Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I had 14 students at a time in the woodshop today, which is actually too many for my small classroom, so I am reminded that I need to divide the fifth and sixth grades into two groups in the future. It seems that in many schools 14 in the woodshop would be considered small or normal, and I have to marvel at the kinds of job most woodworking teachers are called to perform. The amount of materials preparation can be overwhelming, and in schools where they tend to be too little appreciated, and in schools where the real value of woodworking education is misunderstood, teaching woodshop can be very challenging.

In recent years, it has been generally assumed that woodworking was where you placed slow learners, who would not be taking more academic subjects. It was often thought to be the place where troubled youth could be parked to keep them in line, out of trouble, and in the school system rather than allowing them to drop out. All of that is very far from the original intent.

The "fathers" of manual training in the US, John D. Runkle at MIT and Calvin Woodward at Washington University, had noticed that their engineering students were having a great deal of trouble thinking in three dimensions. Their students' academic work was leaving them handicapped with regard to the kinds of spatial understanding and awareness that were required to advance in engineering. So in the late 1870's Runkle and Woodward started woodworking programs to bring the developmental benefits of woodworking education to their students and their thinking skills.

If you compare that original intent with the common perceptions held by many in education, you may notice that we missed the boat. If you compare our very middle of the road national education performance with that of Finland for example you will notice the boat left without us. This has been measured by PISA, an international organization concerned with advancements in education. While the PISA study doesn't make any claims relative to the use of a crafts centered curriculum, it should be noted that Finland has had a compulsory woodworking program for ALL their students for over 100 years. We've virtually killed ours over the last 20.

There is a well-documented link between math skills and "spatial sense," described by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) as “an intuitive feel for one's surroundings and objects in them. According to the NCTM's Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, "Geometry and spatial sense are fundamental components of mathematics education. They offer ways to interpret and reflect on our physical environment through abstraction. They support creative thought in all mathematics"

According to the Standards, "spatial visualization includes building and manipulating mental representations of shapes, relationships, and transformations."

Can you imagine a more effective process for developing spatial sense than in the use of tools to cut, assemble and manipulate materials into useful and decorative forms?

So, today, even though we had too many in the woodshop at one time, some wonderful things took place. Some of the children bent nails. Some of the children made scroll saw cuts that wandered from the lines. Some put things together backwards and had to take things apart and fix them. None messed up so badly that they didn't walk away with a tongue drum to use in the upcoming concert. In the meantime, there were things that took place in the process that built character, awareness, concentration, imagination and creativity. Also math, measuring, and spatial sense that will help prepare these students for algebra. And we all had fun.

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