Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Free day!

One of the things the children love most is having a free day in wood shop, in which they make whatever they want. So I collect interesting scraps and they use their imaginations. They also have to describe to me the kinds of things they need to keep up their creative flow, and it is a test for me to keep up. You can see that what we get is not always quality work. And prototypes and inventive processes are where we learn what works, not how to create perfect quality.

A reader asked the following:
As a fellow woodworking teacher, do you have any advice on walking the line between demanding "quality", instilling what quality is, and letting kids be happy with a mediocre project that they are proud of? As much as I'd like all of their projects to glimmer like jewels, sometimes they are less than stellar.
Otto Salomon called what you are asking about "educational tact." How does a teacher know when a kid has done well enough? It is hard to know. As a professional, I know how high standards can go, but I also know that kids are not ready to do that level of work. A friend of mine, Glen had a dad who did woodworking and there was nothing Glen could do in the woodshop that met his father's high standards. And so, while Glen would have enjoyed woodworking and told me so, he knew he could never do it... His father had destroyed it for him. So it is important to not crush creative spirit. We don't start out doing quality work. But if we are exposed to it and receive encouragement toward it, it may come in time.

It helps when you have experience across a few grade levels. You see that the evolution in what a kid sees and is capable of doing takes place over time. Some are primarily visual, and some tactile or haptic. Each will be looking for different values in the work.

I had one student tell me, that's good enough, its for my mother... a very realistic assessment knowing that mothers will stoop pretty low in acceptance of things made by kids. But the question is interesting. Do you want to give your mother your best, or just what she will accept? So I asked the question but let the kid choose the answer. It wasn't what I would have preferred, but if I got him to think about then I did him a favor.

So, How do I answer such an interesting question? Always encourage to do better, but let the child decide when they have given it their best. If you have to give grades... I am thankful I do not... then make the rubric clear. Some points for enthusiastic participation, a component for measurable standards. Let the students know what those standards are. Some exercises are actually better at enabling students to succeed. Turning is interesting as students begin to assess each other's quality of work... Oooo! Feel how smooth this is...

Joe Barry sent the following via email and it makes sense and adds to the discussion:

I tried self rating with a finished example that I said was graded as an A. it didn't work. I thought about making additional models with flaws equal to a B, a c, etc.

Peer grading was an utter disaster.

What I finally did was always had a project I was working on at my bench and they could see what standard I held myself to. I asked them "If I did this would I be happy with it?" Not a perfect solution but, a workable one.
I had a pottery teacher who did his work in the same studio as the students. We were in awe of his creativity. His workmanship was an inspiration. My students know too little about the standards I set for my own work, except that they see it at various shows around town. As I mentioned to Joe, you can't push a rope. It is far better to lead by example.


  1. As I learned woodworking from my father in the 1950s & 60s, I might ask him, "how good does this have to be?" He would always say, "do your best." Then he would explain that to do my best it only had to be better than the last time I had done it. If I was fairing off the front edges of bookshelves, he would take my hand in his and trail it along the last set of shelves I had done, and say, "a little better than that will be fine."

    There was never a "standard of quality" I had to meet, like making it as good as he could. And it was always pretty easy to do just a little better, which in his view was always good enough. I don't think I ever heard him say, that's not good enough. But, it's true that he did often say, "do it again."

    As I think back, he would say, "do it again" with a little glint in his eyes, like 'how lucky was I, I get to have the fun of doing it again.' So, that's the way I felt about it. He never said "do it over," like I had made a mistake.

    So I got in the habit of doing a little better, a little better, always my best. After 50 years of woodworking I suppose I've gotten pretty good at some of it (if I do say so myself).

    by hammer and hand

  2. What a wise man. He had what Salomon would call "educational tact." As a practicing craftsman it is hard to do one's best, as it is elusive. The bar keeps moving up as you grow in skill. And the next project becomes important in proving things to yourself. And after awhile, you've gotten pretty damn good at what you do. That feels good.

  3. Anonymous8:35 PM

    Wow, thought-provoking as usual. Two things that have helped me in my work with the little ones:

    1. Reminding them that the work they do is for them, not for mom or dad or me. The epidemic of empty praise has created a generation of kids whose only goal is to fill a folder full of mediocre work to take home on Fridays, with the knowledge that they will be praised for the slightest effort.

    2. When they ask me what I think about their work, I'll say "I think you worked hard/were very focused/seemed interested in what you were doing. But it doesn't really matter what I think, what's important is what YOU think. Are you happy with your work, or do you feel that there's something you could do to make it better?"

  4. One thing I've learned is to not assume I understand the child's work but to ask that they tell me about it. I can learn a great deal by listening to what they saw as well as what they show. Kids have greater depth than some might think.

  5. >>The epidemic of empty praise has created a generation of kids whose only goal is to fill a folder full of mediocre work to take home on Fridays, with the knowledge that they will be praised for the slightest effort.<<

    I have noticed this too, and I'm not even in child education. I call it the "good job" syndrome. When I walk by certain playgrounds, there is a jabber of "good job," "good job," "good job," "good job" from the supervising adults. A girl swoops down the slide and lands on her feet: "good job." A boy catches a ball: "good job." A girl takes a step and doesn't tip over: "good job." I notice the kids are not even talking to each other, they are pretty quite as they go about their activity. They seem to be quite so every one can soak up the empty praise directed at others.

    My wife, who is in child education (private music teaching), says many of her students simply cannot discriminate the character of their work. Here is an excerpt from one of her essays:

    "In recent years it has been fashionable to praise youngsters extravagantly. It seems to be to have all started with the “self-esteem” boom. As a well-known psychologist once said: “The only way to gain confidence is to do something you didn’t think you could do”. All of the praises showered on children don’t mean anything if the child is not doing anything worthy of praise.

    "I am of the opinion that society and schools and teachers are asking less and less of children and giving them too much praise for doing too little. I think most of my students, especially the ones ages 9-11, are working below their capabilities and that they are not getting at school the training in problem-solving and information usage they need. I think what my husband calls the “good-job” syndrome is being prolonged into pre-adolescence and children are not being asked to develop serious skills soon enough.

    "I believe they are not being asked at school to assume enough responsibility for their own work and not expected to do enough to keep track of their work. As teachers and parents we owe it to our youngsters to give them the direct guidance and feedback they need to develop usable skills that will serve them as adults."

    (Catch the whole essay here:

    >>only goal is to fill a folder full of mediocre work to take home on Fridays,<<

    Well, if you think about it, that's about all they really need to know to do a "good job" down at the local corporate office. Just get your TPS reports in by Friday, which is supposed to have a cover sheet, yours doesn't, but "good job" anyway.


  6. John, very nicely put.