Saturday, October 31, 2009

raking leaves seeking rigor

Today we have a beautiful day, so I am raking leaves, assembling boxes and thinking about rigor. You can be involved in what might be perceived as mindless tasks, and yet have your mind engaged in exploring philosophical concepts.

How are we inviting our children to engage in rigor and to seek its expression in their lives? In this case, my definition of the term rigor is that of logical rigor or strict precision.

One of the questions I ask my students in the wood shop is, "Was this project too hard for anyone?" and of course they wouldn't admit if it was. But when I ask if the next project should be easier, or harder, they confirm, they all want projects to increase in difficulty. A challenge is more fun that pie.

Involvement in crafts is one of those ways through which our children invite logical rigor, or strict precision into their own lives. Playing sports can have similar effect, or dance, or musical performance. You swing at a ball and you either hit or miss. Try to take a catch, or turn a pirouette and you either do or you don't. And it doesn't take an expert to know the difference, just a bit of growing expertise.

One of the things I witnessed last week in the wood shop, was a 3rd grader, taking her work for confirmation of self assessment to another student. "Feel how smooth this is!" she asked. Having tangible results is one of the ways we invite children to participate in the pursuit of rigor. Rigor requires the ability to self-assess and to invite the assessment of others. When measurements of learning are those discernible only to adults as they test for right and wrong answers, or to educational testing agencies, working in statistics and abstractions as they measure school performance, we are clearly on the wrong track.

Friday, October 30, 2009

harvest party

Today was the day of our annual harvest party at Clear Spring School. It is a way to have a Halloween party without having the kids dressed up as power rangers and other characters from popular culture. The games played are designed and hosted by the kids. Parents provide snacks. And the high school kids are tour guides for the youngest.

As usual we had a woodworking activity, taking thin shavings of wood with the plane and then mounting them on a stand as a senseless keepsake. Or rather, I should say "evidence of learning". Some of the kids enjoyed it. Some were busy running non stop, as after a week of rain, we finally had a beautiful day to play outside. Cyrano and Oakley weren't content each making a thin shaving of white pine. They made enough to fill their hats.

Richard Sennett

Richard Sennett was the keynote speaker at the American Craft Council's convention in Minneapolis... We just missed it. But his speech is available as a podcast from the American Craft Council.

Sennett's book, The Craftsman is one my readers might enjoy. In his speech at ACC Sennett said the following:
...the real problem today is that modern society no longer values the idea that craft is ever growing and exploratory. Instead workers are burdened by the sense that they need to create a final product. Due to bureaucracy, everyone feels as though they are being watched and in this sense must deliver work for financial rewards. Quality is no longer rewarded. This loss of quality is pervasive and with the proliferation of machines, the work of the artisan craftsman is even more threatened.
Part of Sennett's mission is to describe the old time values of craftsmanship as present within a wider variety of employments as workers seek excellence in lab work or computer programming. As I have suggested many times before in the blog, the rigor of engagement, seeking quality in craft or art work is the foundation for rigor in the occupational engagements one would inevitably face in the face of changing life and culture. If you know how to recognize quality when you see it, and know the processes of mind, hand and attention required to achieve it, you can do anything. And so I return to Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha's interview with his first employer. He was asked his qualifications. "I can think and I can fast," ... the qualifications of a true craftsman, which I will rephrase: "I can solve problems, and I can make use of what little is offered me in order to create."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

sustaining rigor

How do you create rigor in our schools? Put the arts in their appropriate central place. One of the things all artists have noticed in their own lives is that the pursuit of rigor is a necessary component to satisfaction. There is the ever present compulsion to learn new things, and to achieve a level of comparable expertise in the skillful application of acquired learning. The mind revels in the exploration of the new, and in the testing of one's own abilities to create. A true artist won't do the same things over and over finding total satisfaction in the mindless replication of processes. We find our greatest rewards in the mastery of new things. We observe and refine, constantly testing the malleable qualities and limits of our materials, and refining the techniques and qualities of hand, mind and eye through the creative processes available to us.

Is this hard for educators to understand? No doubt they can learn lessons from observation of their own lives. Watch what compels their own interests. It has been surprising to me, how many people I have talked with whose lives in science and business are balanced by their exploration in the arts. If you want rigor in schools, real rigor that is intrinsic rather than tested and imposed by administration, you start with the arts.

And so is a renewal of education in which the arts are central instead of peripheral a reasonable concept? Without a doubt. Cook, clean, plant, make, make music, dance, put the hands (and feet) to work and the heart follows.

like a baby left on a doorstep

This morning I received an anonymous gift, left with a note, "to Doug Stowe" on the doorstep of the annex of our Carnegie Library. It was left sometime yesterday and then brought home to me by my wife, Jean. The "baby" is a collection of wood, probably from someone's father or grandfather with penciled and typed notes on yellowed parchment.

Surely, the local wood guy would know what to do with a once treasured collection, but I am still waiting to learn more of the story. Who was this person who loved wood and felt compelled to collect and take notes? At one time, it could have been anyone. People used collections of things to connect with areas of deep interest. Our forests and the interesting and beautiful woods that came from them was an area of wide and compelling interest. You wouldn't just cut things and stick them in a box. You would handle things and feel deeply what they were and how they came into your life and the reality they represented. Can you handle the larch without the spotted owl flying through your thoughts on the same wing?

Recently, when James Krenov died, his daughter told that he kept a small box of wood under his bed. He would frequently caress a piece of sandalwood, the scent and feel of which was a talisman, connecting him with things about which those in attendance at his deathbed might only dream.

And so, this morning, I received a precious gift. The meaning of which I may in time come to understand. It is a small collection of wood.

making the arts central to education?

We had a meeting of the Eureka Springs Arts Council yesterday afternoon, and had invited a number of emerging artists to attend. Each us us were to introduce ourselves and then tell why the arts are essential to our lives and what we want to do about it in a larger social setting and beyond our own lives.

It seemed that for all of us, the discussion centered on the question, "how do we encourage artistic opportunities for the children in our community?" Because our local school board has just launched an ambitious initiative to build a new high school, the question of how the arts might be made more central to that school became a matter for discussion. That the arts should play a central rather than peripheral role was a matter of wide consensus on the arts council and among our invited guests.

The meeting was not for the purpose of making decisions, but for making acquaintances to begin contemplation of the council's direction in coming months. Four things became certain and clear.
1. The arts council has a very strong interest in education and its members see the fostering of the arts at all levels of community life as our direct responsibility.
2. We all expressed an understanding that Eureka is not run of the mill, one size fits all, and that as we have a unique culture, our children's education should reflect it.
3. We are shaped as a community by our direct association with the arts.
4. The future of our community and the lives of our children should also be shaped by engagement in the arts.
Where does all this go? Stay tuned. Or better yet, begin discussions with friends and neighbors concerning how the arts might affect your own communities.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Teachers College

Teachers College, now part of Columbia University (since 1898) was the first university in the US to offer advanced degrees in manual arts education. The first two photos are from its first campus at 9 University Place, now part of the NYU campus as teachers were learning to teach woodworking. In the second photo a young practice teacher works in a model classroom under the watchful eye of professor Vroom. The next were taken at the Macy Manual Arts Building at 120th Street in New York City. The construction of the Macy Building was made possible by a gift from Caroline Macy whose son V. Everit Macy had at an early age become interested in manual arts training and taught wood carving to poor children. An early illustration of the Macy Manual Arts Building is below. Can you imagine anything so grand being built these days for the education of the hands?

verisimilitude

If you have watched the Stephen Colbert program on the Comedy Channel, you may have heard him mention "truthiness" which is a term he uses to describe things that resemble real facts and thus could be accepted to fit as real in your framework of beliefs. For those who have no real experience in the world and thus have no common sense framework for understanding, truthiness works just fine. The earlier term for this is verisimilitude. Verisimilitude in its literary context is defined as the fact or quality of being verisimilar, the appearance of being true or real; likeness or resemblance of the truth, reality or a fact's probability. Verisimilitude comes from Latin verum meaning truth and similis meaning similar. In science verisimiltude has a slightly different meaning as used by Karl Popper, in that one false theory may be closer to the truth than another false theory. So even verisimilitude can be confusing enough.

When you have science instruction taking place with right and wrong answers, and expertise demonstrated through multiple choice examinations, student understanding is built on a platform in which truthiness might be perceived as equally valid as truth, and verisimilitude will suffice in place of knowledge based on evidence and observation. Students in many states are taught that the truthiness of creation science and intelligent design are as relevant as direct scientific examination and that the student gets to make a choice between the two. It is certainly easier for some to just believe however they want, compared with having the intellectual curiosity required for more rigorous examination of reality. Having little or no personal experience in scientific method, students have no means through which to estimate the credibility of various scientific arguments.

We are at a point of complete irrationality in American politics with made up stuff taking the place of reality. Recent polls indicate people's understanding of such things as global warming is in decline and denial. I rue the day that we became a nation in which truthiness and verisimilitude rule the day. We formulate our beliefs based on political and social and religious alignments, rather than through scientific observation. And what we have now is what happens as a result of multiple choice, right and wrong answers as the foundation of our school experience.

In the arts and in wood shop, there are lots of right ways to reach ever changing objectives. Projects are often flexible in scope. What the children learn is the making of judgments, the testing of those judgments, and the diversity of outcomes and perspective. There are no right or wrong answers, but the arts offer the encouragement to observe and evaluate methods and outcomes.

Today the 7th 8th and 9th grade students worked on galvanized metal tags for marking trees. The photo above shows the 7th grade class. The students are making a self-study guide for a local park that visitors will be able to use to expand their own knowledge of our local trees and shrubs by comparing the number on the tag with the number on the key. So today and continuing next week we will be doing metal work instead of working with wood. But it involves close observation of cause and effect... the foundation of real science.

Monday, October 26, 2009

second video

I finished the second sloyd video, and while it isn't a perfect job of editing, it gives the idea and the kids are cute.

If you want science, start with the arts

If you know anything about cutting edge science, you know that the theoretical foundation, moving from hypothesis to testing of hypothesis is dependent on the use of metaphor. We also use metaphor to help ourselves understand complex processes that cannot be easily or readily observed. Einstein formulated his theory of relativity by observing trains coming and going from the station and we build our own understanding of things by making metaphorical leaps from the firm platform of personal experience.

We have constructed a system of science education based on right and wrong answers, and as we face the future, with loss of brain power in science, you will hear the howls, that the arts should be further marginalized to make room for more concentration on science.

There are right and wrong answers. But when you clearly examine the arts, you begin to understand that they are the right means through which to propel students into science. The arts develop intrinsic motivation in the pursuit of rigor, while providing the metaphorical foundation for extension of human scientific knowledge. If we have become a nation of idiots, it is not because we have forgotten to teach science, but that we have neglected to teach the arts.

Today I return Eisner's the Arts and the Creation of Mind to the Library, but I want to write down a few important notes and it may as well be here so you can see what I'm thinking. The author describes Viktor Lowenfeld's widely accepted ideas about the stages through which children's arts progress.
"Lowenfeld points out that as children move into adolescence, personality factors or dispositions toward the expressive character of artwork begin to appear. He identifies two types of personalities or emphases in visual expression. One he calls visual and the other haptic. the former leads to work that emphasized verisimilitude, the latter to work that emphasizes emotional expressiveness. In a sense the former is represented by visual realism. The latter by Expressionalism. The disposition to one or the other is a consequence of the child's biological endowment rather than, say the models of visual art the child has encountered or the expectations held for the child by significant adults."
the following is quoted directly from Lowenfeld, Creative and Mental Growth, Macmillan, 1947:
"... it was shown that the inability inspectively to notice visual objects is not always an inhibitory factor in creative activities. On the contrary, the very fact of not paying attention to visual impressions may become the basis of a specific creativeness of the haptic type. This is of greatest importance for art educators, especially for those who still are concerned with visual stimulations only. A visually minded individual would be disturbed and inhibited were he to be stimulated only by means of haptic impressions--that is, were he asked not only to use sight, but to orientate himself only by means of touch, bodily feelings, muscular sensations and kinesthetic fusions."
I find this to be particularly profound as it applies directly to what I observe in the woodshop with my kids at work. Some are concerned with the haptic relationship, of hand on wood and can spend hours (it seems) sanding a piece of wood to perfection, while overlooking whether or not it will visually fit its adjoining parts when their sanding efforts are complete. Others express the idea that if it looks ok, no sanding is needed. Can it be that both are right? And in particular, Lowenfeld's observations tell us that all of us can be artists, even if we don't like to draw.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

from Stanley Kunitz

Stanley Kunitz on body, spirit and transcendence:
Certainly the old dualism that dominated my thought in the beginning has long since evaporated. I am no longer conditioned to celebrate the triumph of reason. I turn more and more to the old self, the buried self, the one that's "wild with years" when I am in need of understanding. Often in the workings of a poem the body and one's trust in the wisdom of the body supervenes, and one recognizes that reason itself is not the ultimate gift of humanity. Certainly it is one of the instruments of civilization; but body, spirit, the reason beyond reason, are the instruments of transcendence.
An NPR interview of Stanley Kunitz and his concept, "Wisdom of the Body" was the source of the title of my program at Clear Spring School and of this blog.

teachers and art.

Teaching is essentially an art, and when teachers are encouraged, given latitude of method, and trust of intent to pursue its intrinsic rewards as an art form it can be nearly without limits in its effects. And of course the same can be said of poor or mediocre teaching. Teachers can go through the motions, shuffling students through mind numbing process with little heart, doing little to give life to the student's intrinsic motivations toward growth. The effects are staggering either way. Children either are encouraged to arise toward greater potential over time, or may become trapped in ignorance that can be self-sustained for generations. Most of us, by the time we have been fully schooled have had an experience of each type, the great: those who made teaching an art, the not so great, and the ugly. The culture of the school, its administration and structure will have impact on which you get the most of.

In the Arts and the Creation of Mind, Eisner talks about intrinsic and aesthetic satisfactions, which "when they develop, enable a person to lose a sense of distance and time; one seems to occupy a spaceless and timeless universe that in retrospect yields high degrees of satisfaction. People who, on their own pursue painting, singing, dance, or the writing of poetry do it for the quality of life that such activities make possible more than for the financial rewards they secure from the products they create." Eisner goes on:
"One way to think about matters of satisfaction is to recognize that there are basically three reasons for doing something. The first I have already alluded to: one does something because of the quality of experience that it makes possible; sex and play are two basic examples. A second reason for doing something is not because one necessarily enjoys or values the process, but because one values the outcome. One might not enjoy cleaning one's kitchen, but one might enjoy a clean kitchen. A third reason for doing something is not because one enjoys the process nor does one necessarily enjoy the outcome, what one values are the rewards that the process and outcome make possible. Someone may work at a job in which neither the process nor the outcome is particularly satisfying; what is valued is the paycheck. The analogue in school is the grade. Hannah Arendt regarded such activity as being a form of labor as contrasted with a form of work. From her perspective--and from mine--we have much too much labor in our schools and not enough work."
This isn't necessarily a matter of making school fun (which it can be), but of making school satisfying (when sufficient rigor is added), and I believe the life of an artist or craftsman presents an example of how that can be accomplished. We don't do stuff and lose all sense of time through our engagement in it because it is easy, but because it is difficult and challenging. Rigor has its own rewards. Also, unless we allow our teachers to practice teaching itself as as an art form, our children will be suppressed in potential and quality of life.

One thing I hear often in the woodshop is the observation, "this is harder than I thought." "Do you want me to make things easier for you?" I ask. "No Way!" the kids reply.

Our mission statement at Clear Spring School:
Together, all at Clear Spring School promote a lifelong love of learning through a hands-on and hearts-engaged educational environment.
And this is accomplished by allowing teaching to arise as art.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Are Teacher Colleges Producing Mediocre Teachers?


Education Secretary Arne Duncan went to Columbia Teachers College last week and challenged the nation's teachers colleges to do a better job of preparing teachers for today's classrooms. His visit was described in a Time magazine article Are Teacher Colleges Producing Mediocre Teachers?
"By almost any standard, many if not most of the nation's 1,450 schools, colleges and departments of education are doing a mediocre job of preparing teachers for the realities of the 21st century classroom," he said to an audience of teaching students who listened with more curiosity than ire — this was Columbia University after all, and they knew Duncan wasn't talking to them. It was a damning, but not unprecedented, assessment of teacher colleges, which have long been the stepchildren of the American university system and a frequent target of education reformers' scorn over the past quarter-century.
Of course, Duncan wouldn't be talking to them, would he? After all, Columbia Teachers College was one of the four leading universities in America that were responsible for the manual training movement. But times change. Columbia Teachers College recently dumped books from their library related to manual training in schools. Who needs manual training books when you have completely forgotten what manual arts were really for in the first place.

The article points out that some educators believe that teaching is more art than science and thus can't be taught and that instead of teacher colleges working so much on theory the teachers should have much more time in practice teaching. Sounds great, but practicing what? And with whom? How do we identify those teachers with whom new teachers should practice? Perhaps they should look for the ones who inspired them.

If teaching is art, and can't really be taught, that certainly doesn't mean it can't be inspired. No doubt every student inspired to enter college with the intention of becoming a teacher does so on the foundational inspiration offered by some teacher from their own past, and with the meaning of educe in mind, "to draw forth", teacher's colleges perhaps had best wonder, how do we prepare our students "to draw forth" from theirs. Unfortunately, our system of education has so long discriminated against non-linguistic intelligence that teachers of manual arts, fine motor skills, work of the hand and voice, and muscle and motion have become in very very short supply. As discussed by Elliot Eisner and many others, non-linguistic intelligence continues to be marginalized in American education.

What we most need in teacher's colleges, at Teachers College in New York, and in universities all over the US, is an affirmative action program for the hands. Putting the hands back in place has the power to bring new energy to education. Why is this so hard for some to understand? Just as some have said in political context, "It's the economy, stupid!" I'll say the same thing about the arts. While there are great minds discussing the future of education, I am a craftsman standing at a busy street and wondering how to cross without being run over. Secondary ignorance means that you can't seek what you've never known was missing in the first place and that is why I, a simple craftsman from Arkansas would enter the fray, risking the traffic, to remind that the hands still and may always have an important role to play in the development of intelligence and character.

At the present time, in my small library, I am holding a few books from Columbia Teacher's College in trust. They were to be "discarded" and due to a kind librarian who saw that they might have value to me, I received them to hold and share with you, and I offer Teachers College the promise that I will return them to their shelves preserved but well digested if they ever come to their hands-on senses and want them back. These may be only the tip of the iceberg of what had previously been discarded, but I'll gladly share with them what I have learned while I've held them in trust.

Arne Duncan asks that we prepare teachers for 21st century education. Perhaps we should not so quickly forget the 19th. Students now, like then, needed teachers who would inspire them to learn. Some now might be surprised that a school wood shop would be the kind of place where that could happen.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mad Hatters Ball

Tonight we have the Mad Hatter Ball, a fundraiser for the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. It might surprise some readers to learn that I am a near thoroughly shy guy. I like one on one, but being in a crowd of people, I feel misplaced. Add to that, wearing a funny hat, and I am clearly out of my comfort zone. Tonight I will be wearing my bent walnut fez, a hat recycled from an earlier mad hatters ball years past. It is one of those hats that you wouldn't really notice until you took the time to look close, but it is steam bent walnut, formed the way I would make a tine, or Norwegian bent wood box. Since hardly anybody ever noticed it in the first place, I get to wear it again. It has no bill so it is a convenient hat for taking photos and the other way I hide out in a crowd is to take photos. Give me something productive to do and I can hide from the socially agonizing experience of obligatory fund raising.

In the meantime, I am applying spray urethane finish to drawer facings and working on parts for boxes in my relentless friendly competition with the Chinese.

It is certainly a good thing that human beings come in a variety of colors, shapes, sizes and personality types. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to be working in the wood shop. And today, in preparation for the Mad Hatter's Ball, I get to do just that.

In the meantime, if you happen to come to Eureka Springs this evening, bring a hat. At the Mad Hatters Ball, I'll be the one wearing the walnut fez.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Educational social science and statistical analysis vs. teaching as art

Over the last 50 years, with the dominance of standardized testing, and the rise of statistics as the primary means of proving scientific relevance, education has suffered. The early educational theorists, Comenius, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel were pushed aside, marginalized and widely considered irrelevant. What importance were they, when we had standardized testing to measure and enforce performance? Schools were to be run like factories. Now that we know that doesn't work, schools are to be run like Walmart and teachers will function as checkout clerks, following a script and passing out receipts for the transfer of information. We seem to be running about two centuries behind the 19th when Froebel invented kindergarten and counseled, "Live for your children," which is a particularly poignant expression from a man who had lost his mother at an early age and whose father had no time for him, leaving him to learn alone in the forest.

In Elliot Eisner's The Arts and the Creation of Mind, the author discusses the types of research needed for a renewal of education. Eisner points out the hazards of research too heavily dependent on statistical analysis. When I presented papers at conferences in Sweden and Finland, it was interesting to me that so many of the papers were on such dry subjects in their quest to find something measurable to meet the criteria of survey method and statistical analysis. When we try to make art into science, both suffer and are trivialized as a result.

The most important thing to remember is that the most important qualities in education are the ones least possible to effectively measure. They can be observed in quality teaching, they can be observed as enthusiasm for learning and they can be witnessed in later life as children develop meaningful lives. When early educators observed students in the classroom, and then wrote about their experiences and shared them with others to be tested and observed, was that not also scientific and valid? Actually it was until we became so fixated on standardized testing and statistical analysis. Some educators discovered so much meaning in Friedrich Froebel that they made kindergartens like his throughout the world, providing the opportunity to directly test and find success in his method.

There is a very important reason to consider teaching to be more art than science. To understand it as art challenges teachers in ways that economic incentives, testing and standards will never. The following is Elliot Eisner's 13th point in summary of his aforementioned book:
The possibilities for growth in and through the arts cease only when we do. The ultimate aim of education is to enable individuals to become the architects of their own education and through that process to continually reinvent themselves.
This applies to teachers as well as students, and the art of teaching is without limits, particularly when teachers are empowered to arise as artists in their work. There are always improvements to be made, and it is that artistic quest for improvement, refinement, and quality that one seeks in one's work as an artist whether the material at hand is clay, wood, or a young mind. So, for the sake of our children and the future of our civilization, and the security of our old age, let's put testing and statistics in their proper place and return to the art of teaching. Comenius anyone?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Good things come

Good things come to those who show up. I couldn't resist showing this as a work in progress, so blog readers get first glimpse, a preview of what will come in a finished form next week.


For a long time, I've felt that I needed to produce a short video of my kids at work. This is a first draft with the final version to be published next week after the kids have finished their projects. Let me know what you think. I also plan to do a short video of my small children working with knives. No doubt it will terrify some, make some parents have conniption fits. But knives can be safely used with first, second and third graders, and it would be better that they understand the safe use of tools than for us to allow them to be captivated by the dark culture of knives and weaponry that has emerged from television and video game violence.

So, stay tuned or at least come back next week for for the finished video.

Monday, October 19, 2009

way back when

Years ago, most people in America had at least some understanding of the whole process of production. Even if you were a rich kid, you at least walked past the blacksmith shop on your way to school and may have been drawn close enough by your own curiosity and the ring of hammer on steel to see the muscles and sweat. You would have seen the farmer bringing his produce to town, and you would have taken outings in which you might have seen your next meals being raised on the farm.

We, as a nation have become so divorced from any semblance of understanding of how things are made, how things are grown or how we might take part in the making and growing, or how we might encourage things to be made. And that is not just a problem for the poor. While the children of the rich may have the security of trust fund, they often know little but investment on speculation. They know quite well about investing dollars. What they don't know and seem to have no hopes of knowing is the process through which human beings invest in each other's lives and growth. It is that particularly difficult challenge of secondary ignorance. They don't know they don't know, and thus have no intrinsic motivation for discovery.

Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders warns that the middle class in America is collapsing. The banks, and bankers have gone back to playing the same old slots, investing in their same old ways and in the same old things. But what could we reasonably expect? We have a nation in which nearly all have been sequestered from understanding. You can know the formulas for making your monetary investments and be completely sequestered from your own human cultural implications.

In the days of Educational Sloyd, one of its objectives was to nurture democracy by fostering a sense of the dignity of all labor. In order to accomplish this goal, all students in schools were exposed to wood shop. There they discovered the creative capacities of their own hands, and witnessed the contributions of others at all levels of society to sustain a meaningful culture. The rich from exposure to such an education, might in respect, use their resources to build businesses in which all might learn and grow. Instead, we have Wall St. where their dollars go into speculation according to formulas having no relationship to human growth or growth of community.

So we are in a mess. Unemployment continues to rise. Corporate CEOs continue to make 400 times the amount earned by a common employee. Wall Street is returning to big bonuses. The DOW is back up with record profits for the year. Banks, thanks to the bailout are thriving and some are reaching record profits, while people are losing their homes and jobs.

Wall St. bankers are not completely to blame nor are they aware of their ignorance, so it may not be reasonable to expect much help from their direction. Ditto the Gov. It is full of people hired from Wall Street. Besides, revolutions take place from the ground up, when citizens take matters into their own hands. Make, create, plant, nourish, tend, fix, grow. While economists are watching bottom lines, you can see real progress when it takes place in your own hands.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Today in my own shop, catch 22

Today in my own wood shop, I am continuing my friendly competition with the Chinese. I am making wooden boxes to supply the few small craft galleries that continue to sell my work. I say it is a friendly competition, even though in price and quality I am losing "bigtime."

I call it friendly because I believe that those trying to produce goods and services in the "information" age are swimming against the tide, and the Chinese have earned my profound respect. I also call if friendly because in my own shop, it is such a joy to work with tools, to see beautiful and useful objects developed within my own hands. I know that there are many in this world that don't have the slightest idea what I am talking about. They may find their joy in other ways... ordering others into action or spending the money that has become the focal point of their lives. And yet, the joy one finds through the direct activities of one's own hands cannot be adequately described.

Elliot Eisner distinguished between primary and secondary ignorance. And it is awkward to talk about such things without sounding accusatory. But there is such a thing as ignorance none the less. Primary ignorance is easy to fix because it is something you know is missing, an answer you want, and may be willing to seek in order to feel complete. Secondary ignorance is a bit harder to resolve. It is about things you don't know are missing from your own life. You have no idea how to find what you don't know is missing in the first place. You have no intrinsic motivation toward discovery. Unless you suddenly take a fall and you discover that things are not quite as you imagined them to be.

The body-mind knows things the conscious mind may not comprehend. There is joy in making things. There is a wholeness that arises in the relationship between man (or woman), materials and tools in the making of beautiful and useful objects. The joy is not just there in the finished goods, but in the process, the engagement, as one watches one's own hands give new shape and meaning to materials. Where these opportunities are not perceived and are not acted upon, we suffer in ways we may not be able to readily comprehend. Depression, Anxiety? To quote my least favorite politician, "you betcha!"

Today in the wood shop, I am taking long boards, cutting them into short sections, resawing them into thin stock, planing the thin stock to a uniform dimension, jointing edges straight, then sawing into uniform widths, and cutting small parts to exact dimension. Each small step is a matter of fulfillment, completing a feedback loop from which one draws assurance. And there are those, whom I take the gross liberty of calling out for secondary ignorance. They may never understand the burden of their loss. They may never feel directly encumbered by their own stupidity. Much of their direct suffering can be alleviated with pills. But there is a price our children pay for what they will never know they might have learned in the first place.

There. Enough words for today. I'm headed back to the wood shop and my friendly competition with the Chinese. If you are one of those who are not aware of the transformative value of work of your own hands, please do not be offended. I offer my own view as a kindness.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Second Sloyd Training School in Boston


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Gustaf Larsson's Sloyd School in Boston shared the location at 37 No. Bennet St. with the North Bennet St. Industrial School until 1908 when it moved to a new building built by Mrs. Pauline Agassiz Shaw at 7 Harcourt St. in Boston. The 37 No. Bennet St. Location had become too small for both to share and the North Bennet St. School continues in that location. Mrs. Pauline Agassiz Shaw was the philanthropist founder of both schools. You can find the location of the Sloyd School using the address 7 Harcourt St. Boston, MA either using Google or Google Earth. The street view above will show you how the building looks today. If you compare the building above with the floor plan below, you can see that while the building may have a more modern brick facade, the structure is the same. The 7 Harcourt location is currently occupied by a real estate development corporation. Don't be confused by the 22 Bolton address shown on the street view. Boston streets are funny and confusing.

North Bennet St. School


My friend Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, director of North Bennet St. School produced the video above. Nice job explaining the difference between sloyd and vocational education. The use of the hands is crucial to the expansion of intelligence for all children. Seeing this short video reminds me that I need to produce my own.

In reference to my earlier post, this is from Froebel:
...(Intelligence) begins in the working and application at the moment when the child perceives outward impressions decidedly, that is, discriminates between light and darkness. The mother must already have taught the child to observe everything, to separate everything which comes within the circle of his life, before the peculiar moment of time when the development of language begins.
Now we know that even before children make their first uttered sounds they have been preparing the foundation for discourse. The intelligent use of the hands gives them something to talk about, and for the parents to discuss with them.

no place like home

In Newsweek Magazine there is an article about the "new localism", No Place Like Home. People, in the face of recession are settling in, in ways that were not anticipated. (Provided of course, that they are lucky enough to still have their homes). It could be a very good thing if people were not just to settle in, but to begin making things and sharing hands-on creativity and learning with their kids. Keep your fingers crossed.

Mother-Play and "How Gertrude Teaches Her Children"

In Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns the authors state that if the research is correct in identifying language use in the earliest days of the child's life as being the primary contributing factor in their performance in schools, "it becomes quite clear that some public policy and legislative initiatives are well intentioned but wrong-minded." In essence, intervention at the preschool level, headstart and kindergarten is not near early enough. Young mothers and fathers must be taught their roles in preparing their children for school success.
In the not-too distant past, courses like home economics, auto repair, and wood and metalworking were offered in most high schools to prepare young people at least for some of the mechanics of adulthood. Quite possibly, high school might be the place to teach courses that conveyed the methods of early cognitive development to tomorrow's parents. The benefits might be broadly felt. Young, single, inner-city mothers who otherwise would be trapped with their children in the multigenerational cycle of educational underachievement and poverty certainly would benefit from knowing how to shape their early interactions with their children to help them succeed in school.
Certainly makes me wonder why educators haven't paid more attention to Froebel and Pestalozzi. Pestalozzi wrote the landmark book, "How Gertrude Teaches Her Children," 1801, as a guide to mothers interested in teaching their own children and in it he laid out the principles that guided his own exploration of scientific education. Froebel followed in the same vein with "Mother-Play and Nursery Songs," or Songs for Endearment by Mothers, 1844 and education today would be different if we had continued to listen to their wisdom rather than allowing ourselves to become distracted by the bells and whistles of technology. The following is from Unesco:
In his Songs of Endearment for Mothers, Fröbel comes very close to the everyday living world that he represents in scenes (pictorial illustrations), finger games and nursery rhymes. Experiences of the child’s everyday life are acted out through the perceived physical medium of finger games or in illustrations. The mother plays the finger game and the child is asked to imitate it. This book is a sequel to Pestalozzi’s Book for Mothers, but moves beyond that author’s cognitive and schematic method. Fröbel’s principle is motherly love. The mother shows loving care for her child through play. Initially, the infant is a being at one with himself/herself. As its own forces then begin to develop, i.e. its motor system, senses and intelligence, the child begins to become familiar with its surroundings and is able to differentiate and structure them. The true self gradually becomes structured and differentiated through this experience of the outside world.
The method Froebel describes is not just verbal, but involves the use of the hands to create a foundation for intellectual growth and in doing so goes far beyond what Christensen, Horn and Johnson describe in Disrupting Class.

The following is from my blog post of January 14, 2007:
Too often now, parents are distracted by other things rather than being engaged with their full attention on play. With your child in your lap, its head on your knees and feet on your chest, start by moving your hands into and out of visual range. Weave your fingers together and then pull them apart. Repeat and then vary your motions. Your child will watch and in a short time will engage your hands with hers or his. My daughter Lucy and I could spend what seemed like hours in contemplation of our hands. As she became a couple months older, toys and rattles joined with the hands, and we never tired of the play. We don't have any way to measure the profound impact such simple things can have except to observe the results. I could spend days as I suspect many parents might, proclaiming the wonders of my daughter. I won't. But I will invite you to play with your child in the manner I describe. Hold him or her as shown in the position above.

Friedrich Froebel, inventor of Kindergarten realized the incredible opportunity young mothers were missing in the development of their childrens' capacities for learning. Much of his early work was in developing songs, hand activities and games for mothers to play with their children. We hope that schools will do enough to educate our children, but don't count on it. They can't make up for the opportunities lost in the earliest days. But take your child in your lap and with your hands make a start.
What often seems like idle play fulfills extremely important purposes in human development.

Friday, October 16, 2009

language dancing

Still reading Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and I've gotten to the good part. First we know that putting computers in classrooms, and attempting to layer them over the responsibilities teachers have in the first place hasn't worked to expectations. And as described by the authors, the greatest promise of computers in education will come as they sneak in from the edges, not by displacing concerned teachers in the classroom, but by meeting needs yet to be imagined.

Now, chapter 6, the authors, Christensen, Horn and Johnson are discussing a thing they have termed "language dancing." It seems that research has shown that children in the ghetto are spoken to as infants, a rate on average of 600 words per hour. Children in upper class households are spoken to at a rate of from 1,500 to 2100 words per hour, and much of the exchange isn't in the form of "business language," as in "Put that down," or "what do you want?" but in exchange at an adult level related to evaluation of things, hopes, desires and reflection on events, that the authors call "language dancing".
Interestingly, the most powerful of these words, in terms of subsequent cognitive achievements, seemed to be those that were spoken in the first year of life--when there was no visible evidence that the child could understand what the parents were saying. The children whose parents did not begin speaking seriously to their children until their children could speak, at roughly age 12 months, suffered a persistent deficit in *intellectual capacity*, compared to those whose parents were talkative from the beginning.(*intellectual capacity as understood in the narrow definition, based on standardized testing of linguistic intelligence.*)
So we have a system in place which evaluates, measures and thus determines children's success based on their linguistic comprehension, while those currently in poverty are caught in a cultural chasm from which emergence is based on energizing the linguistic exchange rate at the most basic household level. Let me assure you that hands-on creativity and capacity are also encouraged or discouraged at the youngest age... by activities present in the household. It would certainly be best if children were talked to enough to develop their vocabularies and literal comprehension and engagement, and it would make sense for their creative capacities to be encouraged as well. You wonder how to do that? Throw out the TV. Engage with your child in making things. The linguistic exchange that takes place during the exercise will push your child's linguistic capacities over the top. Cook, make, create, plant, sew, fix. It will give you and your infant a lot to dance about.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Elliot Eisner, non-linguistic intelligence

I realize that when I, a craftsman, challenge academia for failure to acknowledge the intelligence expressed through the hands, some might be offended. After all, who am I, a simple teacher and craftsman to challenge modern education? But my purpose is not to offend, but to simply assert the value, the intelligence, and dignity of hands-on work and hands-on learning. To that end, I quote the following from Elliot Eisner's the Arts and the Creation of Mind:
...a lesson that the arts can teach education is that literal language and quantification are not the only means through which human understanding is secured or represented. So much of schooling privileges discursive language and the use of number that types of intelligence and forms of understanding not represented in these forms are given marginal status. It must be acknowledged, of course, that the abilities to read, to write, and to compute are of crucial importance. Students who cannot read, write, or compute are in deep trouble. But important though these skills are, they do not encompass all of what people know or the ways in which what they know is given public status. We appeal to poetry to say what cannot be expressed in literal language. We secure from images ideas and other forms of experience that elude discursive description. We experience through music qualities of lived experience that cannot be rendered in quantitative form. In short, our sensibilities and the forms of representation associated with them make distinctive contributions to what we notice, grasp and understand. As Pascal said, "The heart has its reasons that the head knows not."
The current plan in Texas to eliminate wood shop programs from the state approved curriculum is evidence of the failure of academia to grasp the value of hands-on learning and hands-expressed intelligence. According to Eisner, "The long term result of such deprivation is a diminution of the varieties of life that students are able to lead."

the assumption

I have been reading the Clayton Christensen book Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, and discover that the premise is that computers will reshape education, not by being integrated at the center as has been the incredibly costly and wasteful attempt, but by chipping away at the edges. The idea is based on Christensen's concept of "disruptive innovation" through which technological change takes place by creating fringe consumption and use. Personal computers became dominant, not by competing directly with main frames, which they couldn't do at the time, but by adopting a recreational role in the lives of an at first small set of consumers. It is noted in the book that billions of dollars have been invested placing computers in schools with little real effect on outcomes, but the real effect will undoubtedly come from computers sneaking in from the edges. It is kind of like the way the Apple IIe led to the ultimate demise of Digital Equipment... a sneak attack. I am not done with the book yet, but am growing weary of its direction.

The assumption at this point in the book is that computers can fulfill the entire range of multiple intelligences. Body smart? you want Wii. Art smart? you might want illustrator or photoshop. Word smart? you may want a Kindle. Of course I'm being silly. The concept they present is not as simple as that, but as someone who takes pleasure working with my hands, tools and real materials I question whether technology will solve all our problems. What about the simple matter of the heart?

I question whether we do our children's education full justice by presenting them with made up models of physical reality. Are our children to take seriously the "chem lab" where they just click to mix, and the bunsen burner is a flame on screen? Safer perhaps, but does it not also inform our children that A. we don't trust them with the real thing, B. we don't value them enough to provide something real, and C. what we are teaching is little more than a game and thus not to be taken seriously? If they haven't stood in white coat amidst an array of tubes, open flames, and possible danger of real things happening, will they feel inclined toward becoming real chemists?

The assumption is that computer knowledge is transcendent of all multiple human intelligences and not merely another narrowly defined intelligence field that isolates it practitioners with its own jargon, exclusive culture and sense of entitlement. (anyone know an IT?)

I am reminded of an experiment in which they tested to see whether industrial arts could be taught as efficiently with lectures as with real tools. Wishful thinking no doubt that the school budget could be shaved in half. Can you guess what the outcome was? I believe computers have already offered a revolution in learning. Now, the question becomes will computer technology also offer a revolution in schools, allowing us to overcome the challenges illustrated by a 30% high school drop out rate? No doubt computers will play their part, but revolution? I believe it will take the hands for that.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Today in my own shop

Today I have the luxury of working in my own shop. Elementary School is off today to allow students and staff to recover from camping.

I was reading Disrupting Class before bed last night and reflecting on the continuous minor sound disruptions that occur when you teach in an object rich learning environment. In the wood shop, I have lots of tools and each makes a noise. Kids are drawn to things that can be tapped or waved, a stick of wood will do, and even at the high school level, I need to remind kids to put things down while I am attempting to give instruction. For those who are particularly susceptible to the effects of disruption, even the clicking of a ball point pen can become the last straw. But I question the need for children to sit quietly all the time. First, we know from testing that children's brains are not equipped for sitting quietly while the teacher lectures for more than just a few minutes, and our incessant use of hand-held tech devices has made sitting quietly even more difficult for most children, and even difficult for some adults.

So my vision last night was that of a symphony... Acknowledging the musical intelligence involved in working with wood. And so I am wondering how to use that vision and that intelligence in my classroom management. With the younger children, I may do some form of choral reading to bring them into a sense of the noises we make and attune them to listening to each other's voices and tools. It may sound wacky. What am I, nuts?

Years ago, scientists testing for the effects of instrumental music on learning found a high correlation with success in math... but of course the question not explored was whether it was the music that provided the effect, or the involvement of the hands in playing the music, and I suspect it was both. So perhaps I shall make a conductor's wand for myself and become a conductor of a symphony of tools.

On a more depressing subject, I received word this morning that the Texas School Board has decided to "virtually eliminate" wood shops from Texas schools, substituting "metal fabrication" in its place. My last blog post, the vicious cycle in classroom learning may help to explain why some, particularly at the highest levels of education just don't get it and may never understand why hands-on learning is important for all our children. If you haven't done it you won't get it, and you may persist in living in a self-sustained delusion that you are one of the smartest people in the world despite mounting evidence to the contrary. And the evidence is mounting. For example, look at the numbers of drop-outs in America, and look at international rankings. We spend much more for education and performance is in the ditch.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

the vicious cycle in classroom learning

The following is something I have described before in the blog, but the book Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Christensen, Horn and Johnson, puts it rather well, and from a position of presumed greater authority (there are three of them), as they describe "a vicious cycle:"
...the subject material in a high school language arts class relates in obvious ways to linguistic intelligence. Students with that intelligence type naturally comprise most of the ones who excel in language arts. They're the ones who choose to major in that subject in college and then choose teaching careers in that field. Specific subject matter tends to be linked to specific intelligences through the way textbooks are written--by experts strong in that specific intelligence type. As a result, what has emerged in every domain are "intellectual cliques," composed of curriculum developers, teachers, and the best students in that subject area. Their brains are all wired consistently with each other. Just as members of a social clique often are unaware of the degree to which they easily understand and communicate with each other to the exclusion of those outside the group, members of these intellectual cliques are often unaware of the extent to which their shared patterns of thinking exclude those with strengths in other kinds of intelligences.
The authors suggest that the same patterns repeat themselves generation after generation with teachers only being effective with those students who match their own learning styles. The result is that some may have the impression that they alone are smart. The evidence, at least to them is clear. And so I have mentioned before that given the complete disregard for the hands by those who have no knowledge of the intelligent use of the hands, we are called to create an affirmative action program for the hands through which all students have the opportunity to learn more about themselves and each other. What we have now in schools is a structural pattern that exists from primary education through grad school, and because it is a self-replicating, self-sustaining structure, it will be difficult to overcome. Work on it with me. Cook, make, sew, plant, harvest, create, fix, nurture, care, and when you run into idiots, don't be shy about the display of your own intelligence.

the culture of learning, campus disruptus

Last night, the Clear Spring elementary students were camping in the rain. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last. In fact, when I was a Clear Spring School parent, I went many times along with my daughter Lucy on the school camp outs as a parent volunteer and school camping trips are not always in the best of weather. Parents don't go just to hang out but only to become part of the teaching force.

I have begun reading Clayton Christensen's book Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. I will have more to report on that later. But what comes to mind at the moment, reflecting on the camping experience and Christensen's book is that teaching is structural, learning is cultural. Teachers become teachers having passed through a system, and having adopted its means. A carpenter will teach his apprentice by putting a hammer in his hands, and by giving occasional demonstrations with some verbal instruction. A common teacher (and this is not to imply any are not uncommon) will teach utilizing the models presented to him or her through their own education. They become teachers within a structural form due to their affinity with that form. And it is difficult to stand aside from that form when its teaching style is lacking in effectiveness for the learning styles of the children involved.

Disrupting class is an essential activity for those students whose needs are not being met. It usually doesn't work, however. Teachers and administrations are taught to have zero tolerance for the slippery slope of disruption.

The Clear Spring School campout is not an easy thing. It is not easy for students or staff. It brings kids out of the classroom into real life. And real life isn't restricted to meeting the needs of particular types of learners. And that is what I mean when I say that learning is cultural. It pulls in and reflects the full diversity of human learning styles.

This morning the students and staff awakened to heavy rain, and the balance of the camping trip was canceled. It meant a breakfast prepared under sad circumstances and then the hauling of wet gear back to school and wet clothing home. As one student proclaimed, "This the best worst time I have ever had." So while the camping trip was disrupted, the kids are tested in spirit and resilience.

Today in wood shop my 7th, 8th and 9th grade students worked on the recycling box for the school campus which is shown in the photos above, adding trim to cover errors from hand-sawn cuts and adding rustic handles inspired by the coat rack they made earlier in the year.

Monday, October 12, 2009

camping grades 1-6

Today the Clear Spring School students are on their fall camp out. I helped set up tents and got a few of the kids started on their whittling. This is the first test of the new sloyd knives I made to replace the set that was stolen from my school wood shop last year. I spent a few minutes today making sure they were very sharp and ready for use. John Deal referred me to an incident today in which a 6 year old was suspended and sentenced to 45 days in reform school for taking his knife/fork/spoon cub scout tool to school. It was called a "weapon" in a school with zero-tolerance for "weapons." It is a tragic situation that basic tools for cutting wood and feeding yourself could only be viewed through the darkest lens, and if the hands are, as I believe, responsible for the development of intellect, we need to re-examine our relationship with tools. I attribute our current situation to the dark fantasies portrayed in film, on TV and in computer gaming. In the days before all that, boys used their knives to go to the woods and whittle on sticks, and the greatest fear was that they might nick themselves.

The Center for Disease Control notes a shocking 50 percent increase over the last two years in the number of children diagnosed with autism. The increase may be in part because of greater attention given to screening for the disease, but may also reflect what some see as a growing epidemic affecting the emotional health and social adjustment of millions of children. Two years ago the rate was 1 in 150 and now 1 in 100 children is diagnosed as autistic.

If you study primate behavior, you can see a bit of what human beings might have been like before the modern age. There is an incredible amount of grooming going on in primate behavior directed toward their young. But today, in modern households, families may be involved in other things. The constant holding and physical attention may not happen when mother is holding a book instead, or when father is engaged with the keyboard and computer screen. What happens when the television or computer are used to babysit children? Or what happens when families are so involved in television programs, that they are in separate rooms, watching their own televisions? How much traditional primate behavior is taking place in households today? Am I the only one who wonders about this?

The photos below show setting up camp, a bit of whittling and lunch.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Making sulpture from the Half Model

I have made my article Making Sculpture from the Half Model available as a PDF file for use by educators as I prepare to introduce my Wisdom of the Hands project to Michigan educators. This article explores ancient boat design techniques for use in high school sculptural design.

on the value of showing up

Last night my wife and I went for a walk in town and as always we had a few things to pick up and drop off at the library on the way home. Jean is digging through 100 years of records so that the history of our library can be written in celebration of its centennial year. Thirty percent of those years were her own, notes and records gathered from her own watch, written or typed in her hand and reflecting some of her own thoughts and aspirations.

There are those who shake up history in dramatic action and those who shape culture through their day to day relentless vision and effort. On the internet today, human consciousness is reduced to utter brevity. Today's news is yesterday's recycled electrons and what comes up on your screen in this moment is but a click away from oblivion. It is interesting to visit the library today. Years ago, while it was just a building with dusty books, it was a quiet place. But under Jean's 30 year watch, our Carnegie Library has blossomed. And while she would be the first to credit others, her effects are profound.

We have been relentlessly driven by the media toward short range thinking and short range goals, and I have been told that kids attention spans have been severely shrunk. Actually scientists have measured over the years and the evidence is clear. And so, I want to celebrate what has been called the "Cal Ripkin Effect", named after the baseball player who played years without missing a game. It is the value of showing up and it is actually the major player in the construction of human culture.

And so, I show up here each day to write, and some faithful readers show up each day to share my journey... but what are my goals? One is plastered on the banner at top... to put hands-on learning within reach of every child. But I have a broader goal as well that stems from the belief that I share with Anaxagoras, that the hands are the source of all human wisdom. It will be though our hands-on engagement that our culture will become more humane, compassionate, responsible. Cook, clean, make, plant, harvest, create, nurture, care, respond, teach, love. Pick something worthy. Show up. Relentlessly. In 30 years you will have left an important mark and you (and others) will be very glad you did.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

use of "log cabin jig"

One of my very useful inventions, that you can have for free is my "log cabin jig" which allows you to duplicate again and again, a perfect recess to fit square, rectangular or other shapes in wood. This can be used for fitting butt hinges as will be demonstrated in my upcoming Fine Woodworking article or even for fitting inlay in the tops of boxes.

In the photos above, I am using it as a guide to rout the back sides of drawer facings so that hammered brass inserts can be installed. The router bit used has a top mounted bearing of the same diameter as the cutter so that it exactly replicates the open space in the jig. The jig is simply made by overlapping log cabin corners. Again, you will see the finished effect later when the drawers are finished and installed, but as a teaser, you can see the first assembled drawer below. The pull is made of cocobolo, a departure from my usual reliance on Arkansas woods. The cocobolo has extremely high oil content, making it the perfect wood to resist the occasional greasy fingers as drawers are opened and closed and as meals are being prepared.

failing schools in Arkansas

Of the 1081 public schools in Arkansas this year 407 have failed to meet prescribed "yearly progress standards." That is a 37.6 percent failure rate following 7 years of "No Child Left Behind" legislation. Could it possibly be that the missing link in our children's education could be something as simple as the human hand?
"...the human hand and brain co-evolved as a behavioral system." --Frank Wilson, author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.
We neglect the education of our children's hands only to put their minds at risk.

Anaxagoras

Anaxagoras was the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who proposed the concept nous or mind as the controlling force of the universe, and yet he also believed that the hands were the source of all human wisdom. And thus arose within the split view of Anaxagoras the conflict that is with us still today.

In schools we have this idea that the mind is something separate from the rest of the body, and that having children sit at desks while we stimulate their minds is the most cost effective means of providing for their growth. At this time, we have a significant body of scientific evidence gathered through centuries of examination of real human beings to tell us otherwise. And yet, we do very little to make necessary changes to improve education. Make, fix, cook, plant, nurse, care, sew, create, tend, repair, become powerful, self-reliant, gather with others to teach and learn, and be smart.

Engagement of children in the arts avoids the oversimplification of right and wrong answers, thereby coaching children toward intelligent understanding of nuance and subtleties of relationship and form. I continue to digest Elliot Eisner's book, the Arts and the Creation of Mind. Abandonment of the arts in schools is the dumbing of our children and our culture.

Today, in the wood shop, I will continue to finish boxes, start some new ones from scratch for the next order, and work on drawer facings.

Friday, October 09, 2009

swords or plowshares, weaponry, the environment and education

I congratulate President Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize committee. It was a complete shock to me this morning to learn of Obama's award. And I hope that it offers even greater awards to the American people.

We have long faced a choice, more difficult for some and easier for others, whether we would lead by the sword of conquest, or the plowshare that serves the cause of social justice. If we were to contemplate for a moment the amount of money we spend each year on the development and production of advanced weaponry, and what it would mean if we turned those productive resources toward energy independence, sustainable development and education we would begin to recognize the opportunity that some in the world see more clearly than the American people.

What can you you imagine? I'll start the list... more teachers, smaller classes, a solar collector on each rooftop, medical care that doesn't leave families economically bankrupt while facing by personal tragedy, an end to global warming, peaceful resolution of international conflicts, an end to fear based partisan bickering... You are welcome to add to my list.

There is lost opportunity in rigid adherence to the status quo, and we have to accept the Nobel Committee's conclusion. President Obama brings qualities to the world stage that many in the US are unwilling to recognize... And I offer my deepest heartfelt congratulations.

In the photo above you can see my next step in making drawer fronts. The routed groove is for a hardwood bar forming a drawer pull in a unique design. You will be able to see the finished design in a later post.

Northern Woodlands

My review of Shop Class as Soulcraft for Northern Woodlands magazine has been edited and approved for the next issue. Northern Woodlands is an informative regional publication that has great articles about nature and the outdoors with a particular emphasis on forest and stream ecology and sustainable forestry practices. It also offers an interesting email newsletter that might be of special interest and entertainment to my regular readers.
Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work
By Matthew Crawford
Penguin Press, 2009

One morning I followed a link sent to me by a friend and found that I had been quoted in The New York Times. That’s not a thing that happens often to woodshop teachers.

The article cited my blog in its discussion of Matthew Crawford’s best selling book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. Crawford’s book opens by quoting me:

“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.”

Such a statement could have been made by any of the remaining woodshop teachers in America. We all know in our hearts, through our own soulcraft, that our students learn best when their hands are engaged in real problem solving.

Certainly, Crawford’s book isn’t the first to look at the values of work and the absurdities of the blue collar/white collar divide, though all of us hand-guys and shop teachers revel in its success. As a woodshop teacher and hands-on learning enthusiast, I welcome all the help I can get in explaining the value of my program. Crawford’s well-written exploration is a much-valued addition to others on the subject. Mike Rose’s Mind at Work and Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman are recent books that come to mind that inquire intelligently about the values of work.

Soulcraft’s great appeal is that it is an engaging story well told from personal experience by someone measured successful on both sides of the white collar/blue collar divide, someone who chose the blue and provides eloquent defense of his decision. It illuminates our misperceptions of the values of each and presents a strong case for rethinking the educational goals we might reasonably demand of our children. I was one of those whose parental aspirations were that I might become a lawyer before my own hands and heart got in the way of their ambitions for me. So I am particularly pleased to see anyone make the case that a craftsman or tradesman can find in his work not only pleasure but also success and meaning.

Crawford is a Ph.D. philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic. His tale shows that our ideal of university education for all may for some be a waste of time and for some a great disservice. Many reluctant students might find greater pleasure and deeper meaning in the direct hands-on problem solving that a life in the trades can provide. As suggested by another book, The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, a life in the trades might even end up making more money.

Perhaps most pleasing is that Crawford demonstrates his chops as both a mechanic and philosopher, through thoughtful and coherent discourse. Motorcycle mechanics and philosophy? That is not necessarily a surprise, since years ago we had Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and readers may sense a connection. But long before that Jean Jacques Rousseau had said in Emelius and Sophia, 1763: “If instead of making a child stick to his books I employ him in a workshop, his hands labor to the profit of his mind, he becomes a philosopher but fancies he is only a workman.”

Doug Stowe

rules, production, ignorance and competing with the Chinese

This morning I am sanding some boxes to fill an order with one of the few galleries continuing to handle my work. The order is smaller than usual for this time of year. Its the economy. But I am grateful that as my attentions have been turned to teaching and writing, there are still a few galleries that care about what I make and that they have customers who care about what I make.

The boxes that I make when I teach are never exactly the same, but when I make boxes for selling through small craft galleries, I follow very specific rules. The types of wood and sizes and types of inlay are set, as are the various steps followed to get consistent results, so that when the gallery places the order, they know exactly what they will receive. It is never a mindless enterprise, as I am always paying careful attention to make certain that my standards are met. Being tight with the rules is part of what it takes to build a business. If I were to ship my materials to China and teach someone my set-ups, rules, and standards, they could produce what I make for a fraction of the cost... Provided there was a large enough demand for the product for them to justify making gadzillions.

In actual fact, I'm not really competing with the Chinese in the most direct sense... The value of my work is in its relationships to our beautiful forests and to the notion that the work is made by a real human being. Its qualities are not simply the result of tooling and precision machinery, but also arise from care and human attention to detail. I do compete with the Chinese in a less direct sense, in that the value of Chinese made goods impacts the perceived value of other things, and so many people do not really know what goes into the making of a human crafted object, and thus we have been taught to place little value in things.

I was reading in Elliot Eisner's book the Arts and the Creation of Mind about primary and secondary ignorance. Primary ignorance is what you know you don't know. Secondary ignorance is a far more difficult challenge in that it is what we don't know we don't know. For example most of the people in the US don't really know how little they know about how things are made, and consequently, they have little sense of the values invested in their making. Joe Barry told me that in the PBS broadcast of Craft in America, "a college weaving teacher noted that all his American students came to him not only never having made anything themselves but, not having seen anyone else make something!" People in America know very little about making things, and also don't even know how little they know about making things, so we have a striking example of secondary ignorance.

But there is a simple fix. Return crafts to the center of primary and secondary education. Make, fix, cook, sew, plant, create. Renew education.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

rules based learning and behavior vs. the arts

I have continued my reading of Elliot Eisner's book The Arts and the Creation of Mind, and it has stimulated my thoughts on rules based vs. artistic thinking and problem solving.

The idea of science is that you or I could do the same things exactly the same way and come to exactly the same results, and from that, rules can be established, that when followed, any place in the world, regardless of setting or the individual characteristics of the person involved will lead to the same predictable desired results. As an example, last night our the satellite dish receiver went haywire. My wife called customer service and got an automated help desk that led us by voice prompts through a series of troubleshooting steps to a successful result. Years ago that kind of thing would have been handled with an on-site service visit by a real person, but now is automated, so that the computer is following the same set of rules that used to require a live agent. For an interim period, such things were handled by call centers in India or some other country in which cheaper labor could follow the same rules. With rules based problem solving there is a potential savings of millions or even billions of dollars and the outcomes (when they are successful) are a lot better than waiting days for someone to come to your door.

It may seem surprising to you, as it always has to me, that so many people like the idea of everything being set in rules. Rules are comforting in a way. They produce a sense of order and reliability. And the future is often not so reliable. With rules, you do this, and that happens. Whew! What a relief. If only our schools and the education of our children could be handled with such ease! But then, as stated by my then teenaged daughter as she was explaining to me why she should go to Columbia University instead of the school that offered a complete scholarship, "If everything were rational, there would be no poetry." And I can add, nor would we have the arts.

When teaching box making to adults, I demonstrate specific rules, that when applied to wood through the use of specific jigs for precise cutting and though specific steps for assembly will lead my students to successful boxes. Teaching the rules is part of why they pay me to teach and part (but only part) of why my students are willing to devote a week of their time to the effort. Breaking the rules is the other part, encountering and creating the unexpected, and that tends to be the part most usually forgotten in school.... once we know the rules, what do we do next? The rules can become the foundation for growth and exploration, as students are encouraged to push beyond perceived limits and expand both the capabilities of the child, and the dimensions of physical and aesthetic reality. But, too often they are not.

So that leads to another set of "rules" in my box making classes, much more subjective and from which creative potential is expanded, the "principles and elements of design." These bring the student to question and explore their own aesthetics and aesthetic values. But unlike the rules of making, these require the participant to develop their own sensitivity to form and meaning and make decisions based on what they find. The students love both parts of the box making class. The first set of rules form the foundation for the second and it is through both that they find greater confidence of personal expression. And it is here that the arts depart, leaving science in dust, and the truth of our humanity is revealed.

I know all this is poorly delivered, and I will reflect on and refine my thoughts over the course of days. But this is a "blog," a place through which things can be discussed, mulled over and left hanging. There are no precise rules, or standards in a blog but I do have criteria... that of moving my thoughts forward in consideration of education and sharing them with you.

It seems that many in politics and administration would like teaching to become a completely rules based behavior, though we know of course that it can be performed as an art, in which there are actually no limits to its potential. The effects of teaching when it is performed as art, may never be fully measured.

So what are the things that would enable more teachers to raise what they do as an "art form"? A reduction in class size so that teachers can actually get to know their students might be a good place to start. Then remove the over-the-top emphasis on standardized testing and put in place other criteria for student, teacher, and school assessment. One question regarding criteria we might ask in schools, "Are they having fun yet?" And in this case, having fun isn't goofing off. It can be as simple as making things in woodshop.