Training Tweakers

With the dismal showing of United States high school students in the international problem solving assessment (PISA), there's a lot of talk these days about redirecting the focus of education on problem solving. The effects of the World Wide Web and Internet have also made knowledge alone less important, but application, implication, and analysis more important.

It's not a trivial matter teaching students problem solving. In fact, people who are adept at problem solving seem to have been doing it ever since they were kids. See what Tom Kelley says about his brother IDEO founder David Kelley: "My brother David, for example, has been building things and then trying to make them better for as long as I can remember. We had a snowy Ohio winter the year I was six years old, and David started a series of increasingly complex snow construction projects in the backyard. He started with the basics--three tiered snowmen--but soon progressed to whole forts by lining up snowmen shoulder-to-shoulder to form four walls. Looking for the next revision of his prototype fort, David briefly considered a two-story model, which he thankfully abandoned when he hit upon the idea of using a cardboard box to make snow "bricks"...(then) David hit upon an idea for revision 2.1: adding water to each brick so that it would freeze to a solid and incredibly heavy) block of ice..."

So before educational experts dive into the problem of how to teach problem solving, we might ask, what can be do to cultivate the temperaments of Tweakers. Tweakers are people who have creative discontent. They are not just critics, but intrinsically motivated people who seem to be striving toward perfection. Tweakers are generally confident that the way things are can generally be made better, and that they can find some way to do it.

There are some children who step out of the cradle as natural-born Tweakers, but others have bits and pieces of the successful profile, and its clear that more need to be encouraged to follow in that way. What the successful environments for cultivating Tweakers? Here are a few we came up with:

· Critical eye - Tweakers first have to see that something is wrong or could be improved; they have to be opinionated and critical of themselves as well as others
· Time to Tweak - tweaking takes time - there has to be some trial and error, rumination, discussion with others, and exposure to different ideas or perspectives
· Power to Tweak - having the power in situations to see the outcome of changes or tweaks
· Persevering with a Problem - the puzzle aspect to problem solving is fun for the Tweaker, but sometimes children need to appreciate the fact that the best puzzles are those that are not solved easily or in the same day
· Where or How to Find Ideas - there are better and worse ways to come up with good ideas - bad: looking up cheats or answers, good: reasoning or hypothesizing from analogy or metaphor, changing perspective, finding new information, trying new strategy

What are environments that could stifle tweaking?

· Stifle Criticism- family or classroom environments that discourage free expression, opinion-making or criticism promote passivity and acceptance of the ways things are
· No Time to Tweak- moved quickly from task-to-task, once skill mastered, moved onto another. Artificial environment or curricula where problems and answers are selected for simple or predictable outcomes. Excessive or frequent testing.
· No Power to Tweak - no personal responsibility to a task, no possibility or too risky to try out outlandish ideas, no opportunity to work with primary materials and observe result
· Quick Answers - expectations for results within short time periods. No ambiguity or incompletely answered questions
· No Modeling of Idea Fluency or Problem Solving - many people, not just kids, have unrealistic ideas of how problems should be solved

If we tally up the characteristics of ideal environments for Tweakers, it's easy to see where existing educational approaches fall short. But somehow we must find a way to fill students up with both information and a Tweaker's approach to life. In future posts we'll think about the specific issues of training of Tweakers in science and technology, language arts, mathematics, and social studies.


  1. Anonymous3:37 AM

    Hi Drs Eide

    Thanks so much, at last a name for my son (10) and DH and the long line of tweakers on both sides of the family. I just laughed in recognition. It rolls of the tongue so well and captures their adorable geekiness so well :-). I shared the post with my DH who certainly recognised himself in the description and then immediately diverged onto what *he* really wanted to talk about - tweaking a telescope. LOL! These two are definitely born tweakers.

    It did occur to me that male tweakers may be far more easily recognised than female tweakers in that it lends itself to descriptions of practical problem solving very easily and I had to think hard to identify the 'tweakiness' of my DD (7) and I.

    As for education questions I think there are two issues. Firstly how to educate born tweakers like my son who is only happy if he is pursuing an issue of interest to him (i.e. that he has recognised with his critical eye) given access to the resources and everyone gets out of his way and simply be available to answer his questions or bounce ideas off. The second is how to teach people to be tweakers...I will mull on this. It does occur to me in the work I have done with preschoolers that they are the ultimate tweakers and perhaps this is educated out of them...i.e. are we trying to put something back in that we took out early on in the educational process? I can see this with my DD who is more socially oriented and has suppressed her experimental side in favour of gaining approval.

    I look forward with interest to your further thoughts!



  2. Hi Sue - Love your story! You've hit upon essential questions for education. Historians of science can tell you that the Tweakers with a capital 'T' often had very eclectic or problematic approaches to conventional education. Of David Kelley, his brother also wrote (in The Art of Innovation, a great book BTW): "David recognized that he had to start his own business. He knew he couldn't fit in a conventional workplace. He wasn't linear. His forte wasn't sitting down and working. Nor did David have the attention span to follow somebody else's direction. If he wanted to have a chance at success, he'd have to lead."

    Some elementary school teachers are horrified by some of the strong wills of these independent young thinkers, and they worry that they may never grow up and learn to work and play well with others. But most of these young tweakers are quite idealistic and just have their eyes fixed on doing something better. They like learning from other smart people because they hear about new ideas.

    The issue you raise about the developmental decline of tweaking was recently alluded to in the story told by Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind. If you go into a kindergarten class and ask "How many artists are there in the room?" almost all the hands go up. By 2nd grade, three-fourths of the hands go up. By third grade, only a few are seen, and by sixth grade, no hands go up.

    We think we should try to put back what was taken out early in the educational process.

  3. This is an interesting post. I teach physics in high school and have found numerous 'tweakers' over the years in my classes. One approach that works very well with them is to always include variety in everything that is being taught. We look at new material by using mini-labs for students to try and figure out new relationships or phenomena before even mentioning them formally in class, readings, journals articles, traditional lectures, multiple demos, appropriate videos, more formal experiments, students presenting individual research results, computer simulations, small group work working on applications and problem solving, and even links to to politics, industry, history, other areas of science or technology, and whatever else comes to mind. The point is, by working in a world where the same material or problem is looked at from multiple perspectives, 'tweakers' as well as most students tend to keep their focus and interest in the material being studied. 'Tweakers' in particular tend to go into overdrive, since they develop so many new ideas to try and attack a problem or device. In addition, because everyone learns in different ways, variety tends to keep all students engaged, which is ultimately what we are after.

    I think you are correct that we need to keep an eye on early years of the educational process, where young children are essentially natural scientists (i.e. ask countless questions and the excitement in trying to figure things out). I think part of the reason for the dwindling number of hands that go up as age increases is related to the general decrease in production of professionals as they get older. Even for children there is an increase in the number of distractions as one gets older. Children gain more experience in and out of school, and depending on personal interests, they will focus more and more energy and time to those activities, whether it is sports, art, science, math, writing, socializing, community work, and countless others. I think a lot of this fits in with Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (although I think of it more as multiple competencies); kids begin to discover what they are strong in, and most individuals begin to focus more on those areas. This could be a partial answer to why the number of artists goes down each year, since good artists begin to stand out and most people with little talent make the discovery they are not very good in comparison (even if they have an interest in art), and therefore do not pursue it as strongly.

  4. vonny - Thanks so much for sharing your teaching strategies for tweakers. You have great ideas - the mini labs is a great idea for catalyzing their interest and giving them practice in kicking around ideas for phenomena that they don't completely understand. It's a great point too about tweakers going into overdrive.

    The artist problem certainly may involve kids being more aware of what they can or can't do well, and how they may compare to their peers. But probably too many kids form opinions of themselves too soon, when they haven't really had enough of a chance to experiment with the range of what different fields have to offer.

    Also, for certain domains, there may be a prolonged period of 'preparing' which may look nothing like the skills and abilities you need to do original or first-rate work at the peak of ones career.

    Thanks again vonny, for your insightful post.