Tuesday, December 01, 2015

ending the derangement of public education...

Some folks simply seem to go crazy, but the derangement of public education in the US has been purposeful and near complete. In 2001, we launched my Wisdom of the Hands program and I started this blog in 2006. Originally, I was concerned that shop classes were being cut right and left from American schools. It was claimed at the time by too many ignoramuses to count that we were no longer a manufacturing nation and would buy all our stuff from China, so would no longer need skills. As a craftsman I had observed the process for years, as my own work became devalued in comparison to cheaply made, and readily available imports.

But the loss of shop classes was a symptom, not a cause, and if people in the US had a grasp of the relationship between hands and mind... that they form an essential partnership in learning, wood shops, music, laboratory science and the arts would have never been threatened by such foolishness, and we would have continued to have the best education in the world. Had they not disembodied learning we would not have abandoned so much. Now, we struggle to compete.

NPR is running a series on Morning Edition this week to focus on American Manufacturing... where the jobs are, who's making what, and how we can find workers to fill the jobs that are available as baby boomers retire. It seems that education has been off track for so long that it's hard to get back. All schools and all citizens should be involved in the effort to restore sanity to education.

In the meantime, I try to do more here in this blog than rant at the stupidity of educational policy makers. We must allow children to become engineers of their own lives, instead of engineering every little detail for them. And we can start with a better understanding of early childhood development to restore what we have lost.

Mademoiselle Albertine Necker de Saussure wrote the following in the early 1800's with regards to the development of the child.
"It is a matter of surprise to some, that children are satisfied with the rudest imitations. They are looked down upon for their want of feeling for art, while they should rather be admired for the force of imagination which renders such illusion possible. Mold a lump of wax into a figure or cut one out of paper, and, provided it has something like legs and arms and a rounded piece for a head, it will be a man in the eyes of the child. This man will last for weeks; the loss of a limb or two will make no difference; and he will fill every part you choose to make him play. The child does not see the imperfect copy, but only the model in his own mind. The wax figure is to him only a symbol on which he does not dwell. No matter though the symbol be ill chosen and insignificant; the young spirit penetrates the veil, arrives at the thing itself, and contemplates it in its true aspect. Too exact imitations of things undergo the fate of the things themselves, of which the child soon tires. He admires them, is delighted with them, but his imagination is impeded by the exactness of their forms, which represent one thing only; and how is he to be contented with one amusement? A toy soldier fully equipped is only a soldier; it can not represent his father or any other personage. It would seem as if the young mind felt its originality more strongly when, under the inspiration of the moment, it puts all things in requisition, and sees, in everything around, the instruments of its pleasure. A stool turned over is a boat, a carriage; set on its legs it becomes a horse or a table; a bandbox becomes a house, a cupboard, a wagon—anything. You should enter into his ideas, and, even before the time for useful toys, should provide the child with the means of constructing for himself, rather than with things ready made.
I think that if you have a mind through which to observe children on your own,  you will arrive at the conclusion that children must be equipped with tools and be given the necessary instruction to use them safely. The reason that young minds can put things together in such meaningful ways as de Saussure describes, is that the children are thereby engaged in a process of discovery. That sense of discovery brings the child to a heightened state of engagement (excitement) that is rarely found in classroom learning.

On another subject, Friends of Bill Coperthwaite have set up a website in his memory. Insearchofsimplicity.net  You may recall my own visit with Bill that I described here and here and elsewhere in the blog–places you can find using the search block at upper left. Type in Coperthwaite and press enter. Thanks Randall for the link.

Make, fix, create, and assist others in learning likewise.

Monday, November 30, 2015

on being led out part 2

We are in a wilderness of our own making in which the structures of society are rapidly removing agency, while we are operating under the illusion of free will. I hope that Matt Crawford's final chapter of his new book will help us whack through the thicket to some clear light.

In yesterday's post, I mentioned Crawford's books and the quote of mine which served him well as an entry point for his first book and concluding dialog for his third. In the third book, he was quite complimentary and called me a "first class thinker about education." But he also suggested in an offhand manner that the educational institutions that exist are working for some. Naturally a motorcycle mechanic with an advanced degree in Political Philosophy would see some merit in the status quo, even if he places his own thoughts at odds to it. I take a contrary view. First, I must assure my readers that I am pleased and flattered that he would spend as much of the reader's time in reflection on just a single quote from this blog, and at such important points in his books. And let me assure you that each of his books is a very worthwhile read.

On the other hand, the system of education based on students sitting confined to desks, at any level, pre-k through university is not working, and leaves even those successful in it and through it crippled in a variety of ways unless they are able to find some means through which to discover hands-on ways to bring balance to their learning processes.  Matt Crawford managed that by keeping motorcycles outside the city dump.  But it is my belief that since many students are not able to discover that balance on their own and have so few examples for it in their daily lives, it should be the job of education at all levels to insure learning at its best, which means in every case and for all students learning should become as much hands-on as educators are able to provide. It is absolutely true that for all students, what we learn hands-on is retained at a deeper level, for a longer period of time  and is therefore more likely to find use than those things that are learned without benefit of the whole body.

So first, let's explore why some student have apparent success in school, giving some the impression that the current methods work. Pierre Bourdieu, French philosopher and sociologist identified capital as being more than just money and financial resources. He identified the concept of social capital, which applies here in that social groups and particular families hold their young to varying standards and some work very hard to place their children at an advantage in schooling. The "Tiger Mother" is an example, and if you were the son or daughter of a second generation immigrant Asian mom, you might dare not perform at a high enough level in school to best your peers. And so even if the game is boring, or rigged, you play your heart out because it matters so much to Mom. The child of the upwardly mobile mom (or dad) will study harder, take learning more seriously, even when bored to tears, and will be provided a great deal of support within the home to make dead certain of success. This sociological principle also applies within the charter school movement in which rote memorization from the 19th century may be supercharged with hand clapping rhythmic response, but the real reason for success if it comes to that is that the students and their parents come to those schools with social capital focused on particular results. It does not hurt either that the efforts of those schools may be totally focused on getting high test scores and that important aspects of learning that are not on the test will be ignored to save time for those things that are.

But does schooling as a contrivance steeped in artificiality serve any students well? And what if we were to restore those areas of endeavor that brought life to schooling by doing real things? I can mention a few. The arts, music, wood shop, laboratory science and physical education. You can pretty much rely on the hands to give direction in this. And even where the hands have not been traditionally utilized to explore learning, as in history, literature and geography, they must be. Where the hands are engaged, hearts soon follow.

The great stupidity of modern education is that the hands are too often kept from doing real things.

Make, fix, create, and extend the notion,  please, that others may learn likewise.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Electronics and kids brains don't mix

Comedian Paula Poundstone wrote an essay for CBS News,  Electronics and kids' brains don't mix but the point she makes isn't funny. Digital media is now the perfect definition of a juggernaut, or it might be described as a tsunami with regard to the impact it's having on children's lives, but few seem to notice or consider what kids are missing. It's odd that the same parents who would protest if children were given Sloyd knives to work with in school, will give their children texting devices and launch them at high speed in cars they are barely mature enough to control. Who cares now if they can see over the steering wheel? Most tragically their eyes will be glued to the screen, whenever the device dings to tell them that someone else has posted something inane.

It is strange that people would so seriously engage their own children, putting them in situations of known risk, in a culture-wide experiment that promises estrangement from family and from the lessons that one can learn through the engagement in real life.

My thanks  to Mario for the link.

Make, fix, create, and encourage others to learn likewise.

on being led out...

I contacted Matthew Crawford yesterday to thank him for keeping my thoughts alive in his latest book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. 

I asked him for the rights to quote rather extensively from his last chapter, and with that granted, I hope to explain a few things. He said in the final chapter, On Being led out, redux:
To reclaim the real, both in the way we encounter other people and in the way we encounter things, would have implications for education. They are crystalized in the following quote from Doug Stowe, a woodshop teacher and first-class thinker about education: “In schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
He goes on to offer a minor caveat, saying. "I don’t think this is true for every student, but it is true of enough students that we ought to worry about it."

I can accept that there are some students that emerge from our current educational model as successful students and those particular students would consider the current model to be ideal, based on their success within it. I suggest that there are many successful students who for various reasons buy into the game of education, all the while knowing quite well that it's contrived, steeped in artificiality and abstraction like any other game. The children's game of Sorry comes to mind. If these particular children don't understand that the education game is rigged in their favor, they would have to be stupid indeed. And if education is a game then what is that telling students about real life and their responsibilities within it and their responsibilities to others less successful within it? Some seem to have difficulty reconciling the fact that some bright students successfully manipulate the education game to move on to Harvard and other top notch schools that provide the credentials for stellar careers and economic success, while others on the surface may appear to be more severely and outwardly wounded by the artificiality of schooling.  I contend that ALL students pay a tremendous toll for the artificiality of hands-off learning.

I can also see that this may take some serious explaining. But from my perspective, the damages of artificial learning environments apply to all students, and in particular unseen ways to those who are most successful within such schooling. As winners in a game stacked in their favor they may never be fully cognizant of the wounds they have received or that they may then inflict inadvertently on others. Hang in here with me, ask a few questions if you like.  Challenge me and see how well I can explain it.

Our Thanksgiving holiday is over, guests and family have gone home, and I'm making boxes in the wood shop. I have just a bit more text and a few photos to submit to the editor on my Froebel book, and one more chapter to finish in Tiny boxes.

On a different (but related) subject, I was disappointed when due to computer upgrades and software incompatibility, my Rosetta Stone program for learning Swedish would no longer work. Learning Swedish had been part of my journey into Educational Sloyd. A lovely replacement has emerged. It's better than my old Rosetta Stone and free for use on your smart phone or digital pad like object. Go to your app store and download duolingo. It offers most of the popular languages. It is free and based on a profit scheme that requires no advertising. It will allow you to advance steadily, will provide reminders and the opportunity to share your progress with friends. As I have been advancing through the basics, I am pleased to learn that I have remembered enough Swedish to make it fun, and I am learning things that Rosetta Stone never touched upon.

Make, fix, create and assist others to learn likewise.

Saturday, November 28, 2015


Photo courtesy of Norm Brosterman
Peas-work, also called cork-work or “sticks and peas” was identified by some early authors as Froebel’s 19th gift in his invention of Kindergarten. It consisted of dried peas, softened in water before use, and pointed sticks or wires used to connect the peas into various structural forms. In the case of cork-work, small cubes or balls of cork were used in place of peas, but to the same effect. Peas-work could be viewed as a predecessor to Tinkertoys™.

As described by Norm Brosterman in Inventing Kindergarten, sticks and peas was particularly instrumental in Buckminster Fuller’s development of the geodesic dome. In Kindergarten, Fuller suffered from severe vision impairment and while the other students were making the kinds of rectilinear forms familiar to those who see, Fuller found inspiration in the triangular forms that gave greater strength. As Fuller described it years later,
“When the teacher told us to make structures, I tried to make something that would work. Pushing, then pulling, I found that the triangle held its shape when nothing else did…The teacher called all the other teachers in primary school to take a look at this triangular structure. I remember being surprised that they were surprised.” From the video “Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud,” Produced and directed by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon (New York: Zeitgeist Films, 1996)
As described by Edward Weibé’s book The Paradise of Childhood,
“the material consists of pieces of wire of the thickness of a hair-pin, of various sizes in length, and pointed at the ends… As means of combination, as embodied points of junction, peas are used, soaked about twelve hours in water and dried one hour previous to being used. They are then just soft enough to allow the child to introduce the points of the wires into them and also hard enough to afford a sufficient hold to the latter.” Paradise of Childhood Quarter Century Edition, p. 264, Milton Bradley, Co., New York, 1896
The peas would then dry and harden again forming a lasting structure. For those wanting to experiment with peas-work, or to offer the benefits of peas-work to their children or students, dried peas softened in water, mini marshmallow bits, or cork balls can be used with toothpicks. In addition to making representations of concrete forms, sticks and peas can also be used to construct models of atoms and molecules in Chemistry. Styrofoam balls would also work, but I would avoid them as they are not likely to biodegrade before doing some damage to the environment.

Sticks and Peas was delineated by Weibé  as Froebel's 19th gift, and should be reserved for those students whose dexterity of hand and mind has been thoroughly developed by the earlier gifts. It requires a great deal of skill to manipulate the tiny balls and sticks into successful shapes.

Edward Weibé described one of the benefits of peas work in the greater permanence of the object created. As the child grows,
“It is no longer the incipient instinct of activity which governs the child, the instinct which prompted him apparently without aim, to destroy everything and to reconstruct in order to again destroy. A higher pleasure of production has taken its place not satisfied by mere doing, but requiring for his satisfaction also, delight in the created object––if even unconsciously––the delight of progress, which manifests itself in the production, and which can be observed only in and by the permanency of the object which enables us to compare it with objects previously produced.”
In this case, sticks and peas, Wiebé is describing what Froebel had called an “occupation.”

A reader from British Columbia alerted me that my quote from Matthew Crawford's first book, Shop Class as Soul Craft that was used as the opening to chapter one, was also explored thoroughly at the close of his new book, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. The quote has now been used as the opening for one of his books and the closing of another, and I feel honored that my words have been used as bookends for this important point.
“In schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
The basic assumption in schooling is that students are stupid and can be easily manipulated. The truth is that they are not. By the time they reach school age, they have already been deeply immersed in learning and have enough sense to distinguish between that which is contrived and wrongfully  presented in a game-like fashion, and relality. Some students are deeply engaged in playing the education game, and some are more resistant to it. But when ALL students are asked to do real things, like the creation of useful beauty, real, memorable and remarkable learning happens. It's why we need shop classes, music, the arts, laboratory science, physical education, hikes in the woods (along with serious classroom nature study), and to get kids out of the classroom doing real things.

The image used above is from Norm Brosterman's book, Inventing Kindergarten.

Make, fix, create, and incite others to learn likewise.

Friday, November 27, 2015

the universal man...

H. Courthope Bowen in his book Froebel and Self-Activity had suggested that the songs and games of Kindergarten should be adapted to better conform to the immediate lives of the children in the particular community. His idea was that since it was unlikely that Kindergarten children in an urban environment would ever encounter fishes living in a brook, that songs and fingerplay about fish should be abandoned to make room for others more relevant to the particular children involved. Susan Blow in her book Symbolic Education respectfully took an opposing position. There should be no child not taken to a brook and exposed to the wonders of nature where real fish might be observed.

I fall on Susan Blow's side in this minor dispute. If Kindergarten is to lead to an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, as Froebel intended, how can that be without the child's direct engagement in nature? Through planting gardens, tending the growth of plants, observing the wonders of nature and attending to the needs of small animals, children are awakened to a deeper relationship to life, and nurture their own sense of responsibility to life itself. There are universal principles having to do with nurturing children to become nurturing of all that surrounds them. This might not fit well with industries' demand for the industrialization of all things for the sake of their profits. But to a very large degree, survival of our species requires that we act with a high degree of sensitivity to what surrounds us.

In addition to celebrating Thanksgiving, I am attempting to illustrate Froebel's idea of occupations..I'll focus on just two examples as the book about making Froebel's Gifts should simply provide a starting point for parents hoping to take a greater role in assuring their child's full development. With the occupations, building upon the foundation provided by the gifts, the parents' role becomes simplified. Provide some simple tools and materials and back off while the child creates...

Make, fix, create, and insist that others learn likewise.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

regard for the value of the student's work...

Yesterday one of my students added a leather handle to her bow. As she began personalizing it further by wood burning her design logo on the front side, she informed me that the bow was the most beautiful thing she'd made in wood shop and that she was more proud of it than of anything she'd made to date. I could tell by her enthusiasm when the project was first introduced that this would be the case.

Making things and then making one's own marks to further personalize the things one's made are natural to the learning process. When work matters to the student and the student takes the work seriously, the signs of that are the student's interest in making the work clearly reflect his or her own personality. With that in mind, I am careful to demonstrate on wood other than the piece upon which the student works.

For the sake of comparison, I am reminded of my time in high school freshman English class. My teacher would grade and correct my writing assignments, each written carefully in cursive, and return them to me emblazoned with her red ink pointing out the errors in punctuation, and with no comment as to the intelligence and originality of my thoughts. I did not realize that I was supposed to take her comments and redo the assignments with her corrections in place. In my mind, she had simply desecrated my work and insulted my intelligence. And having been insulted, I simply threw the papers away as I left class. At the end of the semester, Mrs. Adamson informed me that I was failing and would not pass if I did not return my corrected versions of the papers, all of which I had thrown away. My only choice was to redo all the assignments, and to go through the process of correction, ugly red ink and all. And the point here is that student work should be respected, though it routinely is not. If you don't get it, read yesterday's post, the property sense.

This being Thanksgiving Day in the US, I will be busy making pies and will spend just a bit of time with lessons for my great niece Olivia in wood shop. As she is in Kindergarten in Florida, and as kindergarten is no longer what it once was, I hope to experiment just a bit with paper weaving, and peaswork.

Counting blessings and feeling thankful are important elements in the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday. And I have many things to be thankful for. Among these are the opportunity for creative endeavors and friends interested in sharing my journey. Happy Thanksgiving.  We've 29 making days before Christmas. Make this a giving season in which the greatest gift is to yourself: dexterity of mind and hand.

Make, fix, create, and extend to others the gift of learning likewise.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

the property sense...

Yesterday my student who had broken two bows as they were being made came to wood shop  early to begin crafting his third. When students want to accomplish real things, they make time for it even when it means missing a part of their lunch hour recess. While he was at work on his bow, I made a very tiny bow and arrow inspired by the efforts of one of my students. My very tiny bow and arrow, as silly as it may seem, has inspired a number of students to ask if they can make one, too. The desire to possess interesting objects can lead students forward in learning skill.

In my home work shop, I finished a few boxes  and cut miters for nearly 30 more. What will I do with so many boxes? I find joy in the making of them and that should be reason enough to carry forth. I have the power to disperse them as I see fit.

Felix Adler suggested another reason to support manual arts training for all students:
"––namely, that it develops the property sense. What  after all, apart from artificial social convention is the foundation of the right of property? On what basis does it rest? I have a proprietary right to my own thoughts. I have a right to follow my tastes in the adornment of my person and my house. I have a right to the whole sphere of my individuality, my selfhood; and I have a right in things so far as I use them to express my personality. The child that has made a wooden box has put a part of himself into the making of that box––his thought, his patience, his skill, his toil––and therefore the child feels that that box is in a certain sense his own. And as only those who have the sense of ownership are likely to respect the right of ownership in others, we may by manual training cultivate the property sense of the child; and this, in the case of the delinquent child, it will be admitted, is no small advantage."–Felix Adler 1888
With the making of things comes the possession of the object made, and also the possession of the skill required in making it. Desire and anticipation of owning an object can lead students onward. As students apply themselves to skill building tasks with the intention of laying claim to objects desired, they also lay a strong claim upon aspects of self that will serve them well in all things.

Make, fix, create and assist others to learn likewise.