave each group a separate circuit, and they faced the challenge of combining them into one whole circuit.

The groups discussed a key for color coding the components, they delegated authority, and set about creating a cohesive design. During the process, they checked their work, revised if necessary, and did it neatly! By the end of the class, they had also developed a parts list and gave me the task of procuring the components they needed to build this amplifier. How did I end up with homework?

One of the unexpected byproducts of this type of exercise is the reaction people have to my board when they tour the middle school. When they observe maps, key figures in the Texas Revolution, and timelines of colonial America, visitors immediately know that we study a lot of history in my classroom.

The amplifier designs, however, provide an entirely different springboard for me to explain what we teach here at TVS, and more importantly, how we teach it. In fact, the Selectives program almost always dominates my conversations with visitors.

Students do not merely have the opportunity to build an amplifier in my class. Yes, they learn how to solder, read a schematic, and understand how old vacuum tubes work, which for a tinkerer like me is pretty fun. But what I really aim to teach is the willingness to take risks through exploration. For example, last term I had a student, John, who approached me for help fixing his electric guitar. When I asked him if he had taken it apart, he responded that he was afraid to break it. I handed him a screwdriver saying, “It already doesn’t work, you probably won’t hurt it more, but before you open it up, explain what happened.”

In a two-minute conversation, he explained the situation — and in the process of explaining, he diagnosed what was likely wrong with the guitar and devised a plan to see if he was right. I told him to go for it, and with a smile and increased confidence, he dug into his guitar and eventually fixed it.

The process John navigated is what we expect our students to do with all of their class work: approach the problem, analyze the problem, figure out the tools or information required, and solve the problem. However, the fear of failure often hinders students from feeling confident in taking risks. I see my Selectives class as a space for students to grow comfortable with the uncertainty of experimentation and to embrace curiosity. My ultimate goal is for them to find their own “box of moped parts” someday and say to themselves with confidence, “I can build that!” Or maybe in their humanities class, they will see a board full of terms and feel confident in assembling an argument around them.

Now, it is time for me to put together that box of parts for my young amplifier builders. Before this semester ends, they are going to have a great time building their design!   

Amplifier            

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