Sunday, March 16, 2014

Dewey's occupation

Following the lead of Froebel in his understanding of the role of occupations in transforming the lives of children, Dewey said the following:
"The occupation supplies the child with a genuine motive; it gives him experience at first hand; it brings him into contact with realities. It does all this, but in addition it is liberalized throughout by translation into its historic and social values and scientific equivalencies. With the growth of the child's mind in power and knowledge it ceases to be a pleasant occupation merely and becomes more and more a medium, an instrument, an organ of understanding—and is thereby transformed. This, in turn, has its bearing upon the teaching of science. Under present conditions, all activity, to be successful, has to be directed somewhere and somehow by the scientific expert—it is a case of applied science. This connection should determine its place in education. It is not only that the occupations, the so-called manual or industrial work in the school, give the opportunity for the introduction of science which illuminates them, which makes them material, freighted with meaning, instead of being mere devices of hand and eye; but that the scientific insight thus gained becomes an indispensable instrument of free and active participation in modern social life. Plato somewhere speaks of the slave as one who in his actions does not express his own ideas, but those of some other man. It is our social problem now, even more urgent than in the time of Plato, that method, purpose, understanding, shall exist in the consciousness of the one who does the work, that his activity shall have meaning to himself." -- John Dewey, School and Society, 1899
It was my own sense that the wood shop was integrally connected to all things that led me to devise the Wisdom of the Hands project at Clear Spring School. And I learned through my own reading and exploration that the simple notion was not new to me, but rather had been a strong and neglected element in educational thought since the 17th century. Occupations were ways that children transformed the materials in their surroundings into more useful and beautiful form and were thus transformed from being idle consumers to being active celebrants and participants in society at large.

My 6 x 48" belt sander motor started smoking while I was at work yesterday making Froebel gift boxes. I must now either buy a new one, or replace the motor. The difference in cost is about $250 dollars. The difference in aggravation leads me toward fixing it, rather than replacing it. In buying a whole tool, I would face assembly of it, and then disposal of all the packaging. Fixing it will offer some level of satisfaction, that disposing of packaging will not.

The child whittling the stick forms hypotheses as he tests the angle of the blade against the hardness and grain of the wood. He observes carefully, lest he slice a finger on the sharp blade. If the blade ceases to cut with some level of ease, he sharpens it, again, paying attention to the proper angle of the blade on the stone. If he has been encouraged to be attentive to such things, his work is not a mindless thing. It becomes a creative, scientific investigation of material. How is it shaped? What thing of practical beauty can I make from it? And as Otto Salomon had pointed out, the value of the carpenter's work is in the object the carpenter makes. The value of the pupil's work lies in the development of the character and intellect of the child.

Make, fix, and create...

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