Tuesday, October 27, 2015

machine teaching and mediocrity...

The following is from my blog post of September 27, 2006, and I am re-posting it here in response to the standardized testing movement and what it is doing to our nation's schooling and in response to a comment from Tim.
The Nature and Art of Workmanship
by David Pye ...

David Pye, UK woodworker, philosopher and author explored the meaning of craftsmanship in his book “the Nature and Art of Workmanship”. The book questions many of the typical assumptions about the values inherent in work and the products of manufacturing and craftsmanship. Pye differentiates between “workmanship of certainty” in which the processes are mechanized, engineered and controlled to achieve a certainty of outcomes and “workmanship of risk” in which the outcome is less predictable and largely dependent on the attention and skill of the craftsman.

This morning as I was brushing my teeth, I couldn’t help but marvel at the simple invention moving through my mouth. It has an ultrasonic vibration that helps to remove microscopic particles, and it cost $3.87 at the local discount store. It is obvious that modern manufacturing is able to offer significant value in the goods made through what David Pye calls workmanship of certainty. If I were to attempt to make a simple toothbrush, I could spend much more than a day doing it, and still not be able to make one myself that would be so effective. Or, I might go outside and with prior knowledge and experience, simply choose something from the range of available natural materials that would suffice, but it would be far less effective than the tooth brush I used this morning.

The age of cheap manufactured goods has called the life of the craftsman or maker into question. It is an old problem, and one that John Ruskin attempted to address long before David Pye. How do we come to an understanding of the value of the handmade object? What are the attributes that give it value? In most circumstances, a handmade object can’t compete with a well-designed manufactured object in either usefulness or price. So where does it compete, and why would someone want to either make or purchase something made by hand?

If you are interested in this question, reading David Pye’s book is a good place to start. Personally, I think the answer lies in an exploration of our own values. If we are a “values damaged” society as suggested by Matti Bergstöm (see post of Thursday, September 14, 2006  this blog) and are only able to think of the objects in our lives in the economic terms of supply, demand, price and marginal utility, we might as well forget the hands and all the higher values in human life… things like love, the miracles of growth and the joy of discovery. But if there are other values at work in our lives, we will always have a need to be making things with our own hands and to treasure things made through the inspired hearts and skilled hands of others.
Tim asked if I saw a relationship between the craftsman's dilemma and what children face in school. The same search for false certainty and avoidance of risk is driving school reform.  Just as we want machines to crank out tooth brushes at such a low price, policy makers want the same of education. Standardized testing is part of that scheme as "educational reformers" try to use measurement of children's performance to cut costs and achieved new standards of efficiency despite the damages that ensue to the culture and to the soul of the child.

There have been many who have described American education as an industrialized process. It is time to re-humanize things. We can do that quite simply by training teachers to be effective (and that means hands-on), and trusting them to deliver, instead of tying their hands with standardized tests and stratagems controlled from the top. I mentioned in the title of this post, machine teaching and mediocrity. What is happening to teaching with the widespread use of digital technology in the classroom is very much akin to what happened in the industrial age to the making of things.

So, what is a man making when he makes something beautiful and useful and what does that have to do with mediocrity? Certainly, and with some degree of certainty, a machine can make things faster and in some ways better than can a man. But when a man makes something, he, himself, has the opportunity to escape  mediocrity in the making of himself as a craftsman. While the machine is in the process of wearing itself out making meaningless stuff, the man, on the other hand, hones and polishes his own soul.

Make, fix, create and inspire others to learn likewise.

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