Thursday, June 05, 2008

The rustic chair is nearly complete, and today I'm going back to competing with the Chinese, making small objects to sell in an increasingly tough market. As you can see, I am also in cooperation with the Chinese, as they are the producers and suppliers of the seagrass twine used in the chair above. The Chinese also make the Shaker tape used earlier in making a rustic foot stool. The Shaker tape was originally made by Shakers on looms and like most handmade things, the hand loomed fabric tapes used in Shaker chairs offered opportunities for creativity and exploration of design far beyond just providing a choice of colors.

I make my small boxes in a range of standard sizes for ease of marketing and production. By setting standards of size, design and production quality, I can make things easier for galleries to place orders. They know exactly what they are getting and pricing is made simple. I also have standards that I try to meet in terms of production quality, and those standards are important. If something is flawed in some way, it may sit on the shelf, ignored by consumers and if it doesn't sell, the gallery won't reorder. I have to be better at honestly scrutinizing my own work than any customer would be.

Interestingly, the Shakers, known for their wonderful furniture and bentwood boxes were leaders in the standardization movement. Their boxes were made in a uniform gradation of sizes for ease of production, marketing and distribution. If you compare Shaker boxes with Norwegian tine which were made by thousands of individual craftsmen in hundreds of small villages throughout Scandinavia, you see the benefits as well as the failings of standardization. The Shaker boxes offered higher uniform level of quality, but less personal and individualized expression.
Even today, an expert can look at a tine, tell which area or village it came from, and perhaps even identify the particular craftsman who made it.

So what happens when you apply the concept of Standards to education? Or attempt to shape children to conform to particular standards? Is the purpose of education to turn out perfect Shaker boxes, or the diverse individualized expression of real human beings? The funny thing is that human beings don't like being treated as things. It goes against our grain. Attempting to fit students into a standardized education is counter productive, and may explain why we have a 30 percent dropout rate from high schools. We thrive when we are granted the opportunity to be innovative and expressive, and become dull or rebellious when we are controlled and molded to fit standards. But there is an interesting relationship between innovation, creativity and play, and if we want our nation to be productive, we need to dispense with the standards and remember to call time for recess.

In the meantime, some colleges and universities have been noticing that standardized tests are not effective at predicting academic success. Highly respected Wake Forest has joined over 400 others colleges and universities that no longer require standardized tests like ACT or SAT as a prerequisite for admission. Are we beginning to come to our senses? When we are ready for senses, there is no better way than to engage the sense of touch, restoring hands-on learning in our schools. The wood shop can help with that.


  1. I know of a recent high school grad who scored above average on standardized tests in math but who completed only the required math credits to graduate. Then graduated on the Principles Honor Roll at a top scoring public school. But who could not pass the required placement test for first year college algebra at a state funded University. Hmm? What is wrong with this picture? Well, several thoughts occur to me, one of which is that the requirements for success in our public education system are at best, minimum. And secondly, that a student has to desire to learn more than the minimum amount required if they wish to rise above a life of mediocrity.

  2. One of the problems is grade inflation. It is a problem with many causes. Children are under an incredible amount of pressure to perform and they and their parents beg and lobby for improved grades. Teachers really do want success for their students and pass out grades that haven't been earned.

  3. I'm curious what you think of countries such as France who have a comprehensive test to pass before graduating from high School? When I was a student I was glad we didn't have one. Now, with step-children, I wish we did.

  4. Dana, I'm not sure what I think. I don't know enough of the purpose behind it. Too often these things come down to money. The testing initiative in the US has been instigated by concerns with whether we are getting our money's worth from teachers. We have friends in Norway, and their children got to the age where their testing determines which continuing educational opportunities will be offered. How you perform on a test will determine whether you'll be a carpenter or trained for the law.

    School has two conflicting purposes... meeting the developmental needs of the child, and meeting the needs of the state, for conformity, uniformity and fiscal responsibility. We have this idea that education is about noble purposes, and education is equally about other things. Very often the student is crunched between the two, what Dylan described as "being bent out of shape by society's pliers."