Friday, June 21, 2013

teaching as discovery...

Lift out tray with center divider.
The word is heuristic. Teaching is too often considered to be a one way street in which someone in the know presents information to those who don't know. And yet, teaching and learning at their best involve engagement with the unknown by both teacher and learner.

At my box interiors class at Marc Adams, I wanted the class to become student led to some degree, which meant that I needed student involvement in the development of lessons as they emerged. So in making trays, I asked for their help in directing me to make the kind of tray they thought would be useful in their own work. Half the class wanted a sliding tray. The other half wanted another design. So we made both, even though a lift out tray as shown is one I'd never made before in my life.

Making this simple tray required me to engage heuristically in the process of teaching. Part of the value of this open ended approach is that it demonstrates a self-directed model for learning. Students will at some point, leave the tutelage of an instructor and be on their own to confidently engage in personal discovery. That will certainly involve trial and error. It may involve failure and will most certainly involve risk. Participating with a teacher who demonstrates this relationship with both failure and risk may be the most important experience that can be offered to students in a class. For both teacher and student it involves a step into the unknown. Heuristics require there to be an unknown in order for discovery to take place. Incidentally, this is related to a principle in Educational Sloyd, "Move from the known to the unknown." And that's not just a principle for the student, but for the teacher as well.

The photos at left and below show how the tray worked out in the finished box. For the teacher, engaging in discovery may involve feelings of loss of control and vulnerability. He or she may feel unprepared, all the while offering necessary insight into learning itself.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Doug,

    This is one of the ways I teach. My students have told me that they appreciate to see how I problem solve on the fly to help them overcome unexpected challenges.


  2. Chris, Heuristics is one of the ways of teaching that drives administrators crazy... for a teacher to come to class apparently unprepared drives them nuts. And yet it is one of the ways that lead students to cross over a line into self-directed learning.

    I've been trying to teach my box making students to use effective surprise as an objective in good design... It should make the observer cross over the line from disengagement to direct connection through the hands.

    Effective surprise, not surprisingly, is a term also from Jerome Bruner, educational psychologist. I tend to think of both affective and effective surprise. It is best when learning touches the emotions, as well as engaging the learner in processes that encourage them to take risks rather than to sit complaisantly at the sidelines.

    So when a teacher is allowed to flub and fail in a demonstration and takes the experience with equanimity, he or she demonstrates important principles of learning, and the kids will remember that day as no other.

  3. Doug,

    I agree.

    In the perfect world, everything goes as planned. I think that the majority of woodworkers never make a single item enough that they can anticipate every problem they will face during the build. Do you still face new challenges when building your boxes, or have you got them nailed down, so to speak?

    I want my students to know that even practiced professionals are faced with challenges and what makes a good woodworker is the ability to not get overwhelmed by the situation and find a solution.


  4. Chris, I never have anything nailed down as I'm always pushing my own limits and exploring new ideas. Life does not belong to the stagnant.

    So always pushing my own limits has made me rather comfortable in doing experimental things in demonstration. For instance this last week I made two new sleds at MASW. I knew exactly how they would work and that they would work based on my past experience. And that experience builds a platform for further experimentation. Jerome Bruner called it "scaffolding."

  5. Doug,

    I'm glad to hear that you keep trying new things to grow. I taught myself woodworking by trying everything that I could and gaining experience and confidence along the way. I didn't really have anybody to teach me anything more than the simplest woodworking techniques so I had to learn myself.


  6. Teaching was always a high wire act, and when it worked well for me it was the feedback from students that made it work. Whether discussions or hands-on work, students want to do more than just listen or watch.


  7. Mario, it is interesting to teach in a discovery process because the teacher often feels unprepared and can only assess student learning by asking for student response. So I ask, "Do you get something? Have we discovered something together? Do you find something surprising here?"