Tuesday, October 30, 2012

doing something different? try expressing skill for a change.

Yesterday a few of my high school students decided that instead of conventional round sound holes on the face of their cigar box guitars, they wanted them to be other complex, difficult to accomplish shapes. I carefully described the risks involved: That this pointy shape cut in wood would be fragile and inevitably break... that sound hole, centered in the top would be too large and interfere with the placement of the bridge... that this particularly complex shape would be challenging even for me to cut with my long years of practice working with wood. "Will you cut if for me?" they asked. "Do I look like I have time for that?"  "What skills would you acquire by watching me do it?" I asked in reply.

But there is pressure among kids to be different these days, and it is a challenge to get them to understand that by doing a thing particularly well, expressing skill and simplicity of design in a useful and beautiful object would be different enough in this age of unskilled workmanship.

I explained that students would learn more by screwing up than by taking the safe course, but that put me in a awkward position because I truly hoped for their success, not failure.  This was their last wood class before fall break, so I plan to have some new tops ready by the next class so they can opt for better work when their experimentation is complete.

Back in the 1930's there was a big blow-up over this same issue in the world of educational Sloyd. Famous Swedish craftsman, Carl Malmsten believed that the teaching method promoted at Nääs did not allow enough student experimentation and originality. The Sloyd model series was intended to provide a steady growth in skill. Other educators had also claimed that the method was stifling. And so finding that balance between skill and creativity can be a challenge. Should woodworking be an anything goes, anything is acceptable indulgence, or something more in which students learn to apply meaningful standards of craftsmanship to their work? If the purpose is education rather than indulgence, the standards of craftsmanship should come into play.

I had a conversation with my 4th, 5th and 6th grade students yesterday on the same subject. They want to come to wood  shop wanting to simply do their own thing. They are creative enough to reach into the scrap bucket, pull out 4 pieces of wood and come up with something. But I ask them to do projects that build greater skill, and I have particular ways in which I want things done. I explained that the greater skill that can come as a result of their participation can make them even more creative. Do we do then any favors when we offer empty praise for their creativity in making junk that will not survive or serve as useful beauty? I tend to think not.

Today the first order of 300 boxes leaves my shop, and I pick up materials for the next order of 500. I guess you can imagine what I will be doing for the next month and a half.

Make, fix and create...


  1. I agree that it is important, that the end product is usefull, but then again, I sometime find myself making test things, just to aquire skills. And that can not be called a usefull end product.

    So I suppose it is the same with the pupils. That some of the things they make, can be just for the learning process, but once you have learned a "new" skill, it would be best to put it to practical use.

    Best regards

  2. Hi Doug,

    In the seminars that I teach, I face a similar dilemma. While I would like to help my students success by helping them with tool setups, I also want them to experience the difficulties they may face in their own shops. For example, setting up a router bit for a joint isn't as simple as woodworking videos make it seem - it requires multiple tests and much more time than we might otherwise think.