Saturday, April 18, 2015

Finland moves forward.

Chairs grown in chair farm.
While the US public school education languishes in the middle of the pack, Finland, the usual front runner in the PISA tests is a major step in education reform. Instead of teaching isolated subjects, they will move to a system similar to that long used by Clear Spring School, in which a topic or theme will be addressed through all the various school disciplines. Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with 'topics' as country reforms its education system.
Integrated thematic instruction allows classes to use the interconnectedness of various disciplines to advantage in making the learning relevant to kids. With integrated studies students can see how all the various subjects inter-link to form the reality in which they live and will work. With educators from around the world streaming to Finland over the past few years to examine their success, this step forward has taken educators from around the world by complete surprise. No doubt, educators will be booking flights to Helsinki to see the new model in action. But they could save money by visiting Clear Spring School.

The point of Finland's change is to get students up out of their seats to utilize their own insatiable interests to drive learning forward. Finnish students already beat American students in reading and math in 30% less time and spend less time sitting at desks than students in any other nation in Europe. So this change is rather astounding.
Subject-specific lessons – an hour of history in the morning, an hour of geography in the afternoon – are already being phased out for 16-year-olds in the city’s upper schools. They are being replaced by what the Finns call “phenomenon” teaching – or teaching by topic. For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills.

More academic pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union - which would merge elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.

There are other changes too, not least to the traditional format that sees rows of pupils sitting passively in front of their teacher, listening to lessons or waiting to be questioned. Instead there will be a more collaborative approach, with pupils working in smaller groups to solve problems while improving their communication skills.
I have not heard as yet whether they plan to keep their wood shops that have been a part of Finnish Schooling since the middle of the 19th century. We'll keep our fingers crossed.

What do you think of chairs being grown instead of crafted? The image above shows a chair farm in the UK. To make a chair grow to a certain shape, small trees are put into rigid constraint, pruned on a regular basis and forced to grow just so. Does that sound a bit like American education?

Make, fix and create...

Friday, April 17, 2015

actively engaged.

The first element I'm considering for a Beaufort like scale of educational effectiveness has to do with engagement. We know that students or teachers passively engaged in schooling, are like a sailing ship becalmed by lack of wind. There are several possible causes for lack of engagement, just as there may be various causes for a lack of wind. But the failure of a teacher to engage the students means that in the vessel of school performance, the class goes nowhere fast.

So in total calm, both the teachers and students are passive. What's more common is that the teacher may be actively presenting information to a class that cares nothing for the content and lacks engagement. I have this on occasion with one of my students in wood shop who claims that she has no interest in woodworking. As an active teacher, I work to find solutions.

Every day at school students have the potential of learning something. In hurricane force winds they may be learning they want to crawl under a desk and escape. The point is, however, that with s simple scale, if it were widely adopted as was the Beaufort Scale in the British Navy, we could put standardized testing aside and have much greater confidence in our nation's schools, rather than have that confidence undermined by those who would  twist it out of our control. I think in the  simple chart above, you can see that the Beaufort Scale can give guidance to the sailor. Can it also give guidance to teachers, administrators, parents and kids? Work with me on this if you like.

The irony is that some observers would look at a class of students sitting quietly and think that's a good thing.  But in my view, students are not in school to be well managed, but to learn. Most parents, teachers and administrators can step into a classroom and observe engagement and the level of student interest without using a standardized test.

I have been sick with a head cold the last two days, but am looking forward to beginning work on my book about making Tiny Boxes.

make, fix and create...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

observing teaching on track...

I continue to be interested in developing a Beaufort like scale for measuring learning and engagement that would offer a foundation for observation that would not be dependent on standardized test scores. for instance, over the years, we've had visitors from various educational institutions, including the U of A, and from other ISACS schools as part of our accreditation process.

These visitors come on campus and witness the engagement of our students in learning, and do not need standardized test scores to know that learning is on track, and that our students are developing what they need to become successful citizens.

I realize the wind is far less complex than a child's education, and that a Beaufort like scale, from one to ten charting educational endeavors might seem like an overly simplistic approach. But standardized testing is an overly complex one that takes the monitoring of school success out of the hands of parents and teachers and places it in the hands of experts outside the classroom, and completely disconnected from the home environment. It is also disruptive of learning and fails as a clear indicator of future success. It measures the acquisition of knowledge while ignoring the character of the child.

So to have an observable standard, as easy to monitor as watching the wind on a sail would be a clear step forward in American education.

First of all, I ask, when an educational professional walks into a classroom what does he or she expect to find? I take my ideal from the movement of a sailing ship across the sea. What is its rate? And what are the factors that slow the ship? Or put it at risk? If parents were equipped with their own non standardized measure of their student's success they would have a much better grip on their children's education.

You can help me with this if you like. Use the comments function below.

In an ideal school, the students and teachers are actively engaged in learning. A sailing ship will not move forward in a state of complete calm, in which both the students and teachers are passive. That state of imperfect calm would be number one on the Beaufort scale. What comes next? You can help.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


In 1994 Alfie Kohn wrote an essay on grading, asking not how children should be graded but why. The truth seems to be that when children are interested in the subject, grading is not necessary to induce learning. When the children must be compelled to learn by external means of assessment, like grading, the results of learning are short-term at best.

I am reminded of a woman who sat in the seat next to mine on a trip home from Providence, RI a number of years back. Upon learning that I taught woodworking, she confessed that the only things she remembered vividly from high school were her time in wood shop and the objects she made there.

I have signed a contract for a new book, and spent the night with projects spinning in my head. I am itching to start, but must first clear the deck and clean the shop.

Richard Bazeley, my counterpart from down under sent the image above inscribed by one of his students using a wood burner. He notes in reference to the interconnectedness that wood working suggests:
Relationships are the most important part of our students lives. The connections they make and break fill up their days. My middle school students have been making simple cheese boards and decorating them with burnt designs. I am surprised how many of them were influenced at some stage by the writings of A.A.Milne and the stories of Winnie the Pooh. They decorate their work with images of the characters and quotes from the books.
Objects like the cheese board may be kept for a lifetime. It's value is not that cheese may be cut upon it, but that it expresses so much more. To assign a grade to it would be to narrow its meaning and ignore its full effect.

On the other hand, I am often amazed by what some folks fail to understand. While I was clearing up gravel along the road coming up to my house, a man pulling a Kubota on a trailer stopped to talk tractors. In the course of conversation, he mentioned that he had gone to the Clear Spring School "Raise the Barn" event on Sunday and was disappointed that "it was a fund raiser,"  that they had no hamburgers, and the free gumbo was in limited supply and had gotten cold by the time he had arrived. I informed him that it was not a fundraiser, (even though there was donation jar), that the gumbo that he arrived late for, was free, and that the performance of the much loved band Mountain Sprout was also free.

I was reminded that there are those in the world who have not had the opportunity to experience the interconnectedness of all things, that have been damaged in their educations, not made whole, and that there are many in the world who need a better explanation of things.  When he claimed that Clear Spring School was unnecessary because we already have a good public school, I pointed out that competition of ideas, methods and philosophy make all things better (a point he seemed to understand), and that I'd best get back to moving dirt.

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Oliver R. Kirby

Making a paper box.
A good friend of mine passed away in 2009, and I was reminded of him while in Annapolis as I had dinner with a former employee of the National Security Agency who was one of my students at the Annapolis Woodworking Guild Box Making Class. My new friend in Annapolis knew of Ollie Kirby and his time and position at the NSA.

Oliver R. Kirby had been in my thoughts of late due to a movie about Alan Turing who had built the first computer designed to break the Nazi's Enigma code during WWII. Kirby had been stationed at Bletchley Park in the UK along with Alan Turing, and while they did not work closely together, both shared important roles in breaking the German Codes. Ollie Kirby had time on his hands while he was in the UK during WWII, and because his wife Jeanne was in the States, he was lonely and volunteered for every possible assignment in an effort to end the war ASAP so he could get home. While others were using their time off  to explore the UK or hang out in bars, Ollie chose to keep very busy instead. He made himself essential to the war effort and that led to important work in national security after WWII.

We met Jeanne and Ollie Kirby when they vacationed regularly in Eureka Springs during the 1980's and early 1990's. We had dinner with them on several occasions and had them as guests in our home. Ollie and I shared a love of wood and woodworking, and one would never have guessed the important role that Ollie had played in WWII, as he was not one to brag on his top secret exploits, nor would he have been allowed to. Some of Kirby's personal narrative has been declassified so you can be read some of his story on line.

Ollie, besides being a cryptographic expert, was very different from Alan Turing whom he described as being remote. Ollie was kind, friendly, and loved wood. His wife Jeanne commissioned me to make a cabinet to fit Ollie's ties, of which he had a large collection, and I delivered it to their home in Greenville, Texas during the early 1990's.  I have always been amazed how a love of wood can push so many other barriers aside and open doors of friendship wide. Oliver R. Kirby was an inductee in the NSA Hall of Honor in 2008. When we visited Ollie and Jeanne in their home in Greenville, Texas, Ollie showed me his efforts to convert a log into lumber using a Haddon lumber maker.

I am home in Arkansas for classes at Clear Spring School. This morning the first and second grade students  made paper boxes using the designs published in Ednah Anne Rich's book, Paper Sloyd for the Primary Grades. I am always deeply intrigued by the interconnection of all things, and that a sincere interest in craftsmanship can lead to the development of connections even where one might not expect.

Susan Blow, in her book Symbolic Education, wrote the following about Froebel:
In the attempt to capture and hold the citadel of imagination, Froebel makes one of his most signal advances upon the theory and practice of his predecessors. Rousseau had nothing to say of imagination, save that it is the source of all human misery, and that its wings should be clipped as early and as close as possible. Pestalozzi ignores it––hence the dreary monotony of his sense-impressing exercises. He urges us to "Make the child see, hear, and touch many things," to "introduce order into his observations," and to "develop the elementary ideas of number and form in order that he may be able to compare objects and exercise his judgement upon them". But the necessity of a "spiritual questioning of sense and outward things seems to have occurred neither to him nor to the more recent advocates of the doctrine that all thought is transformed sensation. Hence their practice tends to arrest development at its starting point, and a faithful adherence to their suggestions would produce in the pupil a strong likeness to that Peter Bell on whom Wordsworth has conferred so inglorious an immortality.
One of the things that I hoped to convey in my presentation in Annapolis to the Annapolis Woodworking Guild is that the spirit of the child can be energized by craftsmanship without forcing the child to conform to any particular religion, or any particular set of religious principles, thus not violating the separation between church and state within the public school context. Craftsmanship can engage the child's spiritual nature in public education without promoting a particular religion. Froebel's kindergarten was intended as a means to enrich the spirit of the child, while it seems  modern education in both public and private schools does the exact opposite, constricting the child's inventiveness and creativity whether they intend to or not. The answer is to make things that reinforce the child's sense of connection with community, for the child's spirit rises in direct proportion to the growing sense of interconnection with all things.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, April 13, 2015

beautiful boxes galore...

Yesterday I finished my 3 days of box making with the Annapolis Woodworking Guild, and I'm headed home to Arkansas today having made many new friends. At left and below are some photos of my class:

The following is from Susan E. Blow, Symbolic Education 1894:
All children crave living pets, build sand houses, and make caves in the earth; are fond of intertwining bits of straw, paper, or other plaited material; delight in shaping bowls and cups and saucers from mud; and are inveterate diggers in the ground; even when as in city streets and alleys, such digging is wholly without result. Can we fail to recognize in these universal cravings the soul echoes of the forgotten past when man began the subjugation of Nature by the taming of wild beasts, the erection of rude shelters, the weaving of garments, or the manufacture of pottery? Can we doubt that the order of history should be the order of education, and that before we teach the child to read and write we should aid his efforts to repeat in outline the earlier stages of human development?
Human culture must arise anew within each generation. It is made whole when children live enough of it to come to the fullest possible understanding.

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, April 12, 2015

restoring creativity

Making finger joints
On Friday I demonstrated box making, made sleds and taught design for 25 students in Annapolis. Yesterday, the tables were turned at Annapolis Woodworks for 10 students from the Annapolis Woodworking Guild, so that they might learn as we all learn best, by doing. I had the opportunity to watch them work and to take a few photos in the process.

At Raise the Barn today in Eureka Springs, some of my students will be teaching woodworking to kids and their parents, making toy cars, tops and button toys.

I have one more day of box making class in Annapolis (today) and am pleased with what we have accomplished.

Installing keys in the corners of boxes.
As you can see, we are each hands-on learners, practicing and developing the wisdom of our hands.
Cutting a bottom panel for a box.

Susan E. Blow, in 1894, wrote of the child's relationship to greater humanity as follows:
If humanity is neither a mere aggregate of atomic individuals, nor a mere organism whose members, while participating in the life of the whole, remain forever different from that whole and from each other; if, indeed, it is a spiritual unity whose essence, "communicable but not divisible," exists whole and entire in each particular man, then obviously in history the individual may find a revelation of his nature and an intimation of his destiny. History paints life on a wide canvas and in a true perspective. Through its study man separates what in himself is essential and permanent from that which is transitory; from its drift he learns the direction in which he is tending and the ends he blindly seeks; in its achievement he finds the solution of his contradictions, the answers to his enigmas, and the vindication of his hopes.
Susan E.Blow was the person who introduced Kindergarten to St. Louis public schools. It might seem strange to educators of today to consider that part of their role is that of introducing the child to his responsibilities within the human race. But in the early days of Kindergarten, the concern was for the development of the child as a spiritual presence within the fabric of community. The focus now is on pressuring the child to read and do math, come hell or high water. And yet, the child is in need of being brought into relationship with the whole of humanity. While schools pressure children to all be alike in their capacities and objectives, human culture requires diversity in order to find strength. Creativity is a necessary ingredient and adults, too have a need to express themselves.

Make, fix and create...