Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Woodworking at Clear Spring School

The following is adapted from my paper which I delivered in Finland in September and is intended for publication in the Lee Valley/Veritas Woodworker's Newsletter:

Woodworking at Clear Spring School, The Wisdom of the Hands by Doug Stowe

"Let the youth once learn to take a straight shaving off a plank, or draw a fine curve without faltering, or lay a brick level in its mortar, and he has learned a multitude of other matters which no lips of man could ever teach him" --John Ruskin, "Time and Tide", 1883.

When I was in high school and college I worked summers and holidays in my father’s hardware store and would slip away for an hour or so each afternoon to restore an old car under the guidance of a master craftsman. He said one day, “Doug, I don’t know why you study to be a lawyer, when your brains are so clearly in your hands.” His comment was prophetic. It led me to reexamine my academic path, alerted me to the pleasure I received in learning and working through my hands, and ultimately caused me to question the artificial and unproductive separation between hands-on learning and academic pursuits. I became a professional craftsman, and then author of woodworking books and articles.

You may have noticed that in most schools, wood shops have been discontinued to allow greater emphasis to be placed on academic studies As a craftsman, author and parent, I had found myself in conversations on the internet in which I learned that wood shops were no longer considered relevant in our “information age”, and that we would all earn our livings by moving electrons from one server to another. Instead of making things would buy everything we needed from China or some other developing nation.

Something else you may have noticed is that according to widely published statistics, over 30 percent of American high school students fail to graduate. An additional, but unmeasured number of our best and brightest students are bored with their high school educations. Add the numbers of disinterested, and deliberately disruptive students who manage to squeak through at graduation, and you might begin to think we could be doing a better job at educating our children and preparing them for their futures.

In my own shop I never felt what I was doing was obsolete. Woodworking enabled me to use a variety of skills, integrating the arts, science, history, mathematics and business. It occurred to me that woodworking in school could become central to the learning experience, making all the other conventional studies more relevant and meaningful to children’s lives. If learning were more relevant, more meaningful and more fun, school would more readily engage our children’s attention and more surely lead to their success. Thanks to my early craftsman mentor I had noticed something about my own hands that I believed to be a valuable tool in education. When the hands are engaged, the heart follows.

In the fall of 2001, we launched the Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring School to demonstrate the value of woodcrafts as a part of school curriculum. We named the program Wisdom of the Hands in the belief that bringing the hands into direct action in behalf of learning would enhance learning in all areas of conventional school curriculum and for all students, even those planning to pursue college educations. We started at the high school level and over the next two years, extended the program throughout grade levels 1 through 12. During that time I began my own research on the role of the hands in learning and I discovered that many of my own ideas were widely shared by educational theorists since the mid 1700’s and are very much a part of modern scientific research today.

One of my favorite quotes is from Abraham Maslow (American Psychologist 1908-1970): “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” This tells how much our tools are a part of us, how they influence our thoughts and capacities and perceptions of self.

The primary method we use in the Wisdom of the Hands program to interject the hands throughout the school curriculum is through the making of tools, for it is through the use of tools that the hands take their most active role in the expression of intellect.

Thomas Carlyle said, “Man is a tool-using animal. He can use tools, can devise tools; with these the granite mountains melt into dust before him; he kneads iron as if it were soft paste; seas are his smooth highway, winds and fire his unwearying steeds. Nowhere do you find him without tools; without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all!”

Throughout human history we have used tools to shape our natural environment, and in turn, our use of those tools has given shape to human intellect and perception

Charles H. Ham wrote in 1886, “—the axe, the saw, the plane, the hammer, the square, the chisel, and the file. These are the universal tools of the arts, and the modern machine-shop is an aggregation of these rendered automatic and driven by steam.”

As shown by these drawings from R.J Drillis Folk Norms and Biomechanics, the hands have been the fundamental means through which the world has been shaped, measured, studied and understood. All the actions of machine tools are derived from the motions of the human hand.

In addition, while the metric system is based on relative abstraction, earlier concrete systems, including our system of inches and feet were based on observation of the human hand and other parts of the human body.

The Hands
As schools have attempted to become more efficient in the process of education, children have been confined to desks with hands stilled, essentially blocking their traditional engagement in the process of learning. According to Dr. Frank Wilson, author of The Hand, How its use shapes the brain, language and human culture,
“No one knows precisely when our ancestors started handling textiles and manufacturing thread, but our ability to do this, along with many other tasks, was made possible because of two critical and parallel changes in upper limb and brain structure. Biomechanical changes in the hand permitted a greatly enlarged range of grips and movements of the hand and fingers; the brain provided new control mechanisms for more complex and refined hand movements. These changes took place over millions of years, and because of the mutual interdependence of hand and brain it is appropriate to say that the human hand and brain co-evolved as a behavioral system.

“The entire open-ended repertoire of human manipulative skill rests upon a history of countless interactions between individuals and their environments, natural materials and objects. The hand brain system that came into being over the course of millions of years is responsible for the distinctive life and culture of human society. This same hand-brain partnership exists genetically as a developmental instruction program for every living human. Each of us, beginning at birth, is predisposed to engage our world and to develop our intelligence primarily through the agency of our hands."
Current research in the new field of embodied cognition recognizes that the whole body takes part in the processing of information and human intelligence. The idea that human knowledge is “brain based” no longer provides an accurate view of who we are or how we learn. One of the areas of research involves the use of gesture. Work led by Susan Goldin-Meadow , a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, has found that children given arithmetic problems that normally would be too difficult for them are more likely to get the right answer if they're told to gesture while thinking. In fact, students who can use gesture in the solution of algebraic formulas have been shown to be 4 times more likely to get the right answer. Studies by Helga Noice, a psychologist at Elmhurst College, and her husband Tony Noice, an actor and director, found that actors have an easier time remembering lines their characters utter while gesturing, or simply moving.

There is something extremely powerful about the engagement of the hands. Woodworkers have noted the therapeutic effect of woodworking, calling their time spent in the woodshop, “sawdust therapy.” By and large we feel better when we take the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the process of creating something from wood.

In our nation we have an epidemic of depression and other mental and emotional disorders and use of anti-depressant medications have become common for controlling mood and behavior. I came to my own conclusion that much of the problem has been that we have been out of touch with our own hands, and while being out of touch has disastrous consequences in our lives, it also has profound detrimental effects on the education of our children.

The significance of the hand’s role in learning and the feelings that woodworker’s have about the therapeutic aspects of their time in the woodshop are illustrated by research conducted by Dr. Kelly Lambert at the University of North Carolina. She describes a system of “effort driven rewards” resulting from the creative use of the hands, stimulating an exchange of neuro-hormones in the brain that offsets symptoms of depression and raises overall emotional and intellectual engagement in learning. The idea that the engagement of the hands in learning and making things might come as a surprise to our nations pharmaceutical suppliers, but is no great surprise to those who work with wood. Lambert’s research illustrates how the lack of hands-on engagement leads to emotional disengagement, leading to diminished display of intellectual capacity. This may explain why researcher, Susan Goldin-Meadow suggests, “If you are having trouble thinking clearly, shake your hands.”

So the great educational question we must answer in the first part of the 21st century is very much the same question asked by educational theorists at the beginning of the 20th. “How do we bring the hands to bear on the education of our children?”

The Demonstration at Clear Spring School
The Wisdom of the Hands program is different from conventional school art classes and is different from conventional woodworking programs as well. Each project is planned in cooperation with core classroom teachers to integrate with current studies. By making our own tools at Clear Spring School, we establish a relationship between the materials drawn from our environment, and the student’s growth in confidence by capitalizing on the child’s natural inclinations toward creative activity. We make tools that fit a variety of different categories, each intended to enhance the school’s basic curriculum. Some of the tools enable children to do work, while others are used to expand the children’s understanding of concepts. Some are used for investigation and demonstration of scientific principles, some are used for organizing and collecting data and still others provide additional interest in classroom activities.

•Working tools are those that provide the children opportunity to do other projects, often involving crafts. Examples are looms for weaving, knives for carving, pens for learning cursive, and pencil sharpeners among others.
•Conceptual study tools include geometric solids for the study of geometry, math manipulatives, models of the solar system, puzzle maps for study of geography and plate tectonics. Abacuses for doing math problems and developing numerancy.
•Investigatory tools include windmills for studying meteorology, bug boxes and nets for catching insects, and projectile launchers for the study of trigonometry and physics.
•Organizational tools include divided trays for the collection of rocks and minerals, display boxes for collections of insects and numbered stakes for marking plant species on the school nature trails.

In addition, the children of all ages have a love of making toys and we use toys as tools to expand interest in specific areas of study. As examples, the children have made trains and various animals inspired by their reading. We have made dinosaurs inspired by their study of dinosaurs, as well as boats for the study of the sea, and cars and trucks for the study of economics and transportation. Much of the success of the program is rooted in the close relationship between classroom teachers and the wood shop.

Toy making increases the child’s enthusiasm for learning at all ages. Each project tests new ideas and ends with play. Each child at Clear Spring School has a collection of treasured objects that remind of lessons learned, skills developed.

The Key to our success:
The fact that the classroom teachers are part of the planning process, often suggesting possible projects, leads them to become active wood shop participants, working alongside the students, demonstrating their own engagement in the learning process. Rather than the wood shop being an isolated school activity, it is successfully integrated at all grade levels.

By being deeply immersed in exploring the fundamentals of physical reality, and making his or her own tools for discovery no child is truly left behind, no child is bored, and every child is empowered to engage in creative response to society and environment. The variety of tools that can be made in the school wood shop is without limit. So what is the difference between making an object and making a tool? Tools are intended to have use and impact beyond the time spent in the wood shop. As an example, the simple tray made for the collection of rocks and minerals is not complete until the contents have been collected, organized and labeled. A loom is not complete until it holds a completed cloth. A toy is not complete until it has been played with and enjoyed and learned from. Tools have particular effectiveness in bringing the hands to work in the classroom far beyond note taking and keyboarding. The hands’ profound impact on learning has been widely ignored in American education, but offers the pathway to educational reform and renewal.


  1. Just wondering, Doug: My wife is a pediatric occupational therapist who spends her days helping kids who have trouble using their bodies in various ways. One of the most common problems is handwriting. She and her staff work to improve the child's handwriting not by sitting at a desk and writing but by doing various play activities in a gym and by working with hand-crafts. The goal is not just to improve coordination of muscles and the mind-body connection, but also involves "sensory integration," that is, learning to interpret and manage all the various sensory input that is constantly coming into the body. Some kids need help with these things and don't just take naturally to physical activities. Does your school use any professionals in this area?

  2. Hi Joe.

    What an interesting contribution your wife is making to wisdom of our hands. No, we don't have the resources to hire professionals in her area. The hands are intricately woven into the whole of body consciousness, so her method of work does not surprise me.

    The natural movement is from gross motor skills to fine ones, and now that we have pre-schoolers on laptops, jumping over all the normal development that should come first, it seems that your wife will have a great deal of job security. But it seems that most schools have given up on quality hand writing. I remember some of my friends in high school who wrote so very small you needed a magnifying glass to read it. The teachers always complained. Now you just ask for a larger font size...


  3. The SAT now requires a handwritten essay. That put a jolt behind learning handwriting again. Schools can't ignore it.

    But I'm still wondering: Don't some kids at your school have trouble using their hands while some others have an innate ability? It's not all caused by using laptops. Some kids simply need extra help. How do you help them? And how do you keep them from being teased or ostracized?

  4. Joe, it is true that some kids have better hand skills than others, and some have greater interest and attention for the work. I had one boy that could never saw a straight line with a hand saw, but could turn rings on the lathe that you could actually wear through a process he developed himself. It is hard to distinguish between nature and nurture. It seems that interest plays a part in success.

    One thing that is very special about Clear Spring is that kids have learned to be very respectful of differences. In the wood shop, we all screw up on occasion (me too!), so effort is rewarded over success. I have heard kids being self-critical, but very very rarely critical of each other. And I don't think it is just that we have special kids (which we do) but also that we have a special environment for kids.

    We have a school where all the kids grades 1 through 12 play together at recess. The older ones are nurturing of the young. It is amazing to watch.


  5. Anonymous7:09 AM

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