Chad Dorsey

Perspective: Honoring the Legacy of Bob Tinker

There are many ways of viewing our path in the world. Some people focus on the road ahead, considering each step one at a time. Some look slightly farther, to the upcoming bend, hoping a flicker of light will appear to illuminate their way. But a rare few have the ability to glimpse the distant horizon. It is these remarkable individuals who make the real strides, enlightened by a perception of the future that eludes the rest of us. Bob Tinker could see to the horizon—and beyond. He plunged toward it gleefully and without hesitation. On the way, he inspired and motivated us all as he blazed the trail to a transformative era in education.

The dawning of technology’s presence in my own life crops up as flickering bursts of memory, each one a dusty page in the history of educational technology.

A printer head in a dusty community college lab screeches. Jagged black dots form words on broad white paper. The magic message—DEER HIT!—marks another step along the Oregon Trail.

My friend and I crouch over an Apple II, lugged home from school by my father for the weekend. We watch in silent awe as the blinking cursor paints pixelated swaths of random color. Then we regroup and debate: which snippet of BASIC to copy in next?

Crimped copper tubes on my father’s workbench sprout bouquets of colored wire. Each hints at a tiny thermistor buried deep inside. The shining stalks stand together, at the ready, anxious to make their intended transition—from mere idea in a teacher-conference DIY session to the reality that beckons: hands-on, real-life voltages and temperature graphs in a bustling physics classroom.

Many years later—in a classroom of my own—a simple but compelling thought: could computer models, like the ones that formed the toolkit of my years of physics research, be equally powerful as tools for my students’ learning? Of course, Bob was ahead of me at every point. He was ahead of most of us.

Long before most people even had a clear understanding of what computers were, Bob had recognized their potential to transform the way we teach and learn science. And from the earliest days when he’d corner someone at an AAPT meeting to show them his wired-together contraption—a naphthalene-like substance in a test tube, a portable heater, and a thermistor, all fastened to a large piece of plywood and connected to a KIM-1 single-board computer—Bob was an evangelist for technology’s power to bring the joy of science exploration to learners everywhere.

Even though the Concord Consortium has lost its founder—and an amazing friend, colleague, mentor, and collaborator—our memories of him and his work resonate in an enduring way. Because of Bob’s consistency of vision, depth of foresight, and broad legacy, we recall and honor his spirit every day through the work we do. Bob played a significant role in two of the major NSF-funded projects we’re currently working on. What’s more, they both share core notions about STEM teaching and learning that speak to Bob’s longstanding vision about technology and learning, and address our central mission as an organization.

“[Microcomputers] offer flexible tools for communication, data acquisition, instrumentation, computation, analysis, and visualization. These tools empower students to do science, to undertake investigations of immediate interest and to build a durable understanding of the underlying science.”

These words, written by Bob nearly 30 years ago, outline the important role he saw for technology, even then, as a means of opening up the process of science for learners. As Bob saw it, technology is a ticket to freedom, an invitation to jettison the rigid, formulaic trappings of traditional school teaching and go investigate. The nature of such undertakings was clear to Bob as well—technology could enable youth to engage with problems of their own choosing and investigate them in open-ended ways.

Bob drew a contrast between these open-ended investigations and what he called the “storehouse model” of education, in which “we ask kids to store away facts, formulas, and definitions against some day in the future when they will need to draw from their hoard.” Sadly, this contrast remains relevant in education still. It also remains central to our work.

The formula for successful science education, Bob noted, is right in front of us—science itself. “Science,” he wrote, “provides the ingredients missing in science education: the joy of discovery, the excitement that comes from deeper understanding, and the satisfaction of solving an important problem.”

Bob’s vision of learning and how it progresses is the antithesis of the storehouse of knowledge. It casts learning as an adventure, an exploration, a series of discoveries. It is also highly empowering. Engaging in this process—identifying, defining, exploring, and solving a problem of one’s own choosing—launches a powerful cycle. This cycle grows over time, reinforced by additional encounters, until it begins to unlock enormous personal potential. Engaging repeatedly with the true process of science provides both the practice and the pathway to identifying, understanding, and tackling problems of all types and topics, throughout all walks of life.

This process, captured by the broad term “STEM inquiry,” encompasses the important practices of science and engineering and puts them to use in meaningful ways. It notably does not imply adherence to any kind of cookie cutter recipe, most certainly not the so-called “Scientific Method.” Bob supplied frequent, adamant reminders that actual science proceeds in anything but a straight and methodical path; it moves instead through a mishmash of mistakes and false starts. He encouraged curricular formats and patterns that could help move students toward extended experiences of meaningful, non-formulaic inquiry learning. When successful, this type of learning is truly three-dimensional, providing powerful, long-lasting take-aways for learners. It is the type of learning that technology can render flexible, insightful, and powerful. And it is the type of learning Bob sought to promote from his earliest days in considering technology’s role.

These notions—uncovering, demonstrating, and spreading the ways that technology can expand and deepen STEM inquiry—form the core of all our work. They weave through all our projects. And they excite us. They are also a constant reminder that there is still a great deal of work to do. Far too few examples of technology’s important role in STEM inquiry reach learners today, especially those who remain traditionally underserved. Far too few teachers are well versed in selecting STEM inquiry resources that pivot on technology’s presence. Even fewer have had the opportunity to become skilled at using them to facilitate deep learning. And, more broadly, too few of those who control the gates to STEM learning—from policymakers to parents—have had the chance to appreciate the importance and power STEM inquiry practices hold for students’ learning and futures. These are big problems, for our children and our society. With Bob’s legacy in mind, our work aims to confront them head on.