Sunday, November 01, 2009

times have been a changin'

For about 20 years from 1975 to 1995, I was a self employed craftsman, making custom furniture for a few customers and selling small boxes through about 30 galleries in all parts of the US. There were some notable changes taking place... or perhaps the thing I should note was that in the world in which I was selling my work, not really very much was happening. When I went to craft shows, including the Philadelphia Buyers Market of American Crafts, the same artists would be there year after year, and it was quite rare for new artists to enter the field. We were all aging together, year after year. We refined our work and introduced new products as our hair turned gray or thinned and our shapes changed from young to mature. And the only way you would know that the times were changing were from the near absence of young in our midst. Our hard won skills were not being passed to the hands of new generations. By the time I became a professional craftsman in 1975, manufacturing was moving overseas and with the exception of my small band of aging entrepreneurs with whom I would gather at craft shows, making was rapidly becoming a dead end street. A sales trip to Dallas in 1985 told me that everybody was selling something, but few ever made anything anymore.

In 1995 I continued making furniture and boxes and added writing to my line of work, hoping to gain greater recognition for my work, but also to pass along and thus save what I had learned. I began with articles for Woodworker's Journal, books for F&W Publications, and later became a contributing editor for Woodwork Magazine and moved my book publication to Taunton Press.

In 2000, I added teaching to my line of activities, by beginning to teach classes for adults at Arrowmont, and through the Wisdom of the Hands program (2001) at Clear Spring School, I began teaching kids and writing woodworking education articles based on my experiences and research.

And throughout all this time, the change we have faced has been a shrinking of understanding as more and more kids are raised, becoming adults without the fundamentals. They don't play with blocks, they play on computers instead. They don't finger paint, they mouse around, not feeling the texture of real paints, only the temperature and texture neutral input device. My books and articles instead of growing in complexity have of necessity become simpler and more basic to meet the declining level of expertise in the market.

And in the meantime, our measures of ourselves and each other have been spelled in initials... ACT, and SAT scores, BA, M.Ed, Ph.D. And so I am wresting with change and the times have been a-changin'. Some of my faithful readers may remember when I was applying for the Fulbright Senior Specialist Roster, and was at first laughed at due to my lack of advanced degree. "Are you serious?" I persisted, pointed out that there were no exact rules pointing to my being unqualified and managed to dispel enough doubts to be placed on the roster.

But at this point, I am wondering whether to throw in the towel and go for a masters in education degree. It is my wife Jean's suggestion. And I am curious. What do my readers think? I have fought a good fight, standing on my own two feet. Would a M.Ed degree or a Masters in Arts Education improve my chances of promoting hands-on learning to those who only see the value in the terminal degree? Or can this fight be won without? Is this challenge one of tactics or timing? Please use the comments function to respond or the email address at right.


Anonymous said...

You can't fight the power as you are now finding out. Why give the kleptocracy more of your money, just to end up pissing in the wind.
Scrap Wood

Larry Marshall said...

If one is to believe Jeff Rubin (author of "Your World is About to Get a Lot Smaller"), it may be timing, Doug. He's an economist who believes that rising energy costs are going to collapse the "global economy" and that a return to local production/sales will be in our near future.

How that will play out is anyone's guess but North America is largely unprepared for it as most people have limited production skills. Those who do have them, however, should start doing much better than they are now.

Cheers --- Larry

MackTheKnife said...

I think you have to decide who your target audience is, if you haven't already. If your target audience is made up of the denizens of the ivory towers, then you'll have to get a Ph.D. before they'll listen to you, maybe. If you want to start a grassroots movement with parents and teachers, then I think your intrinsic qualifications are more than adequate.

Bob Tinsley

JD said...


Having read your blog for many months, I think you already have the answer to your question. Having been in the arts education business (and specifically the higher education component of that, i.e., teaching teachers...) I think we both know that's not where change is going to happen. I believe Mack is correct here...I live this every day.

I think you are already doing EXACTLY what is needed....perhaps you just need to do it on a larger scale. I don't know how to do that, and I don't have the answers, but Maria Montessori must have faced some of the same issues! And look what she did!

Perhaps there is a way for you to link into the home school movement. I tell you, if I had children today, I would definitely be home schooling them. I fear for the future of my three (soon to be four!) grandchildren growing up in these times and this educational evironment. Sometimes I just want to take them away to our acreage in the woods and educate them myself (of course, the fact that it is 14 acres of trees and no place to live is probably both a curse and a blessing!).

I would love to have further discussion with you about this... charter schools? Home schooling initiatives? Will need to ponder this some more.


Doug Stowe said...

Scrap, Larry, Bob and JD, I appreciate your thoughts on this. I have already set an inquiry in motion to explore going back to school, but perhaps you are right. Right now I'm on the fence, but I deeply appreciate having friends to help me think things through.

Larry, I hope that Jeff Rubin is wrong, that we don't have a collapse. I would prefer a gradual movement toward sanity rather than a shattering and all the pain that would entail. But it seems that human beings respond to crisis better than to more gradual change and change is one of those certainties of human existence.

Dave Brock said...

While I'm a new reader of your blog I probably can't offer you the best advice. It is apparent that you are having a big impact with hands-on learning as one teacher in one classroom and that is commendable above all else in my opinion.

I suppose that the answer to your question is personal AND being absolutely convinced that an advanced degree will have a greater impact on your noble goals. Personally, I decided about 35 years ago that I wanted a career based upon my values more than a large salary and material processions so I've chosen my employers very carefully. I knew that I loved the outdoors, using my hands, hard work,learning through actual experience, and kids. (I've been an instructor with Outward Bound Directive and a much longer career with Eckerd Youth Alternatives)

While I've certainly pondered the possibilities of advancing my degree in hopes of making a greater impact on hands-on experiential education, it has finally occurred to me that my greatest skills lie upon working on the front line, directly with the kids. I know that what I've done in the classroom for 28 years has had a tremendous impact on thousands of lives and that is where I belong.

As I mentioned previously, deciding whether to go back to school or not is a personal decision at any age and it can be a very weighty decision. I can only speak for myself and can relate to "Scrap Wood's" comment. I know that without a doubt my power lies in working directly in the trenches, one child at a time... and that is something that none of the higher degree management personal can experience as their main focus is always "the bottom line".

You have excellent writing skills, a lifetime of experience, and have already been published. Perhaps you could compile another book based upon your experiences at Clear Water School including specific evidence of success and a working plan for other school programs.

Best wishes on your decision.

Doug Stowe said...

I have a friend who got her masters in education, then found that it took her out of consideration for teaching as they wanted here in an administrative position which wasn't what she wanted in the first place.

In my case, an advanced degree wouldn't affect salary or position, but would just be intended to enhance credibility with those to whom that kind of thing is important, which seems to include about 90 percent of Americans. For example, I know that Matthew Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft would not have been interesting to publishers if he had not had his Ph.D in philosophy. The publisher didn't seem to notice that he had not ever attended shop class. Degrees seem to be more important than I think they should be, but I'm on the other side of the hand/brain divide than most of those making decisions about such things. I value your thoughts and the interest you've expressed.

toysmith said...

Doug, I went back to school for (at first) a master's followed by a PhD in education. At the time I needed the immersion in "formal" study as I was on the outside looking in (as a designer of software for middle school math curricula) on the world of education "experts." The master's program was a wonderful opportunity to essentially study and discuss and read my heart out for a year or so, and I needed that full-time "time out" from my life to do that in a concentrated way. The PhD was solely to pursue my curiosity and passion on the research track, and yes, to do that (research) and expect someone to give you money for it a PhD is handy. :-) But if social science research isn't your game, a PhD would not be a good fit.

But in your case you've already been reading a lot of the classics and following your passion while you also get paid to put your ideas into practice. It seems like you don't have much of a problem accessing "the literature," so there's a real question as to what the added value would be of an MEd in terms of your own learning. In my case I needed the basics - I didn't know anything about Dewey and the Progressives, the pros and cons of ability tracking in schools, competing theories about how kids learn abstract concepts, what counts as good evidence in research studies, etc. And yes, being able to talk the "jargon" does help me move in some circles. In other circles, the fact that I've taught (high school math ) for less than a whole year means I'm not taken seriously regardless of the degree (and for good reason - I have no business coaching anybody on how to teach kids).

Here's one suggestion to ponder - have you considered teaming up with like-minded individuals who have different skill sets? Where I work (the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International) we have experienced teachers, curriculum designers, expert practitioners, anthropologists, statisticians, and the like all teaming up to design curricula, evaluate programs, and generally try to change the world in our own way. We all have our own sources of expertise and glaring holes in our knowledge, and tend to complement one another productively.

I actually posted a link to one of your recent blog/videos to my Facebook page (linked by colleagues) pointing out that what you do is also "technology in learning." I'm actually very interested in trying to formally study the sort of work you do with kids; the difficulty is finding the funders who see the value in traditional crafts. I know who to go to for money to study after-school computer clubhouses, but not hands-on craft activities. Stay tuned, though, I'm optimistic.

I agree, it's ironic that Crawford never really wrote about shop class in his book, and that his PhD probably helped with connections to publishers. But if you want an example of a prolific writer on social justice in education without any advanced degrees, look up the work of Jonathan Kozol. Pretty compelling stuff, and largely based on his personal experience rather than any "formal" credential. Mike Roses's early work "Lives on the Boundary" probably would have sold on the strength of his teaching experience alone.

In short: my $0.02 is that the MA is helpful if you want to put yourself through a formal program of study (sort of like having a trainer at the gym keeping you honest with your workouts). It would almost certainly broaden your horizons by putting you in touch with people you otherwise might not get to connect with. I don't know whether the MA/MEd would help you break into publishing, since there are plenty of teachers who get books published without advanced degrees. It *might* help you see the interfaces between what you do and the "grand conversation" of education that spans centuries, but of course, you've already been doing that with your research on Sloyd.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts as you work your way through this decision,


Doug Stowe said...

Larry (toysmith) you have added a lot for me to think about. My program is kind of out of the way when it comes to teaming up with possible researchers or partners, but that sounds like an interesting venture. I'm not sure of the values of research these days. We have a huge body of research proving that TV and computers have harmful effects, but we do nothing about it as it would be inconvenient to do anything. TV and computer games keep our kids busy and out of other kinds of interesting growth opportunities.

Thanks for awakening me to Jonathan Kozol. I need to put him on my reading list. And thanks for taking time for such a thoughtful response. I am hoping to get a chance at a conversation with someone at the university to find out what my real challenges would be... I know I can do the work, and as you say, I am already reading the literature and understanding it, but I have the pleasure of doing it at my own pace and where it fits naturally in my own processing of events at school.