Friday, December 31, 2010

making screws

These days no one would make a screw. They come free in packages with other things. Buy a whatsit and a small plastic package of screws comes free, whether you end up using them or not. In my shop I have a a small cabinet of drawers with screws sorted by type. Still, I make occasional trips to the hardware store just to buy more. But less than 200 years ago, screws were a rare thing. Each required the investment of a craftsman's skill and time. Reader John Grossbohlin had worked as a craftsman at Colonial Williamsberg in his earlier life, and he wrote the following:
"I've been thinking about your blog posting on "10% Off" as my Rockler catalog came in today's mail...

Over time quite a number of skills were lost, or would have been lost, if it weren't for living history museums and individual crafts people. For example, if it weren't for Wallace Gusler, and the support of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the myriad skills involved in making flintlock rifles with 18th century (and earlier) technologies would have been lost. Wallace redeveloped the technologies by looking at the story artifacts and old guns could tell...

One of the things I learned while working in the Williamsburg Gunsmith Shop was how to make wood screws. Seems like a simple thing until you find out the shafts were shaped and the threads created with files... yes files. There were no screw plates for wood screws as there were for machine screws though a chamfer plate was used to shape the countersink.

I got good at making screws and it took me about 20 minutes to make a screw of about No 8 size 1 1/4" long... larger screws such as used on butt plates took about 30 minutes each. Today we take wood screws for granted as machine make them by the billions each year for pennies per piece. In the 18th century nails, pegs, clenched spikes or rivets would be used instead of a very expensive screw... can you imagine paying for an hour's worth of shop time for two screws?

Attached is a photo of screws I made. You can see file marks on them. The heads are thick on purpose. A temporary slot would be cut in the head, the screw inserted into the desired pre-drilled hole, and then the permanent slot orientation would be determined. The screw would then be removed and the head shaped with the permanent slot. This allowed for lining all the slots up in the desired orientation. Also, screws always had to be returned to the same hole due to variance in the threads and the slot orientation.

I know how to do this work but quite frankly have no occasion to use the skill!

It occurs to me that some specific skills are interesting but of no practical value. This was not one of those cases. I found out that if someone couldn't make wood screws the gunsmiths wouldn't waste any time trying to teach them the far more difficult tasks of gun making. I passed the screw test and was exposed to far more interesting and challenging tasks... after all, making screws was the work of women and children in the period, not something a skilled tradesman would waste time on! A lot has changed over the years but those stepping-stone skills should be preserved. -John"
John, your screws are amazing. So you tell me... What are the values of such things? What are the reasons such things need to be preserved? Is there an intellectual component to making a screw? Is there a developmental component? Do you suspect that John's time in making screws added to his perspectives on the universe? Michael Wiener, in describing his relationship to the Spaulding Boatworks in Sausalito said,
"... it's important that people learn both technique and values while they're working here. That's my own sort of quiet contribution to the educational component of our mission. I find that kind of learning more to my liking than school-learning. I served a four-year apprenticeship--and then you're ready to start learning."
One good thing about the computer age is that it is allowing those of us whose greater skills are hand skills, to take a few moments to explain a few things to those who may never quite understand. There is no better way to shape character and intellect than to become engaged fashioning real things from basic raw materials. Make, fix, and create. Take a straight shaving off a plank. There are two things that most worry those of us who observe modern schooling. Students become intellectually disengaged and lacking in character, missing two distinct components of craftsmanship. We have chosen to neglect the education of our children's hands. DIY (do it yourself) , LIY (learn it yourself), TIY (teach it yourself). Best yet, teach it to kids.

In the photo at left, you can see my finished tie cabinet, inspired by Greene and Greene designs.
As you can see, I continue work on the cherry cabinet, by assembling the cherry and maple raised panel doors and fitting the base molding. While the molding parts are clamped in place, I will use screws to attach them to the cabinet frame, then remove the parts for sanding, and then install them permanently to the cabinet. The doors are ready for routing, sanding and hinges.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

make it and draw it

I have been working sequentially, back and forth, on the cherry cabinet and the sketchup drawing of it, first one and then the other. The making continues to be the easier part. If I were to draw it first, then I would have to be continuously revising the drawing to adjust to real world conditions in the wood shop.  Unlike manufactured wood products, real wood has real characteristics and each board is unique and its qualities must be considered. Despite my best efforts, I also see things better in real life than on paper. How will this crown molding work? Seeing it in my mind's eye and then in real scale, full size, is so much quicker and easier than slaving over the keyboard first. A quick sketch on scrap wood will often suffice as a means of moving my visualizations toward a more concrete form. Attempting to formulate the design as 2 dimensions on paper does not work for me.   And seeing something as a 3-d model on a flat screen is really not that much better.

I usually work from the most basic of sketches. A sketch quickly done presents what I see in my mind's eye better presents the spirit of the piece than detailed drawings. Perhaps if I had become an illustrator first, it would be easier the other way around, but I would likely not see as much of my own work done.

I listened to an interview with a New York Times Technology reporter, Matt Ritchtel  who has written extensively on multi-tasking and what technology is doing to our brains. Least known and most frieghtening is what our technology is doing to brains that have not yet fully formed. The frontal lobes are the slowest to mature, and it will be a while yet before we see the full impact of our experiment putting powerful digital devices in the hands of our kids. We have made the assumption that technology is wonderful and without fault, but we just won't know for some time what we have actually done. One thing I know from my own experience is that multi-tasking is a delusion. Do every thing you do without distraction. I got a phone call from a woodworker, wondering how I manage to do all the things I do. And it all comes down to this. One thing at a time, big fella.

Today in the wood shop, I'll continue working on doors. I'll also take beauty shots of a cabinet for the book.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

we are about to be Shanghaied...

The PISA study results for Shanghai have just been released, and just as when the launch of Sputnik sent Americans into a panic, the PISA results (of the very first PISA testing in China) have American educators scrambling. For some it will be perceived as our own worst nightmare. Just as the Chinese are beating us in manufacturing, they appear to be beating us in education (or at least the rote memorization part that brings results in standardized testing). The report can be heard on NPR.

Shanghai School Principle Liu Jinghai said that the West shouldn't worry about the PISA results. "They're just one index, one measure that shows off the good points of Shanghai's and China's education system. But the results can't cover up our problems," he says. "Why don't Chinese students dare to think?" He asks. " Because we insist on telling them everything. We're not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves," he says. Doesn't that sound like what we are trying to do in our public schools? Prevent discovery?

But just because a few Chinese educators are as wise as Confucius, don't expect American politicians to take the news lightly. Being a nation of pinheads, we can expect American politicos to place greater emphasis on No Child Left Behind like legislation to further the teaching to the test stratagem, and continue to eliminate creative problem solving opportunities in our nation's schools.

In the meantime, Make, fix, create. There are things that we learn when we are engaged in the manipulation of real materials. Real science doesn't originate in the pages of a book, but through experiential, experimental process. Craftsmanship has long served as the foundation of the scientific experience, but your children are becoming far less likely to get what they need in school. DIY, TIY(teach it yourself).

Yesterday on NPR, they reported that American military bases are being overwhelmed by the lack of fitness among new recruits. After being hunched over tiny keyboards or passively entertained on the couch, new recruits no longer have a normal range of shoulder rotation, and troop exercises are  being modified to prevent injury. But that's OK, right? Who cares if allow our kids to grow up to be conformist non-creative channel-surfing pinhead wussies? The Chinese won't mind. And also in the news yesterday was the new Chinese ground to ship missile that can take out a whole aircraft carrier, so let's keep the competition friendly, OK?

In my woodshop, I have made the top moldings for the cherry cabinet as you can see in the photo at left. Next I make the doors!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

10% off

For some, the future of woodworking is high tech. Use your computer to control an automated router as shown in the illustration on the cover of the latest Rockler Catalog. It suggests "Take 10% off." For some of us, the idea of sitting at a keyboard while machines respond to data,  is already a bit more than 10% off from what we think woodworking is best... the opportunity to express skill and wisdom through our own hands. The image of grandpa at the keyboard while the machine does the work for him is a thing Rockler knows will appeal to some and sell, sell, sell. If we make things faster that require less skill, Rockler will sell more hardware, more wood, more supplies, more designs that the computer and automated tools can execute for you, hence requiring even more hardware and supplies. If it can get easier, more people will do it, right? But if it gets too easy, how much meaning will be found in it?

 What are your thoughts on the subject? I am reminded of a gift my mother gave me. It was a walnut pencil cup with a laser engraved sailing ship on it. She had bought it at the thrift store for 75 cents. Is the skill invested in the object a source of its value? And how is the value of the object to be measured? Is its value something apart from the man or woman who made it?

Today, I am assembling the cherry cabinet I've been working on for days. A bit of routing, a bit of sanding, and then glue and clamps. Lots of clamps, as you can see in the photo above.

Make, fix and create.

Monday, December 27, 2010

cosmoline and sawdust do mix

I know some of my readers are here for practical advice rather than to hear my opinions on education. Some of my readers will remember my experiments using sawdust as a medium with which to extract oil from water. It all began with the water being turned off at my school woodshop and my proposal to my students that they wash their hands in sawdust to remove Danish Oil finish like I do in my own shop. They were extremely skeptical at first but it works and now, even when the water is available, it is my students' preferred technique. Using sawdust first as a scrubbing agent is more effective than soap and water alone.

Today's experiment involves the use of sawdust to remove cosmoline from a new wood working tool. After over twenty years of use, my Ryobi Planer/Jointer combination tool is demanding replacement. Today I replaced the jointer part of the combo with one from Grizzly and I will nurse the planer along for a couple more months before its replacement arrives.

Cosmoline coatings on new equipment can take its toll on paper towels and rags. Kerosene solvent is useful to help get it off. But the whole process is a mess. So how about sawdust? I have it in plentiful supply.

Pour on the sawdust, scrub it around a bit on the metal surfaces, then sweep it away. Some greasy coatings may be too tough for sawdust to remove without the addition of solvents first.

Properly dispose of oily sawdust the same way you would oily rags.

Wooden Boat Magazine is one of the places that does the most to promote hands-on learning in the US. An article in the previous issue of Wooden Boat about the Spaulding Boatworks in Sausalito introduces the reader to master boatwright Michael Wiener. Wiener began working at the Spalding Boatworks in the late 70's. He described the changes that have been taking place around the boatyard and in our human kind.
"I think that people have changed, but somehow feel that the need in people hasn't changed. My experience is that everybody who walks in here sort of takes a deep breath and says, 'Oh my god, I've walked into a different world.' So keeping the Spaulding center alive and honestly doing boat work, there's probably more need for that than ever before."

"The secret is to keep from becoming precious. We're keeping something alive that's meaningful for people because boatbuilding is kind of a supreme human achievement in so many ways. Hardly anybody even understands the complexity of a plank, and it's so remarkable that human beings, with their sort of rectilinear kind of inclinations, can achieve something like that. This place is about what it is to be human more than anything else."
Wiener does a pretty good job of describing something that is essentially indescribable. You just about have to walk into hands-on learning to really understand what it is, and how meaningful it can become.

In the photo at left, you can see that I continue to make progress on my cherry cabinet. These are Here I am forming tongues on the parts of the cabinet top to secure the crown molding. Tomorrow I will rout, sand and assemble the carcass and begin making the doors and base and crown moldings. Make, fix, create.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

denigrate, then displace, then abandon

I read recently that the drive to displace hand skills in industry was propelled largely by those who didn't have any. Those who had hand skills were less willing to embrace mechanization designed to eliminate the need for those skills. I'm having trouble this morning remembering where I read it, and would offer a quote if I could find it. And yet, not finding the source, does little to dispel what we, you and I, can see so easily and clearly for ourselves.

Early in the process of developing a modern educational model, pedagogists like Rousseau and Comenius saw the integral relationship between the mind and hand as an asset to be utilized as the primary strategy for effective learning. But then the classics got in the way. Wasn't it far better, some argued, to disregard the inefficiencies of hand and impart knowledge in the least round-a-bout manner? Put a person of professorial demeanor at the head of the class, pry open the minds through personal magnetism and compelling discourse and pour in the stuff. Then test and see what comes out. In theory, if the students didn't get it, it was because they were intellectually deficient. Now these days a bit has changed. If the children don't get it, it must be the teacher who is deficient. But let's put aside judgment and get a real grip.

There were early educators at the beginning of the 20th century who argued foolishly that because the eyes and ears are closer in proximity to the brain than the hands, the eyes and ears were more effective for learning, but then another serious question arises, "which are closer to the heart?" Place your hands at the center of your chest, and perhaps you will feel something of the truth. In other words, follow John Ruskin's advice to "Take a straight shaving off a plank," for by doing so, one might learn a thousand things of which the lips of man might never speak.

And so, as a consequence we have millions who have not learned the creative capacity of their own hands, and are led by stratagems of American education to believe that skills of their hands are not required. The hands, they think, can be safely denigrated, displaced by machinery and marginalized in American culture.

I can safely suggest that the reasons for American educational failings are directly related to the five fingered manipulatory objects hanging disregarded, neglected and ignored at the ends of dangling useless arms.

This morning I've been chopping onions, lots of them, to make spinach balls to take to a pot luck. Between washing dishes and chopping onions, I have this sneaking suspicion that I could be replaced by a dishwasher and food processor. And yet there are riches to be drawn from the engagement of our hands in physical reality. Engage the hands and learning follows. Engage the heart, and learning never ends.

The following is from Charles H. Hamm, Mind and Hand, 1886:
"It is easy to juggle with words, to argue in a circle, to make the worse appear the better reason, and to reach false conclusions which wear a plausible aspect. But it is not so with things. If the cylinder is not tight, the steam engine is a lifeless mass of iron of no value whatever. A flaw in the wheel of the locomotive wrecks the train. Through a defective flue in the chimney the house is set on fire. A lie in the concrete is always hideous; like murder, it will out. Hence it is that the mind is liable to fall into grave errors until it is fortified by the wise counsel of the practical hand."

"It is obvious that the reason of the demand for the manual element in education is not so much that industrial interests require to be promoted, as that mental operations may be rendered more true, and hence more scientific. What we need more than we need a better class of mechanics is a better class of men--men of a higher grade both morally and intellectually. The study of things so steadies and balances the mind that the attention being once turned in that direction great results soon follow."
And so it is that with neglect of such wisdom that we have become a nation of pinheads. Make, fix, AND create.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

difficulty, accuracy and complexity

Merry Christmas day to my blog readers and hand tribe.

My special gift to you this morning has to do with the theory of educational sloyd.

In the woodshop, I am working on two projects, one involving a higher than normal degree of difficulty as it requires hand skills and experience with hand cut dovetails, and the other involving complexity as it requires a large number of parts, though it is made using rather simple unskilled biscuit joint technology. Biscuit joiners were first introduced to replace doweled joints which required greater accuracy, so they are regarded as a fast, easy technology in comparison to hand cut dovetails and the like. These two projects illustrate a bit of Otto Salomon's theory of educational sloyd.
Move from the known to the unknown,
from the easy to the difficult,
from the simple to the complex,
and from the concrete to the abstract.
Both of these projects will be placed toward the end of the book for these two reasons, difficulty and complexity. So you can see from these examples how the theory works. Moving from the known to the unknown is part of the driving compulsion of humanity. We are adventurers at heart. Moving from the concrete to the abstract is the means through which we best incorporate learning. We best get what we learn when we learn it in the concrete, through our own hands. And so these two principles, first and last, frame the inner two, which offer the means of human intellectual and moral growth.

Call it craftsmanship. Make, Fix, Create.

In the sketchup illustration above you can see complexity even before top, bottom, panels, shelves, doors and moldings are added. And so where does accuracy come in? It is one of those qualities through which we measure success. I was pleased to get some time in the woodshop, even though it is Christmas day. When something gives pleasure, why take time off?

As you can see in the photo, I've assembled the sides, back and front components of the biscuit joined cabinet, and have routed the locations for interior panels to fit. I use a plunge router and a guide clamped in the precise location to guide the cut. The bottom, mid shelf and top will be floating panel construction confined by the dado cuts formed with the plunge router and 1/2 in. router bit.

In this Newsweek interview, Bill Gates, and  Randi Weingarten, head of the American Teachers Union attempted to find common ground in fixing American Schools. Sorry, not a word about the hands, which are just small, often ignored but incredibly useful things at the end of arms that they just don't get yet.

Friday, December 24, 2010

the fix

One of the things that a craftsman learns is that as objects grow in complexity, more and more things have the inclination to go haywire. That's why many of us attempt to adhere to the "kiss" principle, "keep it simple, stupid." The principle is simple. You do this to that, and that, that, that, and that result, and as things grow in complexity, it becomes increasingly difficult to anticipate the results. This has been called the "law of unexpected consequences." You learn it in the woodshop when minor adjustments or changes in plans end up having major consequences to the finished piece. As processes become more complex, the consequences of any change within the process become more complex and less easy to predict.

I picked up my daughter at the airport last night and look forward to having her with us for nearly a month. She told me about a class she took in school last semester, in which arising technology was proclaimed as the solution to growing problems. Growing up in Arkansas with a very hands-on education and background in crafts she was disappointed in that approach. It seems that when we have little or no actual experience in the making of real things and the doing of real things, and have had little time as witness to the avalanche of complications and consequences that can result from even minor changes, it is easy to project a rosy scenario built upon hope and fishes. Charles H. Hamm, Mind and Hand, 1886:
It is thus that the trained hand comes at last to foresee as it were that a false proposition is surely destined to be exploded. The habit of rectitude gives it prescience. It invariably discovers, sooner or later, that a false proposition, when embodied in wood or iron, becomes a conspicuous abortion, involving in disgrace both the designer and the maker. A false proposition in the abstract may be rendered very alluring; a false proposition in the concrete is always hideous. One of the chief effects of manual training is, then, the discovery and development of truth; and truth, in its broadest signification is merely another name for justice; and justice is the synonym of morality.

It is in fixing things that you learn the weak points in what others have done. By making things, you learn the relationship between simplicity, complexity and unexpected consequences. In being creative, attempt for very good reasons to simplify rather than make more complex.  Make, fix, create.

The word haywire, used above is a reasonably modern term derived from the wire used to bale hay. Something that is loosely held together can quickly come apart... an apt analogy for technology, where there are always loose ends and unexpected consequences. As things become more and more complex, the complications grow exponentially.

Many things are easier to do than to illustrate, and this morning, I have been making biscuit joints, and attempting to draw them using Google SketchUp. You can see the result in the illustration at left.
As people have less and less experience in making things, more and more needs to be illustrated, as many no longer have their own experience to draw on.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Jesse's lap desk

John Grossbohlin sent the photo above of his son Jesse finishing an artist's lap desk as a Christmas gift for his girl friend, Jessica. It is amazing what young men and women can do in the wood shop when they are given the opportunity and have skill and interest. Jesse has been an award winning woodworker for years now so to see his fine work comes as no surprise. He used a variety of stationary and hand tools. The wood is cherry.

Just one more making day until Christmas. Make, fix, create.

Confidence and curiosity

Curiosity is innate. Our species would not have evolved and survived without it. Confidence is not innate. It evolves in each individual through countless interactions with physical reality driven by natural curiosity. And so the two are entwined except in the case of delusion. In the US, our children have supreme confidence and a near complete lack of curiosity about so many things that matter. What can you call that but delusion? And yet, it is a delusion that serves us well. We have become a nation of compliant consumers ready to shop and buy and relinquish our souls and our children's souls for the latest gizmo.

When the hands are removed from the education of our children, we all lose. When those who are identified as "college material" are isolated from those not destined for college education, our best and brightest (as measured by the often faulty mechanisms of the educational system) are diminished in character, wisdom and intelligence that having their hands engaged would have brought them, our society and our economy.

When students are identified as being of lesser intelligence and are put in stifling, boring learning environments, they learn to self-identify as lacking in ability and interest in the understanding of complex issues. In self-defense, they adopt an anti-academic bias that inhibits future confidence and engagement in learning. Lacking in basic intellectual curiosity, they become vulnerable to outlandish beliefs promoted by those whose often malicious interests lie in the manipulation of others. When students lose their innate curiosity about the world, that tragedy affects us all, from one end of the culture and economy to the other.

Today in the wood shop, I'll be fitting parts, planing panels. So why would someone make something that could last a hundred years? When you see the interconnectedness of all things you see that whatever we do has the potential for lasting that long. When we set something in motion through anger, it may ripple throughout human culture having immense and tragic effect, but a craftsman in contrast applies his or her energy to creating things that have the potential of serving, of causing intellectual reflection, and giving pause. We have the potential to redirect through the creation of beauty and the expression of greater purpose. What we create has effect both within our own lives and in the culture at large, and what we make has those powers even when we ourselves are no longer in physical form. Engage the world. Incite curiosity. Instill genuine confidence. Make, create, fix. Two making days until Christmas.

Richard Bazeley, shop teacher extraordinaire from Australia is making letter openers this holiday season, and you can see them in the photo above, executed in a variety woods. They are from left to right, casuarina, 3 almond, 2 osage orange, almond, another osage orange, mulga and ash. The Osage Orange is a surprise to me, as it is a native of Arkansas, named after a local Indian tribe, and introduced to Australia. There, like here, it is known for making fence posts that will last forever.

Today I am working on a cherry cabinet held together with biscuits as you can see in the photo below. The dado groove in the two matching parts is to allow for the side panels to fit. The side panels will be my next job to complete.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

our directions in education

I have been told that direct implementation of children's hands in learning is not the direction we are going these days. Education is all about the mind, after all, not the hands. This small blog with our small collection of steady readers, and all associated members of the hand tribe, are a drop in the educational bucket, with the vast majority moving in the opposite direction towards disintegration. But on the other hand...  Things move in cycles. Screwing kids up through modern schooling may fall out of vogue. At one time Froebel's ideas had a profound impact on American education. Joy was perceived as an essential ingredient for effective learning.

John Dewey had described the influence of Kindergarten on his experimental school at the University of Chicago as follows:
One of the traditions of the school is of a visitor who, in its early days, called to see the kindergarten. On being told that the school had not as yet established one, she asked if there were not singing, drawing, manual training, plays and dramatizations, and attention to the children's social relations. When her questions were answered in the affirmative, she remarked, both triumphantly and indignantly, that that was what she understood by a kindergarten, and she did not know what was meant by saying that the school had no kindergarten. The remark was perhaps justified in spirit if not in letter. At all events, it suggests that in a certain sense the school endeavors throughout its whole course — now including children between four and thirteen — to carry into effect certain principles which Froebel was perhaps the first consciously to set forth.
John Dewey with his progressive ideas about learning is ancient history in the minds of some educators. They propose cheaper solutions for things these days. How about we forget teachers and wire the kids indirect to computers? Forget about the hands, they are simply a growing impediment obstructing the human-machine interface. But at one time, Kindergarten had a profound influence on American education. Perhaps the tide will turn. Froebel's theories provided the foundation for educational Sloyd and the folk schools of Finland, and perhaps we will come back to our senses and restore the wood shop to American schools.

The illustration above is from an early book on Froebel's method, on the game of Pat-A-Cake, which some of us played in our homes as children. It was a deliberate, purposeful engagement of the hands in learning... Something that too few educators any longer understand the rationale for. And in the meantime, as we wait for the tide to turn, make, fix and create.

The photo at above is of one of my finished cabinets.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Mästermyr tools

In this month's Wooden Boat magazine, an article by Don Weber illustrates making a replica of the Mästermyr tool chest, from 1100 A.D. in Sweden. Discovered in 1936, a farmer was plowing his field and the plow snagged a chain, which was connected to the wooden tool box containing tools from the Viking era. Some speculate that the original tool chest probably belonged to a ship's carpenter and fell from the vessel while at high tide. You can learn more Here, where you can also see photos of the original chest and contents.

Weber's article offers an interesting project that could be accomplished with the same tools that were  found in the box. You could make it with what you may have in your own wood shop. Many of the tools found in the box, hammers, drills, files, saws and the like, are tools that some of us use everyday.

Can you see how work with our hands can connect us to our long term cultural legacy? If you are a member of the hand tribe, you will also understand why that might matter. Tools are the outward expression of human wisdom and intelligence. Just as the mind and hand co-evolved as a behavioral system, tools are the tangible expression of that system upon which human survival and success have been assured. As tools pass from hand to hand, generation to generation, knowledge invested in them  and their capacity to shape human reality is also alive and at hand.

Compare these tools to those we use every day which in less that a decade will be dead, gone and forgotten. Who in their right mind believes that Face Book and Twitter will be a big deal in the next century? And yet, the Mästermyr tools and tool box survived, buried in a bog for nearly a thousand years. The Mästermyr tools have provided inspiration to American artisans. Members of ABANA, The Artist Blacksmith Association of North America have been involved in the making of replicas of the various tools from the Mästermyr find. In replicating these tools or the chest in which they were found, knowledge and human culture are preserved in ways that too few in the Google, facebook, twitter age will ever know. Make, fix, create.
"Have nothing in your homes that you do not believe to be beautiful or know to be useful."--William Morris.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Froebel and parental involvement in learning

"They have a culture here of valuing education and parents have a role to play too." From the BBC report on Schools in Finland, shown below. I've shared this video again because understanding a culture of learning requires reflection.

I had mentioned that Uno Cygnaeus had been the founder of the Finnish Folk Schools in the 1860s. He had been an advocate of Froebel's kindergarten, and wanted to extend the Froebel method beyond the Kindergarten years. He was the first to use Sloyd, a system of craft education in his efforts to do so. Even today käsityön, (crafts in Finnish) is compulsory in Finnish schools.

My discussion today is not about crafts (or the wood shop), but the importance of parental involvement in learning, and it was Friedrich Froebel who promoted an understanding of the mother's role in preparing her children for school.

I am reading Nina Vandewalker's 1908 book, The Kindergarten in American Education,which describes the introduction and growth of Froebel's method in the US. It offers insight into the role of the Kindergarten teacher in shaping and encouraging parental involvement in student learning. Froebel had written extensively on the subject, including books of songs and finger games for mothers to sing and play with their children to encourage growth. In my mother's training to be a kindergarten teacher, becoming a mentor for parental involvement was one of her prescribed roles. As kindergarten teacher, not only did she introduce children to the school, she had responsibility to foster a successful relationship between the parents and the school. Froebel's methods proposed a partnership for learning, which is what you still find alive today in Finland schools.

We worry about how to fix schooling, but come to the game almost too late. We need a new culture of learning, that begins in the earliest days when each child is first held in the arms of mother or father. Parents want better lives for their children. Parents do not always know how to act directly to fulfill those desires. An enhanced culture of learning is required... if we decide that we really want to give them our best. As proposed by Friedrich Froebel, "Let us live for our children."

One program that is designed to help parents give children a leg up on readiness for school is the Hippy Reading Program for preschoolers. What we also need is a Hippy making program to get children of all ages (and parents) away from screentime and into the making of beautiful and useful things. Make, fix, create. We have about 5 making days before Christmas.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

not an anomaly

In today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper, an article presents an interesting insight into remediation rates, which is the number of students graduating from high school that will require preparatory or remedial courses in reading or math upon college enrollment. Fewer than 10% of those students requiring remediation graduate from 4 year colleges, so fixing the remediation problem is crucial to our children's success.

Districts Deal with Remediation by Scarlet Sims.

The state-wide rate is 45.1 percent, but there are pockets like the Decatur School District in Northwest Arkansas with rates much higher. The 2009 remediation rate for Decatur was 87.5%, equivalent to that of the poorest areas of the Arkansas delta. The high rate in Decatur did not catch the superintendent by surprise: "It's not an anomaly. That's kind of the way it's been here for a long time." Which raises the question, "Why don't they do something about it?" And if students know so little about reading and math, how much more are they missing about science, history and political science? Are we supposed to have confidence that these students can be entrusted with democracy?

The standard approach is to blame the teachers for failing schools, but there are things that only the very best teachers can fix, like kids who have learned to not care about learning. Sophomore Logan Jamison explains it as follows: "Why know when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue when you are laying bricks?" Logan's ambition is to become a bricklayer like his father and grandfather, and you can't get kids to suddenly become interested in math and physics if they don't see the point. Obviously no one has helped Logan to understand the interrelationship of all things.

Pushing abstract academics in place of hands-on relevant learning to kids who are not ready to embrace abstract learning is counterproductive. Not only is it ineffective, it creates resistance to learning and attitudes of hostility toward academics that can last a lifetime and even be passed to the next generation. One of the outstanding characteristics of education in Finland is the notion that all children should have training in sloyd, just as all students should have training in math, science, language arts.

When Uno Cygnaeus, founder of educational sloyd, was given the responsibility by the Russian Czar of forming the Finnish Folk Schools, he created a culture of learning, and without that culture, children fail to see the relevance of things that we all know to be important to them.

"We're all mystified," explains John Tuthill, associate vice president for student learning at Northwest Arkansas Community College. "We blame the high schools, they blame the elementary schools, and the elementary schools blame the parents."

The important thing is not the assignment of blame, but the question, "How do we dig our way out of this educational morass?" The situation with remediation rates is not an anomaly, but a predictable consequence, in some areas and with some students, of social and economic class expectations having to do with disparagement of the importance of learning.  How do we fix things? Establish a culture, based on a renewed understanding of hands-on learning and its impact and implications for all students. We are all smarter when our hands are engaged in learning.

In the meantime, our Nation's First Full-Time High School Culinary Program Opens. It really doesn't matter whether you learned your fractions in the wood shop, or student kitchen. Or home kitchen or granpa's woodshop for that matter. But what matters is that the hands provide the means through which to grasp learning. Do it with your hands, and ideas take hold. Where they will take you from here, God only knows. Make, fix, create.

Here's an article that sings the praises of standardized testing. A must read. Standardized Testing: The New Wild West by Tod Farley, author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry

Saturday, December 18, 2010

making days til Christmas...

They always talk about the number of shopping days remaining, and we have about a week. What they don't talk about is the number of making days, and we still have time. With tools you can make a beautiful box, or even several of them in a day. This is Saturday and you have one whole week left.
I will be working on small cabinets, hinging doors and applying finish. My wood shop is a wreck, so I will also be cleaning and getting things back in order so I can keep my head on straight.

Last night I saw a bit of the movie Wall Street, which my wife watched more attentively while I was coming and going and creating a spread sheet of a cutting list of cabinet parts. The movie was a no-brainer. We all know that greed has been oversold as the foundation of a healthy society. Our modern notion that greed is a VERY good thing started with Reagan. He wanted to strip society of the safety net, and leave every man standing alone on his own, and modern conservatives want the same thing. They have the notion that government is bad because it comes between man and his money. Those of us who partake respectfully of the services of libraries and take notice of the services provided by people in our communities see things from another angle.

There are things to be said about community. Last night we went to a free public performance in our City Auditorium, in which local musicians entertained simply for the joy of it. No greed in sight. As my wife and I looked around the concert hall, we saw hundreds of faces of people in our community who are known to us. At the Clear Spring School holiday program the night before, we looked around the room and saw hundreds of people known to us. Our beloved.

As we live in a time in which people are on the go, finding temporary anchors in connections that don't last, I would direct those who seek more than greed as their primary ambition to stay put for the holidays. Make a few small connections in your community, so that when you go out, you will know a few people. I have lived in Eureka Springs for 35 years now, and know the value of staying put and making lasting connections. You won't find research to prove my point, but since everything about life is an experiment, and there are no guaranteed results, you might want to give it a try and experiment by adding community to your own life. I'm not talking about adding friends on FaceBook.

One angle on life insists that it is all about the money. Another angle insists that it (meaning life) is all about friends. Some say it's all about friends with money, and you will know they are trying to fool themselves and are using one  in a misguided effort to get the other. In their ambivalence they are missing an important point. Money friends can buy are no friends.

Bernie Madoff's son committed suicide this last week. I pray that brought him some relief. I am sad for us all that some live with such despair. Much of it boils down to a simple choice about community. In which do we invest? The wrong investment can have lasting effects with the price being paid by generations. As my cousin Lawrence says, "even the worst of us can serve as a bad example." But then we would all hope to be so much more.

If you live in a wonderful community, make the best of it. If you live in no such place, build the community you need, by expressing friendship and generosity to ALL those real people you meet. Friends can get you through times of no money better than money can get you through times of no friends. Community is the most wonderful of human riches.

We've got one week before Christmas. Make, fix, create. Share with others this holiday season. If you are looking for a gift for a child that will last long after the batteries are dead and the bells and whistles of most gifts have become a bore, try Vaughan and Bushnell's Little Pro Hammer. Along with that gift, spend some extra time with your child over the holidays. Making things of useful beauty is an important building block in the foundation of community.

If you are curious about the role of craftsmanship in the development of community, which for me is a no-brainer, you can read a few of my earlier posts on the subject, here. Just in case you find yourself in a position in which you have no skill in making things, and have no inclination to try, there are still things that you can do. When you buy a beautiful and useful object made in your community you are encouraging your neighbors in the growth of their skills and raising their status within your community. We have the opportunity to foster each other's growth, or or damn well ignore it. You can buy things right off the shelf, one-size-fits all, lacking in personal personality, and lacking in meaning to your community. Or you can do much more. The choice is yours. My own collection of small boxes and furniture is available through galleries in Eureka Springs, Washington, DC and Little Rock, through the ETSY link at right, or by appointment here in my own home.

As you can see in the photo at left, I have attached the doors on my cherry display cabinet, inching it closer to taking beauty shots of the finished cabinet.

Friday, December 17, 2010

check out checkout

If you go to a self-checkout at Walmart you can see the future of education in action. You walk up to a computer, scan your knowledge, and instead of a whole line of highly educated teachers checking on your needs and assisting your growth, there will be one monitor watching to see that every transaction, every input of knowledge every interaction between man and machine proceeds in a timely and orderly fashion, and that you don't just walk off with the goods. Human beings and human engagement need not be present to win. You can see the efficiency of it, and you can see professional teachers being replaced by IT. And what's good for Walmart must be good for everything else in the whole dang world, right?

In contrast, I attended the Clear Spring School holiday program last night and watched our wonderful children performing. The skits were well rehearsed, well written by the children themselves, relevant to the social issues of the day, and presented strong evidence of shared learning and cooperative engagement. Two young men played the piano expressing skills and musical abilities beyond their years. We had a hand bell recital involving nearly every child in the school, and we watched children dance and sing. The pre-school children stole the show with their cute precocious behavior. Each was a star, not because they stood out like one person passing through self checkout at Walmart, but because each was engaged in teamwork and cooperative behavior.

And so Americans have to ask what we want in education... cold efficiency or heart and soul.

Linda Matchan, writer for the Boston Globe really wanted to know if I could refer her to research confirming the role of the wood shop in building intelligence, and all I was able to point to was research at Purdue drawing the connection between hands on learning and science. That research was unusual in that it was driven by grad students having an interest in the subject, not by a grant from a computer giant. Most of the research in the US is driven (like the government) by special interests, and that means computers when it comes to education. I was told by someone in the testing industry that to get money to prove the efficacy of after school computer gaming programs is drop-of-the-hat easy. About all you do is ask. To get money to research the importance of hands on learning involving saws, hammers, and the like is a completely different matter entirely. Forgetaboutit.

As you can see, common sense, derived from personal experience has little value in today's culture. The most interesting thing to me is that when you have a huge body of inconvenient information like the research proving a direct connection between screen time and childhood obesity, lack of social comfort and engagement, poor performance in schools, and lack of creativity, we go merrily along as though none of it matters. But when it comes to the value of hands-on learning that those of us who have hands-on experience have direct knowledge of, the challenge is "prove it, suckers." Well darn it, I can't. You will have to take a saw or some other real tool in your own hands and learn something about the world and yourself for yourself. Make, fix, create.

Today I'll be in my own wood shop. I have to finish some small cabinets to prepare them for their "beauty shots" to grace the opening chapters of my book "Making Small Cabinets." At times, I apologize, I may seem a bit smug. I'm really a bit angry. What surprises and angers me is that we have developed an educational system that leaves students lacking in curiosity, lacking in interest, diminished in creativity and we think it is OK to settle for that and for kids dropping out of school, when we really need the success of each and every one. And I repeat, make, fix, create.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

One might think there would be...

A reasonable person might think there would be gratitude. Corporate reserves are at a nearly all time high, during what for many have been the longest recession and most difficult economic times of their lives, but corporations don't feel gratitude. They only feel profit and loss. The US tax payers rescued the banking industry, and it and Wall Street are poised for massive gains, while tax payers take on greater national debt, and the Republicans insist on tax breaks for the rich. Lobbying by the US Chamber of Commerce was extremely intense this last election as they attempted to secure their strength in the face of difficult economic conditions, and yesterday, corporate CEOs met with President Obama to get extra help.

It might be thought that this would have nothing to do with the Wisdom of the Hands, and that I've become distracted by politics and am displaying my socialist leanings, though how one could examine my life as a self-employed craftsman and jump to such ridiculous conclusions is beyond me.

I am deeply dismayed by the lack of appreciation, however, that American special interests have for the American worker... the lack of understanding that many have for the deep and lasting contributions made by others. Can we have capitalism in which all choose to shoulder their own fair share of moving our nation toward economic justice, and respect for the dignity and value of all labor?

Much of our American dilemma comes from one distinct source. Lacking hands-on engagement in schooling, many students learn to accept boredom, become discouraged and thence angry at those more successful in schooling. Others, lacking hands-on engagement in learning, leap forward without developing an appreciation for the value of labor and without gaining a sense of partnership with others in shared creative endeavor. And so both sides are deeply affected. One falls into an economic morass, and is diminished by anti-intellectualism, and the other into delusions of specialness and privilege that are destructive of intelligent democracy.

When Educational Sloyd was proposed for all students, it was with the recognition that all students developed in character and intellect when their hands were intelligently engaged in learning. And if we have become a nation of pinheads on all sides of the academic, economic and social divides, it is due in large part to our failure to understand this very simple thing.

Today, I'll join the first, second and third grade students from Clear Spring School as we deliver toys we made to the local food bank. There are many suffering during this holiday season and perhaps a few small things will help to bring cheer. This year, in addition to toy cars and trucks made by students at Clear Spring School, we have also made kits which will allow children to participate in the pleasure we find in making things in the wood shop.

One might think that corporations would feel gratitude, that they at least have been saved from complete economic collapse by the American tax payer and are now well on the road to recovery, but no, they only feel profit. In the meantime large corporations are plotting a take-over of American education. It is a certain way to use schooling to continue to create mindless consumers. News Corp., owner of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal has become one of the largest players. News Corp. Crams for Courses, Media Giant Faces Task of Honing Education Strategy. If News Corp.'s idea of education is at all like their strategy of misinformation for Fox News, we are in trouble.
Mr. Murdoch has described Wireless Generation as a gateway to a kindergarten-through-12th grade education market worth about $500 billion a year in the U.S. alone.... Education "is really ripe for a disruptive technology," News Corp. Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey said last week.
The best disruptive technology would actually be to put kids to work making real things of useful beauty, with real tools, saws and hammers but then it seems that here in Arkansas, and on this increasingly strange planet, I am one lonely voice.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

no shop time today...

I will get no shop time today. We are taking the high school students to my favorite lumber dealer in Arkansas where nearly all our native species are sold. The purpose is to add to our school collection of native woods. Sometime during the day I hope to connect with a writer for the Boston Globe who is writing an article about woodworking in schools and who was referred to me by Miguel at the North Bennet St. School where Gustav Larsson had his Educational Sloyd Teacher Training School. Thanks in part to my articles creating an interest in sloyd, North Bennet Street School has resumed classes for the Elliot Middle School after a one-hundred and thirty year break.

This evening, we have a meeting of the board for the Eureka Springs School of the Arts, and it is my once a year turn to make dinner for the board. I'll fall back on my old reliable, spinach enchiladas.

Froebel's Gliedganzes is an awkward word for a simple thing, related to Aristotle's concept, συστοιχία often translated as "series". Just as a child is an individual, growing in concern for his or her larger memberships and identity in family, community, state and nation, the concept of gliedganzes, or "member-whole" also helps to explain the wisdom of the hands program. In essence, you can look at botany as a stand alone subject, or you can look at it as a member of science and scientific investigation, and you can look at woodworking as an independent subject or as a doorway to the world full of investigatory opportunities. One of the huge problems with the way we teach is that subjects are confined and divided, while all the new and exciting things are happening in the spaces between disciplines. Part of the reason for this is that most if not all human creativity takes place through the application of metaphor. "If this works, here, perhaps the same may be applied there..." is the means through which science advances. (And of course the creation of metaphor is a right brained activity most easily accessible when the hands,left and right, are engaged). When we use what happens in one field of knowledge to begin exploration of another, we expand our fields of investigation in profound and exciting ways. And when we present dead info to kids, we diminish their enthusiasm for learning. Welcome to the world of rampant pin-headery boom boom, and a world in which students and too many adults don't believe in science, and don't know how in the world to find Arkansas or any other place on a map.

Using less offensive and less colorful language I stated the American educational dilemma pretty clearly when Matt Crawford quoted me as the introduction to his best selling book Shop Class as Soulcraft, An Inquiry Into the Value of Work:
“In schools we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
If we have become a nation of idiots, and there is mounting evidence of that we are, we can point to our failure to engage our children's hands in learning as the primary cause. Make, fix, create... And build opportunities for others to follow suite. Americans are all concerned about education, but until we see that the solution lies in our own hands, very little will actually be done about it.

There is an article in this morning's Wall Street Journal, "A Box or a Spaceship, What Makes Kids Creative?" As we focus more and more on test scores and teaching to the test, children's creativity has taken a nosedive. If we want our nation to regain it creative edge, we will need to pay more attention to things like wood shops and less to the distraction of standardized testing.
"Researchers believe growth in the time kids spend on computers and watching TV, plus a trend in schools toward rote learning and standardized testing, are crowding out the less structured activities that foster creativity."
As mentioned by friend and blog reader John Grossbohlin, this is one more area in which those with common sense and hands-on learning experience would not have needed the research to understand the tragedy of what is happening in American education. We must take matters into our own hands.

The photo above is of our visit to Nations Hardwoods in Prairie Grove, Arkansas, where I've been buying hardwoods for over 35 years from Huland Nations. The students were fantastic, attentive, and exactly the kind of seasoned well-mannered travelers I have learned to expect at Clear Spring School. We gained over 20 samples for our collection of Arkansas hardwoods. If you would like to read research from Purdue confirming the value of hands on learning click here. I had a very nice conversation with Linda Matchan, a writer for the Boston Globe whose article deadline was this afternoon. I don't know if the Wisdom of the Hands will be mentioned in it, but I hope to receive a link that I can share with you sometime in the next few days.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Froebel's concept of Gliedganzes or "member-whole" was an important part of his educational philosophy. It means that a child is not merely a child but also a member of a family, a community, a state and a nation. Aristotle and Hegel both discussed the same notion, and for Froebel the idea helped to explain what he had observed in nature.
"The fundamental law of vegetable life is that each successive stage of development is a higher growth of the preceding one--e.g., the petals are transformed ordinary leaves, the stamens and pistils transformed petals. Each successive formation present the essential nature of the plant in a more subtle garb, until at last it seems clothed only in a delicate perfume."
Consistent with this thought, Froebel believed that "to become conscious of self is the first business of the child and the whole business of man."

What if we as teachers, parents, guardians and promoters of wisdom and growth were to see children in their full dimensions, not as mere children, but as growing into membership of family, community, state and nation, and more? Assisting that unfolding of consciousness is the most important goal of education. The following is from Susan E. Blow who founded the first public school kindergarten in the US.
The greatest mistakes in education are rooted in the failure to recognize and conform to the different stages of natural development. Educational theorists are constantly pointing out this error; educational practice is constantly repeating it. Notwithstanding all that has been said and written, we still make knowledge our idol, and continue to fill the child's mind with foreign material, under the gratuitous assumption that at a later age he will be able, through some magic transubstantiation, to make it a vital part of his own thought. This is like loading his stomach with food which he can not digest, under the delusive hope that he may be able to digest it when he is a man. It is forcing the mind to move painfully forward under a heavy weight, instead of running, leaping and flying under the incitement of its own energy and the allurement of its own perceived ideal. The attempt to force a premature activity of reason can result only in repulsion of his sympathies and the stultification of his mind.
There have been a number of articles recently about how desperately misinformed people are, how little they know about science, geography, and/or any other subject. They have a huge number of deeply held opinions about everything, nonetheless. Much of what we see in the media regarding moronic political discourse, anger toward academia and science, the calling of names like leftist and socialist, the fixation in the media with characters like balloon boy, Joe the plumber and Sarah Palin are the direct consequences of the schooling that Susan E. Blow describes. Her words were written in 1894. Can it be that by neglecting the education of our children's hands, we are turning their minds to mush? There is a direct one-to-one correlation between the decline of the manual arts in education and the rapid rise of the American pinhead.

Froebel, like other German educators of the time, was influenced by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who said, "“Each has his own happiness in his hands, as the artist handles the rude clay he seeks to reshape it into a figure; yet it is the same with this art as with all others: only the capacity for it is innate; the art itself must be learned and painstaking”

I will harp on a point I have made many times in the blog that relates to Ms. Blow's point of conforming to natural stages of development. In Finland students become better readers in 37 1/2 percent less time by beginning at age 8. Here in the US, we seem desperate to reside in idiocy. Make, fix, create, instead.

Monday, December 13, 2010

students know good teaching when they see it.

That might come as a surprise to some who have been out of touch. But students do know what happens in a classroom. They know whether or not the teacher cares about the subject matter and whether he cares that they care, too. A study financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is described in the New York Times, What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students By Sam Dillon. It concludes that those teachers who teach to the test perform below average on getting students engaged in learning, and those students perform poorly in comparison to those who learn to care about what they learn. Is there anything new in this except that those who are out of touch need research to tell them that kids know effective teaching when they see it? This morning my 4th 5th and 6th grade student worked on Christmas presents to give to family.

In the photos above and at left, you can see students at work on the lathe in this afternoon's classes. Colter is making a walnut goblet and displaying amazing concentration. The other students decided to turn balls... not an easy task for beginning woodworkers, but one that refines the sense of form, and also requires concentration and careful tool use.  Some turned out more egg than ball, but then remember that these are beginners. The strategy fits one of the primary tenets of educational sloyd. Start with the interests of the child.

Make, fix, create... One of the things that kids tell me when I see them on the street is "Next woodshop, can we make...?" They have all kinds of ideas., and I wonder how many kids in the US are busy thinking of things they can make. Too few, perhaps.

what is true, what is false...

From Charles H. Ham, Hand and Mind, 1886:
It is not without reason that Anaxagoras characterized man as the wisest of animals because of his having hands. And what is it to be wise? To be wise is "to have the power of discerning and judging correctly, or of discriminating between what is true and what is false; between what is fit and proper and what is improper." The hand is used as the synonym of wisdom because it is only in the concrete that the false is sure of detection, and it is through the hand alone that ideas are realized in things. Again, we have the hand as the discoverer of truth.
And more...
This disposition to undervalue the hand is an inheritance from the speculative philosophy of the Middle Ages, which was based on con;tempt of the body and all is members. The effect of this false doctrine has been vicious in the extreme. Contempt for the body has generated a feeling of contempt for manual labor, and repugnance to manual labor has multiplied dishonest practices in the course of the struggle to acquire wealth by any other means than manual labor, and so corrupted society. That man should feel contempt for the most efficient member of his own body is, indeed, incomprehensible, since contempt for the hand leads logically to contempt for its works, and its works comprise all the visible results of civilization.
Make, fix, create.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I got an email from a reader in western Pennsylvania chastising me for leftist commentary through my blog. I reminded him that the blog is my own thinking not his, and that if he desires, he can either stop reading or start a blog of his own. He might see my writings as leftist, but I would consider what I present as hand-on common sense. I might even flatter myself (it is my blog) and proclaim that my own common sense has become uncommon as we have become further estranged from our hands. And then there are those who might think that anything intelligently written is "leftist," and represents a threat to the status quo. We tend to see things as black and white or left and right only when we have been indoctrinated to think in such simple terms and sadly, education plays a major role in creating social polarization and over simplification.

And so we come to the stupid, but essential question which I addressed in the blog on on Sunday, August 16 2009, why jp and the rest of us aren't as smart  as we might thinks we might be.

If there is wisdom in the hands, and the use of the hands builds intellect, why isn't Joe the Plumber smart? That is a question that could be nagging my regular readers. Of course Joe the plumber might be very smart about plumbing, how to fit pipes together, and unstop a toilet or sink... tasks that many more educated people would never even want to get good at. And yet, while being smart in one area, to make the assumption that intelligence can be broadly applied doesn't necessarily pan out in real life. In many areas of expertise, Joe the Plumber could be dumb as a post.

There are lots of reasons for academic success, or the lack of it, and not all have very much to do with the capabilities of the child.

For instance, while schools are busy pushing reading in kindergarten, it has been proven that most boys and many girls are not ready to learn reading until they are seven. In stark contrast, in Finland, the country that leads the whole world in 8th grade reading and math, schools don't begin to teach reading until age 8. And by some miracle (not really) kids rapidly catch up because they are reading ready. But here, where we think we are better at everything, we put the kid in school, push him or her to learn things for which he or she is not ready, the child learns early to dislike school and to hate being taught and the parent and kid are both notified with teacher concerns for his or her stupidity. Teachers in small classes might give Joe some extra help, and possibly notice some things about Joe that would counter the suspicion of his lack of intelligence and reinforce Joe's sense of confidence, but sadly, small classes like those are rare in public education. Even with the most dedicated teachers, some Joes fall through cracks. So, Joe's noticed something that will stick with him his whole life. School is stupid. Even at a tender age, he can see plenty of evidence of dumb-ass things. And by extension, all things academic are stupid as well. In later life Joe sees ample evidence... he is called to work by people who put stupid things in their sinks and toilets, having little sense of the workings of fundamental down-the-drain reality.

And of course Joe is not really stupid. He has merely closed himself off from his innate limitless human curiosity and abandoned the means through which he could become better educated and informed. And of course stupidity is a two way street. I recently visited with a retired philosophy professor from Virginia. He told me of the clueless, out of touch, and essentially irrational professors in his former department (not naming names)... and that he felt his summer employment in agriculture and construction provided a foundation for his philosophical explorations, seemingly unavailable to his peers.

Of course, all this is related to the observations of early educators, particularly followers of Pestalozzi who had noted that education should move from the concrete to the abstract and from the known to the unknown. You can have lots of concrete knowledge about pipes and dripping faucets, but at some point, entry to the abstract realm through which we share knowledge with others is required for real wisdom to grow. Equally damaging is when children are pushed into abstraction before being firmly engaged in concrete reality. They may have a false sense of knowing nearly everything that will go unchallenged, as was the case in the days leading up to near complete financial collapse.

Our entire culture, society and economy suffer when children's hands are left disengaged in their educations. So, let's get a grip. First thing is to get hold of the notion that our hands do shape intelligence as well as human culture, and acknowledge that to leave any child's hands untrained in skill and sensitivity is to do damage to all.

As always, I invite my reader's comments and discussion.
Make, fix, create. The photo above is this year's Eureka Springs School of the Arts fundraising calendar. A bargain for $10.00. Call 479-253-5384 and ask for Patt or Sabina. My work is on the calendar pages for November.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Portfolio assessment

I first became familiar with portfolio assessment when my daughter Lucy moved up from preschool to kindergarten at Clear Spring School. Portfolio assessment is a way of tracking growth without assigning letter or number grades and is a record of actual performance and learning, rather than an indecipherable test score or a seemingly arbitrary letter or number grade. Portfolio assessment is simple, and requires greater participation and involvement by parents. It is also something a parent can understand with no coaching. It does not compare one child's intelligence or performance to another's, but it provides clear evidence of learning and growth.

How does it work? The teacher keeps student work, and at a conference shares the work over the course of the semester and over the course of the year. It is actual evidence of learning, not a grade. When we went for a Kindergarten conference with Lucy's teacher, Lucy stayed in the room as here work was shown, and she showed us her work as we gained an understanding of what she had learned, how her work had developed and matured. In first grade, we saw her first written papers, and those papers from later in the semester provided evidence of growth in the forming of letters, better use of written language and growing artistic skill in her illustrations. We parents gained a sense of what her semester had been like, and how much her teacher was personally invested in her growth. Portfolio assessment does not directly compare one child's growth to another, unless the parent asks specifically for comparisons. It does allow evidence of children's multiple intelligences to be expressed, as portfolio presentations are multi-disciplinary.

I realize that not all parents will make time for such things, and not all teachers have time for such things, and it is hard to formulate statistics and cross school comparisons from such things, but real work is better evidence of learning and growth. As you can see, I am still wandering back to the idea of a Beaufort-like scale of educational assessment, as I think parents and teachers, rather that the testing industry, should be driving educational reform. Parents are of course worried about how their children will do in the real world. Portfolio assessment is one way of knowing, and better than standardized testing or grades if parents and teachers are able to put their children's interests first.

Today I will continue cutting dovetails, spend some time on drawings and text. I continue my interest in simplifying the means through which we evaluate schooling and its effects on children, and in placing it more clearly in the hands of parents, who in all but the most tragic cases, have the best interests of their own children at heart. In the photo above, you can see that the pins on the cabinet sides are nearly complete. In a way, what I make and each step of the process is a form of assessment. How I've done so far will become apparent to all when I finish cutting the matching parts of the dovetail joints. It is inevitable that I'll make mistakes, but that's life. Make, fix, create. Or when things go wrong early in the making, it's make, create, fix, all in one fell swoop. As you can see in the photo below, I have fitted the dovetails. They would either be better with practice or worse if I became bored and impatient.

Friday, December 10, 2010

preservation and transmission of human culture

There has been a great deal written on both sides of the gaming divide. Millions of dollars has been poured by the computer gaming industry into the idea that you can put kids and computers together and they will learn on their own. Trained and highly qualified teachers need not apply. The "hole in the wall" experiment gave computer sales and marketing execs spasms of delight. Maybe we could get rid of trained teachers and just connect kids to information through wires and diodes. Instead of teachers, we could have education accomplished by programmers, preferably outsourced at that. The experiment isn't over yet, is it? And I write on my iMac that computer technology isn't all bad.

The photo above shows children gathered around their grandmother teaching very intricate embroidery that is associated with small villages in Thailand. The children's hats and clothing are her creative cultural expression. At one time, children all over the world watched their grandmothers and grandfathers at work. Now contrast that with the one laptop per child movement in which children are being given laptops to connect them with the internet. Does that mean that granny, her skills and culture are no longer of any interest or concern? Does having a laptop negate the learning and sharing relationship upon which human culture had been lastingly forged?

The question is how can we have both? Will we get to a point at which the high tech is brought into balance by what we do,  demonstrate and teach with our own hands? The important thing about skill and information passed directly hand to hand is the amount of loving culture and emotional nourishment that passes along with it. Teachers gain a sense of fulfillment and nourishment from the relationship established by teaching, and students gain a sense of their being in the midst of important, transcendent relationships invested with all the riches of cultural possibility. So, in the midst of revolution, don't forget to make, fix, and create.

Today in the wood shop, I work on small cabinets. At noon, we build a bonfire at Clear Spring School in honor of our development director who died of cancer on Monday. Here at my desk, I will work on drawings. I reflect on this wonderful technology that connects us with each other, but observe that it is made so much deeper and richer when we have work shops, kitchens, gardens through which to engage our hands in the preservation of human culture.

My right hand is sore at the wrist from cutting pins for dovetails on a maple cabinet. I am 2/3 complete with the sawing, and to mark out the pins and make the cuts with a dozuki saw took a total of 15 minutes. Add 5 more to finish the job, and with abut 25 minutes of chiseling, the pins will be ready to mark the tails on the top and bottom. It is amazing that you can do things in a morning exercise in the wood shop that can last centuries if what you've made was made with care and with an eye toward useful beauty.