Messing about in technology

If we were to establish a hall of fame for reflective writing about teaching, especially for texts revealing deep, yet accessible ideas about pedagogical theory/practice, it would be difficult to find better candidates than “Messing About in Science” by David Hawkins (1965). The paper describes his work in a fifth-grade class teaching about pendulums as part of the Elementary Science Study, which grew out of his discussions with Eleanor Duckworth, another insightful science educator. Although the study was grounded in a specific setting, the ideas might be applied to any subject of study or types of learners, including learning about and with digital technologies.

Phases in science learning

Hawkins identifies three patterns, or phases, of school work in science. These phases induce different relations among children, materials of study, and teachers. If we substitute “mentors” or “colleagues” for “teachers,” we see that they apply fairly well to science work itself and to other kinds of learning and work. That’s not so surprising, given that the essence of the phases is that the form of inquiry in science is not that different from the form of inquiry in learning. In fact, Hawkins prefers the term “work” over “play” in his model, even though it might appear that he’s just arguing for allowing children to have time to play.

Hawkins has in mind the kind of work one might do on a boat, citing the famous passage by in The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame (1908):

“Believe me, my young friend”, said the water rat solemnly, “there is nothing…absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing…nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular…”

slipping pennies into water

(Slipping pennies into water in an investigation of surface tension, in a school in Brisbane; note the name tape on the forehead!)

Hawkins discovered that in order to learn in science we need ample time to “mess about.” Because it may appear that we don’t “get anywhere at all,” this phase is often neglected and undervalued. Thus, he devotes most of his article to the circle (◯) or “messing about” phase, in which learners engage in “free and unguided exploratory work” (p. 67).

In the pendulum study, Hawkins had planned to allow the children to explore for an hour or two, before getting into the science lesson per se. But he soon discovered that they needed more time to become familiar with the materials. Moreover, the materials provided a structure to their investigations. Their messing about was far from chaotic or undirected. In fact, as they messed about they began to generate the very questions that the lesson was intended to address, but in a way that was more involved, and connected to their direct experience.

Hawkins goes on to describe two additional phases, which he sees as essential, but more often included in science teaching. The triangle (△) phase, involves “multiply programed material” to support work that is “more externally guided and disciplined” (p. 72). The square (▢) phase is for “discussion, argument, and the full colloquium of children and teacher” (p. 74). The phases are unordered, and all are important. Learning in science requires the opportunity to experience al of the phases in a connected way, and to move easily among them.

Franz and Papert (1988) build on Hawkins’s ideas in a paper about students learning how to measure time. They argue that using computers well for learning requires

open-ended projects that foster students’ involvement with a variety of materials; …activities in which students use computers to solve real problems; …[connection of] the work done on the computer with what goes on during the rest of the school day, and also with the students’ interests outside of school; …[recognizing] the unique qualities of computers; …[taking advantage of] ow-cost technological advances…, which promote integration of the computer with aspects of the students’ physical environment.

Youth community informatics

In our Youth Community Informatics project, middle-school students make podcasts of stories important in their lives. Their work (learning) appears to follow the models we see in the pendulum and time projects, especially in terms of the value of messing about. They need time to explore, experiment, and become comfortable with the technologies.

In the project, young people select images from the web, scan in family photos, create graphics, find and download music, create audio files, edit audio using Audacity, and create presentations. They learn about copyright and citing sources, as well as about design and story-telling. More importantly, they use the podcasts as a way to connect with and talk about their families and their lives outside of school.

Like Hawkins, we see the value of guided inquiry (△) and of full colloquium (▢) in this work, but we have seen increasingly the need for ample time to mess about (◯) as well. Doing that allows students to make the technology part of their lived experience and not something divorced from it.


Hawkins, David (1965). Messing about in science. Science and Children, 2(5), 5-9.

Franz, George, & Papert, Seymour (1988, Spring). Computer as material: Messing about with time. Teachers College Record, 89(3), 408-417.

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