Monday, October 16, 2006

Getting real...Sometime back in the late 1700’s a child in Pestalozzi’s school challenged his teacher, “You want me to learn the word ladder, but you show me a picture. Wouldn’t it be better to go look at the real ladder in the shed?” The teacher was frustrated by the child’s remark and explained that he would rather not take the whole class outside the building just to look at a ladder. Later, the same child was shown the picture of a window and again interrupted the teacher. “Wouldn’t it be better to talk about the window that is right there? We don’t even have to go outside to look at it!” The teacher asked Pestalozzi about the incident and was informed that the child was right. Whenever possible children should learn from the real world and the experiences it offers.

I doubt that you could find any educational theorist who would disagree with Pestalozzi on this. We can follow the long line of theorists from Commenius, Rousseau, and Froebel, through William James, John Dewey and Howard Gardner. But still, in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement.

There are distinct differences between the academic life and the real world. I can remember being asked when I was a college student, “What are you going to do when you get out in the real world?” There is knowledge shared by students at all levels that the school world is unreal. There are noted and important differences between sheltered and contrived learning environments and the multidimensional reality beyond the classroom doors.

The greatest problems in modern education can be summarized in the 3 Ds: Disengagement, disinterest and disruption. Schools often fail to engage children's innate capacities for learning. In worst cases, students become disruptive of the educational interests and needs of others. At a very early age, children are instructed, "don't touch!" "Keep your hands to yourself!” But the hands and brain comprise an integrated learning/creating system that must be engaged in order to secure the passions and "heart" of our youth. It is the opportunity to be engaged through the hands that brings the seen and known to concrete reality in human experience. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged. When the passions ARE engaged and supportive systems (teachers, community resources, technology etc) are in place, students find no mountain is too high, and no concept too complex to withstand the assault of their sustained interest and attention. You don’t have to take my word for this. You can see it in action, and while I can describe my own observations, I know that you, the reader of this material can reflect on times when your passions have been engaged in your own lives and your own learning has been at its height.

So what is the answer to the challenge of engaging the heart in education? Get real. Real life engages the intellect and the imagination. Crafts are an excellent way to bring the real world into the classroom. Real tools, real materials, real work, making real objects with real use. The purpose of the woodshop at Clear Spring is to help all the other subjects become real and engage the hearts and the passions or our students in education. You know what? It really works.


  1. Anonymous4:47 PM

    Dear Mr. Stowe,

    I just read your quote in the article on working with the hands in the Times. How inspiring. It came at a very good time, as I have just decided to home school my middle child, a twelve year old boy. After trying a couple of different schools and having him be constantly in trouble for his impulsive behavior it is time to do something different before this empathetic, energetic, creative child becomes convinced that he is a bad kid. I have noticed how much he enjoys cooking and making things, even cleaning the house. He gets a lot of satisfaction from real wok. I've decided to try and build our curriculum around the practical arts. Thanks for the timely inspiration. I'm happy to discover your blog.

  2. Early educators knew that boys needed to learn in an active fashion, by doing. But administrators would prefer that kids sit still and have information delivered by oration, or now by electronic device. Both are cheaper. We decide what our children are worth and how much to invest in our future. And unfortunately, we've decided, "not much."