Saturday, December 19, 2015

The rise and fall of manual arts...

When I made a very brief visit to North Bennet St. School in Boston in 2001, talking with their development director opened a crack in my understanding, that then, as I began to pry things open, revealed what should have become clear to American educators, but for the fact that humans must be drawn (commanded even) to look deeply and closely enough to see beyond the surface of things.

My student Oen, second grade, wanted to make a wooden sword just like one made by Hannah, one of my older students. He looked at the two parts of the sword, the handle and the blade, and taking two pieces of wood, proposed that they could be glued. Putting Hannah's sword before him, I asked, "look closely at how it is made." Only by looking closely and examining the intersection between the handle and the blade, could he see that the end of the blade was whittled down to enter a hole in the handle that gave a strong connection between the two.  In order to make what he wanted he would have to drill a hole in the handle, and then shape the end of the blade to fit in that hole. Making the sword was a whole lot more work than he imagined it would be. But knowing how it needed to be made, allowed him to actually make one that would work and would last. The most important point, however, was not Oen's making of the sword, but his having taken the time to look closely and learn from an examination of the real world. For a second grader, this is how progress is made. I am training Oen, not only to make, but to see.

Understanding Educational Sloyd is not quite so easy. One can look at a progression of models to be made by students using certain tools, with each to be made at a certain time in relation to each other. What one does not see is the underlying theory upon which the progression was planned. An immediate hunger to develop skilled hands for industry led the early manual arts movement to rush forward without a deeper understanding of how it fit in.

In the US, proponents of the manual arts squabbled from the outset over whether Sloyd models would be used in progression, or whether, following the Russian system of Victor Della Vos, exercises unrelated to the making of specific useful objects would suffice. Educational Sloyd, to its disadvantage, was a far deeper subject than simply fitting hands to industrial purposes and what they missed was the deeper view of how children learn, and must learn in order to be most deeply engaged. Educational Sloyd explained how all children learn and explained the necessity that all children make beautiful and useful objects, but in a society bent on maintaining the pre-existing social stratification,  and the separation between the intellectual class and working class, the more narrow view of manual arts won out.

Now, in the US and in the world, there is a growing excitement about making things, and maker labs are being formed in schools, and of course that is all a good thing. Kids of all ages need to do real things. But what is still lacking these days is the adoption of a theoretical foundation concerning how and what children will learn from the experience and how it fits into their overall schooling and development.  Otto Salomon, in Educational Sloyd developed and promoted a theoretical foundation for manual arts that carried an understanding of how students learn, and how we might best teach. That theory of Educational Sloyd, and the understanding buried at the point where the blade and handle are conjoined should have been observed and adhered to throughout schooling, and not just in the manual arts. But just as Oen saw the handle and the blade as separate things that he could stick together with glue, the new maker movement will rise only to fall again, if we don't drill the hole  in the handle and shape the tang of the blade to fit. This is precisely why Educational Sloyd has even greater value today. While folks are looking for educational reform, the Theory of Educational Sloyd holds the key to effective change.

Make, fix, create, observe, and encourage others to love learning likewise.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:29 PM

    This classic story of Professor Agassiz and his student is pertinent: