Sunday, February 28, 2010

Temple Grandin and all kinds of minds.

She speaks on behalf of shop classes in schools.

Young scientists?

Are we putting our nation at risk by failing to engage young scientists? That is the question raised by this article in the Wall Street Journal, Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity--The decline of successful young scientists could hurt innovation; tracking peak performance So how do we get children to become scientists? Can you believe it might start in wood shop? Engagement in the exploration of materials through arts and crafts provide the perfect launch toward scientific exploration.

when is a handle not merely a handle?

When it is a pendulum. I have been working on drawings based on earlier photos I shared in the blog, and these illustrate particular subtleties in the use of a chisel for operations like cutting dovetails. Often in the use of tools, craftsmen either receive visual cues by watching others or learn over time from their own experience, that are not taught through language. I read one craftsman's opinion that all chisels should be ground short, so as to be easier to handle, and in examining his opinion, I wondered why so many chisels were so long. Was the length of a chisel just to waste metal and to give the buyer the impression that he could resharpen it over and over again for the rest of his life? Or did its length offer some less obvious contributory value in its use?

These days, you won't find kids out in their back yards doing what I did as a kid. Lacking structured learning opportunities and lacking electronic indoor distractions, we played with stuff. A stick balanced in the palm of the hand brought sensitivity to gravity. In the same way, a chisel held low, allows the hand to sense that it is vertical, or not, thus providing sensory cues for its most effective use.

A craftsman develops skills both spoken, consciously applied, and unspoken, outside the conventional realms of discourse and consciousness. And so it is important to note that words are truly not enough. Discourse only engages a portion of the brain. Skilled craftsmanship in schools should be as widely and as thoroughly promoted as testing and accountability if we are to construct a more meaningful culture for our children and ourselves. I call it the "strategic implementation of the hands."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

kids should be prepared for anything

I had a conversation yesterday with an engineer for an aerospace contractor, and I asked him if he ever had trouble finding fresh hires for his industry. That started a long conversation. Most young employees come to work never having used a wrench before. It takes them forever to learn which way to turn the wrench. He described how he set up an automatic drill for drilling holes, and having instructed the young man how to operate it, asked, "Any questions?" "How do I turn it on?" the young man replied. "That big over-sized yellow button that says On." The engineer explained that being clueless was only part of the problem. Work ethic was another.

I had told before in the blog of the grandmother who told me that she had purchased woodworking tools for her grandson, only to find that her daughter-in-law wouldn't let him have them. She was told, "He might make a mess." I thought that might be an unusual story, but my sister told me that when she took her daughters to birthday party, they took a Play-Doh Fun Factory as their gift. When the child opened the present, her mother groaned out loud, "Oh, no." My sister said, "That's from us. My daughters just love to make things from Play-Doh." "But it will make a mess." the mother declared.

Do you see a pattern? We prevent our children from using tools, from becoming creatively engaged. By fearing that they'll make a mess, we make a mess of them and they grow up to be both clueless and irresponsible.

three simple tools

These three simple, once taken for granted tools each share a common technology: that required for making, forging, and sharpening steel. Each is designed to cut wood, each has a specific function and each requires some skill to use effectively. With greater levels of skill, each of these can operate outside its range of purpose. For example, you could use the knife or chisel to do the work of the plane, but it would take far greater skill and effort. The plane was specifically designed using knife and chisel making technology to eliminate the need for skill and attention that use of either the chisel or knife would require to meet its specific purpose.

While we take common tools for granted in the same way we use our hands unconsciously 10,000 times or more each day, tools themselves are a collectivization and expression of human knowledge, focused toward the expression of skill. Each tool was designed upon the legacy and understanding of other tools toward the purpose of certainty* in its use.

We think of discourse (whether written or spoken) as being the means through which knowledge is passed between individuals, groups, and generations. But we will only come to a clear understanding of our humanity when we understand that the objects that inhabit our lives do the same thing, and that tools actually do much, much more. They impart the cumulative skill gathered through multiple generations, placing it's potential in fresh hands. The difference between most objects and the tools we use is that tools actually empower us as human beings to create.

Sadly, the objects we select to fill the lives of our children, do not. And so, in a nutshell, this is the order of power... words, objects, tools. what we give children is schools often is hung up on the first alone.

*by certainty, I make reference to David Pye.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Martin Heidegger on Technology

Martin Heidegger explored our relationship with technology in his essay, "The Question Concerning Technology," with the idea being that understanding our relationship with technology would illuminate "being," that is, what we are as human beings... at least from a discursive approach. I've been attempting to read it. Give me a plank of hard maple and I'll make better headway. But let me attempt to offer Heidegger's technology in a nutshell. Heidegger talks about Gestell, a German term translated as "enframing". You place a frame around something and it brings qualities of understanding, revealing aspects of our humanity or aspects of our universe. At one time, when we worked with our hands, technology was a means of enframing through which we discovered things about ourselves. The early making of technological devices to explore scientific reality was a driving force in scientific research. Enframing can work the other way as well, concealing things from our attention. Think of the thermostat that controls your heating and air. It is a technological device that overrides the need for greater attention in maintaining human comfort, making what was once conscious, now unconscious.

Heidegger had some very strong concerns about our relationship with technology. He had been a grossly mistaken supporter of the Nazis in Germany and lived long enough for the world to enter the nuclear age and protracted cold war in which mutual assured destruction was a matter of worldwide concern. He lived most of the time in a summer retreat at the edge of the Black Forest in Germany from which he wondered, would technology be a "saving force," or would it lead to our destruction? Perhaps the question should be continuously monitored with each technological object we choose to incorporate in our lives, asking, "What does this reveal to me, or of me?" To find hopes for technology Heidegger looked back to an earlier time.
There was once a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name technē. Once that revealing that brings forth truth into the beautiful was also called technē. Once there was a time when bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was called technē. And the poiēsis of fine art was also called technē. In Greece, at the outset of the destining of the West, the arts soared to the supreme height of the revealing granted them. They brought the presence of the gods, brought the dialogue of divine and human destinings, to radiance. And art was simply called technē. It was a single manifold revealing. It was pious, promos, i.e., yielding to the holding-sway and the safekeeping of truth.
You know that there are many wonderful things about having a woodshop. It is actually better, I think, than a retreat at the edge of the Black Forest. If you want to understand life, and being, and to address what you are learning most completely, whether through discourse or in object form there is a thing that happens when your own hands do the enframing. We can talk about technē, poiēsis and art, but it is far more interesting to witness it's growth in your own hands.

You can see from the photos above, that the hands also are involved in "enframing," and revealing, not just what is but what might yet become. They help us to understand scale and weight, help us to focus on distinct areas for examination, and thus serve in the same ways that technology has served and that Heidegger discussed, but did so first, with far less risk, and also help in the design of future things. As one Clear Spring School mother observed, in some classes, students learn about the world. In woodshop, students learn about themselves.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

William James, Hand and Eye

The following is from William James testimonial in Hand and Eye as to the value of educational Sloyd:
"When we turn to modern pedagogics, we see how enormously the field of reactive conduct has been extended by the introduction of all those methods of concrete object teaching which are the glory of our contemporary schools. Verbal reactions, useful as they are, are insufficient. The pupil's words may be right, but the conceptions corresponding to them are often direfully wrong. In a modern school, therefore, they form only a small part of what the pupil is required to do. He must keep notebooks, make drawings, plans and maps, take measurements, enter the laboratory and perform experiments, consult authorities, and write essays. He must do in his fashion what is often laughed at by outsiders when it appears in the prospectuses under the title of "original work," but what is really the only possible training for the doing of original work hereafter. The most colossal improvement which recent years have seen in secondary education lies in the introduction of the manual training schools; not because they will give us a people more handy and practical for domestic life and better skilled in trades, but because they will give us citizens with an entirely different intellectual fibre. Laboratory work and shop work engender a habit of observation, a knowledge of the difference between accuracy and vagueness, and an insight into Nature's complexity and into the inadequacy of all abstract verbal accounts of rea1 phenomena, which, once wrought into the mind, remains there as lifelong possessions. They confer precision; because if you are "doing " a thing, you must, do it definitely right or definitely wrong. They give honesty; for when you express yourself by making things, and not by using words, it becomes impossible to dissimulate your vagueness or ignorance by ambiguity. They beget a habit of self-reliance: they keep the interest and attention always cheerfully engaged, and reduce the teacher's disciplinary functions to a minimum. Of the various systems of manual training so far as woodwork is concerned, the Swedish Sloyd system, if I may have an opinion on such matters, seems to me by far the best, psychologically considered. Manual training methods, fortunately, are being slowly, but surely, introduced into all our large cities; but there is still an immense distance to traverse before they shall have gained the extension which they are destined ultimately to possess."

development of grip

As children first learn to use a hammer, they grip it up near the head as shown, and as they gain strength and confidence, their grip recedes down the length of the handle. I am working on the chapter of the Wisdom of the Hands book that has to do with the ways in which tool making and use influence the development of intelligence, so these drawings are to help illustrate that discussion. You can compare the grip in the illustration above with the grip on the rock from the post earlier in the week. Grip is not merely a matter of strength, but of accuracy.

The movement of the hand from the head to the end of the handle parallels the development of the handle in history, but fortunately takes less time. Man has been making tools for well over a million years, but the handle is a fairly recent invention, arriving only 35,000 years ago. Steam came two hundred years ago, applying tremendous mechanical force to man-made tools. Mechanical automation then became a part of industrial processes and then the computer arrived. Each of these have gradually removed the need for human skill and attention in the manipulation of our environment.

Can you believe it started with a handle? So how do we get a grip, now that so many factors have pushed beyond our control?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Case Against College Education

The following link is to an article in Time Magazine, The Case Against College Education. While I would not suggest that college educations are meaningless, they are overrated for some students. We too often push our children into situations of massive debt, when they might actually be happier and more successful under some circumstances without the liberal arts degree. Many young men are pushed into college by parental expectations when time in the work place may give them a better idea what they enjoy doing, give them some concrete reasons for college attendance and allow them time to mature enough that they handle college participation more effectively.The following is from the article:
People with college degrees make a lot more than people without them, and that difference has been growing. But does that mean that we should help more kids go to college — or that we should make it easier for people who didn't go to college to make a living?

We may be close to maxing out on the first strategy. Our high college drop-out rate — 40% of kids who enroll in college don't get a degree within six years — may be a sign that we're trying to push too many people who aren't suited for college to enroll. It has been estimated that, in 2007, most people in their 20s who had college degrees were not in jobs that required them: another sign that we are pushing kids into college who will not get much out of it but debt.

finished hobbits?

Today the first, 2nd, and 3rd grade students finished their hobbit puppets, and you can see they morphed along the way into other things. Only the first grade students wanted sticks at the back like I put on mine. All of the children chose to use their own imaginations, so what started out as an exercise in making hobbits became the excuse for making ninja fighting cats, robots, and more. These students will attend a puppet performance of The Hobbit on a field trip to Fayetteville tomorrow, and so the exercise in making hobbit puppets was done in preparation. Naturally, they want to take their puppets with them on the bus.The first grade students are shown below.

a passioned plea 1905

Mr. Charles B. Gilbert argued against the separate manual training school in discussion at the 1905 convention of the Eastern Manual Training Association as follows;:
"What is the great foe of democracy at all times? It is the building up of walls--permanent walls--between classes; is it not? So long as wealth disappears with a single generation or two generations there is not an great danger; but when we get into the position--condition (if we ever do)--that many of the countries of the world are in; if a child is born with the feeling that he is born in a class--that there is a great gulf or a high wall between him and his neighbor who is born in a different class; then democracy is dead.

Now occupation, of course, is not all of it; it is only a part of it; but when you have a mechanic class, as such, in a community, you are simply accenting the gravest danger of our labor problem. You are in your schools training children with the feeling that they are going to be necessarily and for all time in the wage-earning class, as distinguished from the capitalist class; and you are making these classes--you are tending to make them--permanent; because permanency is psychological and does not depend upon external conditions; you are training them in a feeling. External conditions can always be broken down; internal conditions--states of mind--cannot be broken down; and democracy is a state of mind. Democracy is not a form of government; it is a state of mind. It consists of a community of democratic people The business of the schools is to train democratic people; and every teacher in every line of work should endeavor to bring up the boys and the girls to the feeling that they must be democratic--that they stand equal in opportunity and in obligation with all other boys and girls who are growing up.

That may seem remote from the subject; but it is not. If you have your manual training high school as distinct from manual training in high schools, then you have a lot of boys and girls put off by themselves. You deprive all the others of the educational value--of the training--with the manual training affords; and then, having shut these off by themselves, the mechanical fro the high and aesthetic or social or more intellectual work; to become more and more like trade schools, with the emphasis on the mechanical. The teachers inevitably drift that way; they need--you need--the counteracting influence in your own school of the teachers of Greek and Latin and history, literature and all the other things; otherwise they tend to become master mechanics--instructors in mechanics. That is a great danger to both teacher and pupil."
The danger Gilbert pointed out was in two directions. One was that some children who by being placed in academic pursuits and denied manual training, would perceive themselves as being of a higher class, and thus marginalize the contributions of others. The equal danger in the other direction was that those put in the manual training or mechanics class, would fail to gain the academic lessons that would at some point allow them to transcend that class. This was an important discussion within the manual training movement that was put to rest in 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Hughes Act into law, thus applying the weight of federal dollars against the integration of hand and mind in programs inspired by educational Sloyd.

It is time to check on the workings of our democracy. Has it been endangered by our choices in education as Mr. Gilbert predicted in 1904? Regardless of where you stand, Republican, Democrat, or independent, and in examining the workings of Washington, DC, odds are you will say yes.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

from the stick to the handle

Leakey discovered evidence of man the tool maker over a million years old. What sets man apart from the other tool using animals, like crows and monkeys, isn't the use of tools, but the making of them. A number of animals of different species use sticks to probe nests for bugs and honey. And while man has been making tools for over a million years, it is only in the last 35,000 that man has been using sticks to make handles to increase tool force and accuracy and extend tool range. Two hundred years ago man began his even greater application of force to his tools through the use of steam and internal combustion, and in the last 50 years, tools have been directed toward the elimination of necessary skill and attention from human processes. And so, you could say that the history of tool making really got interesting when we learned to make handles for them. And the making of handles signaled an explosion of human intellect, just as the child's movement in grip from the head of the hammer to the end of the shaft, signals a concurrent expansion of intellect.

John Grossbohlin sent the following in reference to Mike Rose's essay which I referred to in an earlier post:
"What I saw in Rose's words, more specifically "The best education for work is one that is broader than job preparation, that emphasizes literacy, quantitative reasoning, problem solving, creativity..." is reminiscent of the apprenticeship relationships of 18th century colonial America. The masters we obligated to not only teach the arts and mysteries of the trade but to also teach math, writing, and business skills. This was also the experience my father had as an apprentice tool and die maker in the late '50s.

"In a visit to the Kingston IBM plant Tom Watson Jr told the assembled tool and die makers that they were the future of the company... The young guys didn't understand that, they felt they were tool and die makers only. A mid-level manager put it all in context by saying that "you don't think IBM spent all the money on you [to train you] so you would just be tool and die makers do you?" Over time all those highly trained workers went on to be the innovative problem solvers and decision makers that grew IBM in the 70s and 80s... by then IBM started buying their talent on the open market instead of growing their own."
And so, you can see the relationship between tool making, and problem solving as a foundation for such abstractions as managing one of the world's largest and most successful business coporations.

I am going to be on the subject of tools for a time. Get a grip. Put a handle on that thing. The images above and below are of a stone tool, found in my garden and shaped by some long deceased craftsman to fit my hand. It would have been used for softening hides, cracking nuts, or perhaps making acorn flour, with the human arm's own leverage. Our landscaper found them for both left and right. They were quickly shaped and discarded when their work was done.

Still on the same subject, tomorrow the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade students will continue making hobbit puppets, and it is interesting to observe which students want theirs to have the stick at the back to control it for performance. The first graders, still getting used to having a handle on things are reticent. They want to hold it more tightly in their own hands... Just as they want to hold a hammer close to the head. Handles being one of mankind's near recent inventions, take a while to enter the developmental landscape.

Monday, February 22, 2010

lucy's toolkit

Lucy's tool kit, which I made in response to the near complete absence of tools as she entered college will be published by agreement with Woodworker's Journal. This will be the first article I've had in Woodworker's Journal since the late 1990's, and they were the first magazine to publish my project articles. I want to welcome myself back. Woodworker's Journal published this Craftsman's Profile about my work in in 1996.

When my wife and daughter and I arrived at Columbia University for Lucy's freshman year, there were hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of laptops, iPods and iPhones on her floor alone, but no hammer, no pliers and no screw driver anywhere to be found. Lucy could have bought what she needed in one of my favorite hardware stores in the world, University Hardware across from Columbia University on Broadway. But it was more fun to call dad. The article is intended to help explain that our kids, despite the power of the technological devices we provide, must be equipped with real tools if they are going to thrive, even in our internet age. What good is a laptop, if you can't actually do diddly squat?

We had a great day in school, with the 4th, 5th and 6th graders continuing work on their books, and the 10th, 11th and 12th grade students working on independent projects.

Dewey and Kindergarten

In his laboratory school at the University of Chicago, Dewey spoke of the influence of kindergarten 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 courses--now including children between four and thirteen--to carry into effect certain principles which Froebel was perhaps the first consciously to set forth.
In reading about the early days of kindergarten and its influence on primary education, I was referred to the work of Lewis M. Terman and his use of the Stanford-Binet test to study children's intelligence. At one point, Terman concluded the following:
“High-grade or border-line deficiency… is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come… Children of this group should be segregated into separate classes… They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made into efficient workers… from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding” (The Measurement of Intelligence, 1916, p. 91-92).
I present Terman to my readers as a matter of curiosity. It can be shocking to read such things from a more enlightened perspective. Now we know that the tests he used were culturally biased, and that the effects of nutrition, parental support, and community all play roles in the development of intelligence. But very sadly, Terman's judgments had a profound effect on schooling, were used to justify, discrimination and segregation. Needless to say, Terman didn't think much of kindergarten. He wanted to give the (gifted) child "an unbroken path which he may travel from the first grade to the university." "The kindergarten alone," he said, "holds aloof, worships at the shrine of a special methodological cult, and treats its children as belonging to a different order of human beings."

I know some of my readers may ask, "What does this have to do with the hands?" And for that question, I'll ask you to use the search function at upper left. Type in "Cygnaeus," the founder of educational sloyd, and you will discover that the idea for manual training for all, wood shops in schools began with Kindergarten.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

embodied cognition

From the New York Times, Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally By Natalie Angier
“How we process information is related not just to our brains but to our entire body,” said Nils B. Jostmann of the University of Amsterdam. “We use every system available to us to come to a conclusion and make sense of what’s going on.”
And a commentary from one leading scholar as to the ways this article explains American politics A Good Week for Science — and Insight into Politics by George Lakoff

What these articles point out is what I've described many times before in the blog. Our hands shape, not only our physical environment, but our social and political ones as well. Forget to educate the hands and the mind and character suffer as well.

overcoming writer's block

I have been thinking about my own early fear and avoidance of writing, and at this point I write more than anyone else I know. I have been accused by some of running off at the keyboard. I consider it practice. As any craftsman knows, you get better at something if you practice and are critically engaged in observing your results.

The early history of my own writing was bleak. I hated writing in school as many kids still do today. The idea that I was to sit down with a blank paper and compose and express my thoughts horrified me. I held the pencil a funny, awkward way that my teachers criticized and tried to correct. In sixth grade, I had moved from Memphis, Tennessee to Omaha, Nebraska, and my teacher, Mrs. Mummert, noticed that besides having a very strong southern accent, I had some undeveloped skills in writing. She said a few kind words about my writing but her words were not enough to overcome my reticence to write.

In 9th grade things got much worse. My English teacher, Mrs. Adamson, would take my papers, mark them with red ink to indicate misspelled words and faulty punctuation with no mention of the value of the ideas I expressed. It was as though my papers had never been read except to pinpoint my faults. I was supposed to rewrite them and turn them back in, but instead, I threw them away, disgusted with her lack of sensitivity to my thoughts and embarrassed by her red marks. At the end of the term came near disaster. She insisted that I recreate and turn in all my papers corrected or I would flunk. She was on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and had far worse troubles than I, but I managed to partially recreate some papers, and was allowed to pass the course.

It's a problem in school when the value of content is marginalized relative to the rules of writing, and while the rules of writing may be important, having something to say, is the whole forgotten reason for writing in the first place. I was never one for making stuff up, and while many children and adults are looking for escape, I am one who enjoys the real world and more practical involvement in it. To write real things about the real world, requires experience as the foundation for good writing. From an educational standpoint, and in light of the pedagogist's admonition, "move from the concrete to the abstract," you can see the value of building an abstract exercise like writing from a firm foundation of concrete reality.

So if you wonder how to overcome writer's block, I have a suggestion. Do something interesting. It will provide content. Develop a non-writing skill that can be shared with others through writing. You may at some point face the critique of a Mrs. Adamson's red pen, but content is of far greater meaning and merit, and sharing something useful that empowers others to create or to understand, is an important accomplishment.

If you are have the responsibility to teach children to write, don't forget that there are many like me who need real things to write about. The opportunity to develop and present how-to narrative is a great way to get kids started in writing, but unfortunately, it requires kids to be given real stuff to do and to write about. That will come to schools with the revolutionary strategic reimplementation of the hands that this blog promotes.

My own writer's block was actually quite easy to overcome. It has to do with my choice of subject. The hands literally touch and have shaped every aspect of human life and culture.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

rapidly losing skills

Americans were once known as rugged individualists, for our pioneer spirit, of can-do problem solving, and I suspect that for most, those days have passed. Today I heard a radio interview with Idaho author, Cort Conley who wrote a book about Idaho Loners; Hermits, Solitaires, and Individualists and his conclusions are roughly the same as mine. We are losing much of our creative capacity and those problem solving skills that allowed pioneers to enter the wilderness and create lives for themselves. Kids today would last about as long as the battery on an iPhone when it comes to survival.

There are other very simple things being lost. Did you ever play with blocks, and did you learn something from the experience? Kids, left to themselves can take hours of delight in building things up and equal delight in knocking them down, only to build again. Do you think they do that sort of thing for no reason what-so-ever? Or do you think that there is some particular method to the madness? It is called learning through play.

Cort Conley and many of the old timers of Idaho seem to agree. We have put our national and personal survival at grave peril, by neglecting the hands-on skills that were required to build our nation. Conley suggests that if things were to fall apart, and you were looking for survivors (not the made for TV entertainment kind) you would find them in the diminishing wilds of Idaho. Conley told that many attribute our victory in WWII to the ability of GI's to fix things, to keep the tanks and trucks rolling and on the roads through Yankee ingenuity. He's worried that we've lost that. We take the kids out of the wild and structure their playtime to keep them from trouble and we eliminate their potential for growth. Duh.


The final voyage of STAVANGER from WoodenBoat on Vimeo.

Once in awhile Wooden Boat magazine offers an article so compelling that I read it again and again and so it is with an article from the November/December 2009 issue."From Certain Death" The final voyage of Stavanger, is about a Colin Archer designed redningskøyte or rescue boat. Stavanger, launched in 1901 recently sailed the length of Norway and it's voyage is documented in film, some of which reenacted a rescue from the original log book. Boats like Stavanger rescued thousands from "certain death." Stavanger will be removed from the water for preservation in the Norsk Sjøfartsmuseum where she will be part of a conserved fleet of Norwegian boats. When boats like Stavanger are finally retired, some human knowledge is retired as well, as boats are not just repositories of material culture, but of human skill, character, intelligence and emotion as well. While this video is in Norwegian, it offers a glimpse into the operation of a historic boat, a historic fleet of boats, and the day to day skilled activities of human beings responsible for saving thousands of lives at sea.

economic purposes vs. more

Mike Rose has offered an editorial, Race to the Top of What? Education Is About More Than Jobs I am reminded of the time period in which the Smith Hughes Act was signed into law and Americans began our adventure in publicly funded Vocational Training. (1917) While we can sing "the times they are a-changin'," history does tend towards repeating itself. And this is all particularly relevant as our nation considers a plan to give 10th grade students a chance to test out of high school to attend community college. Rose's editorial raises the question, "is learning about jobs, or is it also about other things?" And if school is about jobs, what kind of job can schools do about jobs? The following is from Rose's editorial.
Vocational education provides a cautionary tale of what a strictly economic focus can yield.

When vocational education was being formulated in the first decades of the last century, some proponents had an egalitarian conception of a curriculum that integrated the manual and mental to foster intellectual, social and civic development. But as VocEd materialized, much of that ideal was lost to a strictly functional job-training curriculum that, ironically, wasn’t very successful at preparing students for the new work of the day. A major effort of recent reforms of vocational education (now called career and technical education) has been to recapture some of those earlier goals. The best education for work is one that is broader than job preparation, that emphasizes literacy, quantitative reasoning, problem solving, creativity—and that gets at all of this through a range of human expression, from mathematics to the arts.
So what kind of job can community colleges do in the important parts of education that aren't just about jobs? These are the same questions asked among participants in the early part of the 20th century. At the 1904 and 1905 meetings of the Eastern Manual Training Association, one of the hot topics was whether what many saw as the formative goals of manual training could be put aside to fulfill economic requirements. So we see the same old same old, played out in discussions throughout the land.

I am in awe of the discussions taking place about American education. There is a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject, with so many divergent opinions. I have been reading books, lots of them. And yet, the ones that have the greatest appeal for me were the ones written in the 19th century, when there was a gentleness and commonsense in our education of children. American education has become so complicated, the pros and cons of discussion going on and on. It makes me wonder whether I can have a voice in it all, and whether craftsman from Arkansas can get a word in edgewise.

But on a very personal level, we all know that learning is about growing in breadth of thought and capacity of action, or as Rose concludes in his essay,
What is telling is that even in programs explicitly targeted to economic advancement—community college certification programs, for example—there is typically much more going on than job preparation. Students report that they are going back to school to be better able to raise their kids, or to feel better about themselves, or to open up new options—economic options, but intellectual and social ones as well. In fact, one of the things that strike me about working with adults returning to school is how often the experience leads them to re-evaluate themselves, to see themselves in a new light.

The way we express the purpose of schooling shapes our collective definition of the educated person. If we want our youth to thrive and stay in school, the goal of all current school reforms, then we need an education policy that embodies the full range of reasons people go to school in a free society.
Thanks Richard Bazeley for alerting me to Mike Rose's essay.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

high school in two years?

John Grossbohlin sent the following link to an article in the New York Times, High Schools to Offer Plan to Graduate 2 Years Early. John wonders, "Is it a good idea or not?" First, the idea is to inspire kids to escape the boredom and disinterest associated with common high schools, and challenge them to get into community colleges where they will be offered education in things beyond what the ivory towers present. How about nursing, construction arts, mechanics, culinary arts? If you check out your local community college, you will find students are studying a wide range of subjects that are often more on the practical side than what a university education will offer. Is that a bad thing?

Some of the supporters of the plan are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Education Association.

They are basing this plan in part on one in Finland, but have very likely overlooked the essential engagement in hands-on learning. Ideally, students would have full exposure to hands-on creativity and extensive tool use from pre-school through 10th grades. Fat chance at this point in American education, but we can keep talking about it and miracles can happen.

With regard to the early graduation, it is a subject for rigorous debate, with educational experts on both sides weighing in from both sides. An interesting note from one was that so many students drop out at 9th grade, the 10th grade testing will have little effect. Too many student's interests are lost much earlier in their educations. In other words, if we don't fix education from the ground up, making it compelling for all students we'll be patching with band-aids. As you and I know, the strategic implementation of the hands can work wonders, shaping both character and intellect, while also engaging student interest in learning at the deepest level.

the best thing to do for education

For a long time, scientists argued whether nature or nurture was responsible for the level of intelligence expressed in the species and it seems that both sides have won. Good genes can be very important to success. But good genes are most fully expressed only when the subject receives adequate nurture. In other words, we could greatly raise general intelligence if we could overcome the problems of parenting and poverty. But, despite our having figured a few things out, little is being done to bring the opportunity to each child to rise to his or her full capacities.

No child Left Behind legislation was supposed to put pressures on schools and teachers to give each and every child their best. But even NCLB's conservative proponents, Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch acknowledge its failure.
"We should have seen this [obsession with test scores] coming. We and others who have pressed for higher academic standards in recent years... should have anticipated the "zero sum" problem that it would give rise to; more emphasis on some things would inevitably mean less attention to others. Insofar as we recognized this, however, we naively assumed that school days and years would expand to accommodate more of everything; that teachers would somehow become more knowledgeable; and that state and federal policy makers would insist on a balanced curriculum.

We were wrong. We didn't see how completely standards based reform would turn into a basic-skills testing frenzy or the negative impact that it would have on educational quality." --Finn and Ravitch Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children, 2007
So what can you say, Oops?

There are a number of programs achieving significant results even in the midst of extreme poverty. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone is best among those. It is proving that a significant investment in nurture of children from the cradle up can raise them to the top, even in Harlem. When young mothers get support and encouragement to expect more of themselves and their children, the effects can last a lifetime.

You know this is a no-brainer. You don't have to be an expert in education to understand how it works. And so, we have to wonder why we, as a nation, don't do more about it? Poor schools tend to blame parents and all parents tend to blame schools. So where are we on this as a nation? May I suggest, out of touch?

I am convinced that work with the hands has the capacity to engage children's interests in learning. Of equal importance, where all are educated in hand skills and thus all have a sense of the dignity and value of labor, that society would be one in which poverty would be most easily eliminated.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

economic activities

Economic activities are those that involve the measurable exchange of goods and services, with the primary means of measurement being currency value. Those who want to be running things, and skimming something for themselves off the top, are very interested in the economy. The drawing above is intended to show the relationship between economic and non-economic activities. How much we participate in the economy has a lot to do with how much we choose to do for ourselves, vs. how much we pay others to do for us. If I fix dinner tonight, I have one level of economic engagement. If I choose to go out for dinner tonight, I am involved economically at a different level.

Can you see why powerful forces would like us to become relatively impotent, and be forced to pay others for our sustenance?

The level of our engagement in economic matters is variable based on our commitment to economy. We get to choose. The important thing to observe is that decline of economy is not necessarily decline in the quality of life. In fact, we can have very meaningful lives, contributing to the welfare of our communities and providing for our own security through activities outside the realm of "economics." I suggest that those things that provide the greatest return on our investment of time and energy are most often outside measurable economics.

hobbits and puppets

We began making hobbits from wood today in first second and third grades. It takes a lot of sawing, and you can see the templates and model in the photo above.

This afternoon the students had their first puppet performance in the Clear Spring School puppet theater.

habits, Hobbits and dragons

Today in the CSS wood shop, students in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades will be making wooden hobbits. I've never made one before, but will be showing how. The students will be going to a performance in two weeks of Tolkien's "the Hobbit" in which giant puppets will play the various parts. Now that they have a puppet theater in their classroom, their teacher asked that they be able to make their own hobbits. It may take two weeks to finish, but I'll have more to show later in the day. Creative response to learning can become a habit. And why should what we learn not lead habitually to physical, creative response? If it doesn't we are on the path toward becoming complaisant consumers instead of creatively aligned human beings.

I spent the night tossing and turning, dreaming in the abstract, wrestling with dragons just beyond my naming range. There are things we know, or know of, that defy our capacity to name and verbally comprehend. And so, I'll not disparage verbal/linguistic thought, but will remind my readers that there is much more. To be creatively engaged requires us to move beyond what can be stated in words, and to express things physically and emotionally that cannot be adequately addressed in words alone. These are the things Dragons are made of.

And so, the question arises, Are schools only for learning those things that can be placed in lecture notes and spoken in class to minds most likely engaged in wanderings of their own? Or are schools places in which we become engaged in wrestling with dragons?

You may recall the dragon in the Hobbit that Bilbo Baggins meets in his travels. I'll leave the making of an actual puppet dragon to the kids and their teacher. I have a dragon of my own to contend with. How can I explain what to most modern American educators is unworthy of explanation? The significance of their hands. Make, garden, create, fix, sew, inspire, teach with care, nurse, tend, cook... do one of those this day, and you will be engaging in the wisdom of the hands. Watch carefully as you do these things and some degree of joy will arise. Share what you have learned with others.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

education webinars

You will find a link to the webinar I did with Michigan EdTech Specialists preserved here. We had some technical glitches, but I was told by a variety of participants that it was useful to them. And you may find other presentations in the series useful as well.

Today in the wood shop, 7th, 8th and 9th grade students worked on their book making. As with the other classes involved with the project, they are nearing the time to consider covers. I was kept too busy giving individualized instruction to get any photos taken.

I heard from Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, director of North Bennet St. School that their experiment in sloyd classes for 6th grade students from Eliot School will begin on March 1. The following is Charles A. Bennett's description of events from 1883:
In September 1883, before formal action was taken by the School committee (to begin manual training in schools), classes were sent from the Eliot School (to North Bennet St. School). In 1885, pupils from the Eliot and Hancock schools were permitted to go to the Industrial School for two hours a week, upon the written request of parents or guardians.

After two more years, the number of public-school pupils attending the North Bennet Street Industrial School was 614 a week--116 in the carpenter's shop, 188 in clay modeling, and more than 300 girls in cooking and housework.
Does history ever repeat itself so closely that it may involve the same parties? In this case it might. I am grateful to have played a part in helping North Bennet St. School reconnect with its past. It would be fitting if North Bennet St. School and the Eliot School children were to become part of a national movement in which kids were once again trusted with tools and offered the power to create. Again, from Charles A. Bennett:
The management of this institution (North Bennet St. School) soon discovered that the best way to render permanent aid to the poor was to give practical instruction to the children. In studying the neighborhood, it was observed that "the inability to do anything well was the cause of most of the poverty and much of the crime."
So, I ask my readers to hold a good thought for the renewal of manual training for our nation's kids. Particularly for all of them.

Monday, February 15, 2010

the start of something good.

The following from the Report of the Commissioner of Education 1887-1888 describes the very start of manual training in the US.
While In 1872 a society known by the name of Industrial School Association established in Boston what was called a whittling school, carried on in the chapel of a Boston church of evenings. In 1876-77 this society united its school to the industrial school that had for two seasons been holding its sessions in the Lincoln Building, the supporters of the two schools organizing as one body under the name of the Industrial Education Society. The city gave them the use of the "ward room on Church street," where from 7 to 9 on Tuesday and Friday evenings the school, giving instruction in wood working, was held. Firm benches were obtained, provided with a vise and carving tools for each of the thirty-two boys, ranging in age from twelve to sixteen. About half the pupils were still attending school.

"The object of the school was at the date of its inception, not to educate cabinet-makers or artisans of any special name, but to give the boys an acquaintance with certain manipulations which would be equally useful in many different trades. Instruction, not construction, was the purpose of this school. ...Does not this incident show the natural sequence of such a course of hand culture as we have been describing upon the education in drawing now prevalent in our public schools? We cannot but believe that it would be easy to establish in connection with all our grammar schools for boys an annex for elementary instruction in the half dozen universal tools; i. e., the hammer, saw, plane, chisel, file, and square. Three or four hours a week for one year only of the grammar school course would be enough to give the boys that intimacy with tools and that encouragement to the inborn inclination to handicraft, and that guidance in its use, for want of which so many young men now drift into overcrowded and uncongenial occupations or lapse into idleness or vice."
It might seem preposterous to some that work with tools would still be interesting to kids and useful in their education. After all, we have laptops and iPods and every manner of electronic entertainment device. But there is something that arises in each of us when we gain confidence and competence in the use of tools, making things of useful beauty.

a normal monday!

Despite a quick unexpected blanket of snow this morning, we had a normal Monday at Clear Spring School. My 4th, 5th and 6th grade students continued book binding, and my 10th, 11th and 12th grade students worked on a variety of independent projects. Two 11th grade students are working on books. This afternoon, I delivered the walnut bench to Crystal Bridges Museum. It felt good to have work from the CSS woodshop placed in such care.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

America's Cup

While this is certainly not a wooden boat, I offer my congratulations to the Golden Gate Yacht Club of San Francisco for winning the 33rd America's Cup competition and returning the cup to American soil for the first time since 1995. This year's boat is a 113 ft. trimaran with a 223 ft. high monster wing in place of sail, which beat a Swiss catamaran with more conventional sails. I found the image above fascinating, particularly noting the man at the wheel on the port side, providing a sense of scale. The performance of this winged trimaran is amazing and to see it lifted on a single hull shows the incredible power of the wind.

Some might find it interesting that boats from Switzerland and the US would compete. Switzerland has no access to the sea. But what they and the US have in common are billionaires, and it takes millions of dollars (or Swiss francs) to compete at this level.

the real thing

On the subject of authenticity, is it more interesting to get out in nature, or to see nature portrayed in a theme park? Perhaps for some it might make no difference. To see a waterfall emerging from a rock, driven by a huge electric pump may excite some. But when you know it is fake can you really get as fired up about it? School is kind of the same way. Kids know school is processed and homogenized fake learning and when you know you are being manipulated some resistance seems to form.

Yesterday before driving home from Russellville, we visited a park in a nearby Ozark wilderness area. Seeing the pedestal rocks on the Kings Bluff Trail is worth the drive and hike. We shared the trail with a group of college students on an outing from Springfield, Missouri. There are lots and lots of these pedestals along the bluff line, so even with students climbing all over there was plenty of space for us to quietly admire the view. The pedestals are interesting even if you don't bother to climb down to the base. The students climbed down one tree and up another to get down to explore beneath the formations. We took the rugged trail at the end that was however, much easier than climbing up and down trees.

The experience of spending an afternoon out in nature leaves you feeling like this:

I am adding one more view of the table I delivered on Friday. I'm not sure that some people understand the feelings that can arise in a person involved in creative work. For me, it helps that I am using materials that convey a sense of authenticity... Real solid woods that grew in the nearby forests of Arkansas. Use of these materials connects both the maker and user with the beauty of wilderness as shown in the photo above.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

what is the value of authenticity?

My wife and I spent the night in Russellville, Arkansas, while visiting friends. The hotel where we stayed had patterned concrete at the entryway intended to look like the European fan pattern shown here.

I wish I could say that the artificial pattern done in concrete is as beautiful as what I saw on every street and sidewalk in downtown Helsinki. It isn't, but the patterned concrete looks OK and it's cheaper. If you don't know the real thing or don't care about such things, the fake is just fine, right? It is prettier than plain old concrete and besides, you'll find very few craftsmen in Arkansas who could accomplish the installation of real cobblestones without extensive training.

So, is there any value in authenticity? Is patterned concrete made to look like cobblestones as valuable as the real thing? Is an object printed out from an ink-jet-like-manufacturing-device of the same value as something crafted by skilled hands? Perhaps it depends on what your values are.

In Helsinki I saw craftsmen at work throughout the city doing the same cobblestone pattern on streets and sidewalks you see here on the Helsinki waterfront. Some would regard it as menial labor, lowly and degrading. But from another angle we might witness a process involving skill and pride. For those in the US, without meaningful employment, craftsmanship might be starting to look like a more meaningful choice.

There are practical reasons for authentic cobblestone. Helsinki winters are harsh and the cobblestone streets are infinitely repairable. You pull up the stones, reset them in sand. Not so with patterned concrete. With concrete, you break it up, and haul it away for disposal. The patterned concrete at the hotel, though only a few years old is beginning to show major cracks and deterioration and will at some point become an embarrassment to the owners. It will be broken up, hauled away and replaced. Real cobblestone streets and walks can be fixed, with the stone being reused for centuries.

So, please tell me. Are there values in authenticity? What are those values? One is skilled craftsmanship. It fosters growth in the individual. It fosters pride. And I believe it's the foundation of human culture. We often choose between the growth of culture and the bottom line by settling on cheap.

Table delivered

It is nice to see my work installed in its home, and as you can see, I delivered the maple and walnut table yesterday to satisfied customers. The home in Little Rock is beautiful, and the setting was perfect for the table.

American manufacturing

The Plight of American Manufacturing According to this article by Robert McCormack, Since 2001, the U.S. has lost 42,400 factories -- and its technical edge.
Something has gone radically wrong with the American economy. A once-robust system of "traditional engineering" -- the invention, design, and manufacture of products -- has been replaced by financial engineering. Without a vibrant manufacturing sector, Wall Street created money it did not have and Americans spent money they did not have.

Americans stopped making the products they continued to buy: clothing, computers, consumer electronics, flat-screen TVs, household items, and millions of automobiles.

America's economic elite has long argued that the country does not need an industrial base. The economies in states such as California and Michigan that have lost their industrial base, however, belie that claim.
Much of this has happened as a a result of the separate educations of the head and hand. We teach to the test, avoiding hands-on learning, thus sheltering the wealthy class from an understanding of the processes and dignity of human productivity, while isolating the poor from the power to create. The Reagan idea of "trickle down economics" implied that when the rich have lots of money and are protected from taxation, their dollars will be invested in putting people to work. But what if the investor class has no idea of work? You guessed it. They will only invest in financial schemes they think they understand. Human creativity is not one of those.

And so we have allowed our manufacturing sector to become uncompetitive and have rationalized its failure as a sign of our success. Talk about being a nation of idiots! As long as the financial sector was getting its cut off the top, who cared where the products came from or who made them? Who needs American manufacturing when the rich can feed their pockets from a small cut from the steady stream of flat screen TV's and other consumer products from China?

There is a slight loneliness in being a maker in America. Mine may be a lonely voice at times. But the joy of personal creativity is indescribable. We each are empowered to make necessary change. Take a kid to the wood shop. No kid? Make something. With practice you can make things to sell. Selling a few things, you will have helped to restore the economy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

a man, a guitar

This is Bob Dylan in his first White House performance, and one might suspect that the times have changed a bit if this old rebel is there performing for the American president. He was the voice of an earlier generation and has a bit to say to this one as well.

In terms of the hands, we can see that in general children today are no longer making things with their hands, as most adults aren't either. As a craftsman, I am saddened by this loss, for I know how much joy my own hands have brought to my life. Today I'll be away. I deliver a table to a customer in Little Rock and pick up the Crystal Bridges bench for delivery to the Museum on Monday.

And yes, as to Dylan, the times are a-changin'. Do people change? Will we ever become so deeply engaged through our hands-held devices, that to make something real, requiring effort and skill, will no longer interest us? That, my friends, is a matter that lies in your own hands. Teach a kid if you can.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

revolutionizing hinge installation

Butt hinges have been a craftsman's headache for years, decades, centuries. There is the hard way, using, ruler, square and marking gauge for layout, and chisels for carefully cutting the hinge mortise. It is demanding work, and each one offers innumerable opportunities to screw up. Then there is my technique that makes it easy and is featured in the April issue of Fine Woodworking that arrived in today's mail. A simple shop made jig allows you to rout hinge mortise after hinge mortise, each in perfect depth and position. I wrote the article and Matt Kenny, editor, took the photos of my process in the Taunton wood shop.

I believe my techniques for installing butt hinges are my most original contributions to the techniques used in woodworking. I use the router table and story stick on projects small enough to fit on the table, and then this simple router jig for large projects. The April issue of Fine Woodworking will be arriving in the magazine section of your favorite book store this week.

Mr. Natural

Every other month, my Wooden Boat Magazine arrives and it never disappoints. An article by Sequoia Fahey in Alaska tells about his father, Mister Natural, and his hand-crafted wooden boat. Fahey writes:
"An admitted hippie, my father has always felt an attraction to the wilderness and the elements of nature. As a young adult growing up in the city, he became disillusion with the lifestyle of the so-called "American dream" and had a desire to escape the rat race, or what he would later call the "maddening crowd." After graduating from high school he began, as he puts it, to "dedicate my life to doing what I wanted." A couple of years of early traveling and exploring found him, bedroll on shoulder, on a boat dock in a remote Alaskan island community, where he has lived for the past 30-odd years..."
So, what's a man to do? His dream of building a wooden boat started with a stack of Wooden Boat Magazines kept "in the family outhouse for casual reading." Two articles from that stack served as his inspiration, and his entire boat was made by hand over a thirteen year period. Congratulations Mr. Natural, on a boat well built. The article reminds us that as long as there are stacks of Wooden Boat Magazines somewhere in the world, the wisdom of our hands will be inspired to action. I love the caption from the photo below showing his first voyage. "I've lived here for 30 years, and I haven't ever been here before." Isn't that sort of what life is about? Mr. Natural's boat is named Clementine, and the design was based on a kåg, a traditional Swedish double ender.

In the wood shop at Clear Spring School, we are making progress in our book making. The 4th, 5th and 6th grade students are beginning to make book covers. But as shown below, there is still a bit of stitching going on first.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Our neighbor, Berryville

According to the front page of our local paper there is a major personnel conflict brewing in Berryville, Arkansas over the matter of how to conform to state standards. For the last two years, Berryville schools have been identified as "not making adequate progress in raising student test scores." Teachers and coaches are charging the school with harassment. Some have voiced concerns that the school board and superintendent are trying to force senior teachers to resign.

On the school superintendent side of the argument, "Let me tell you what is really going on," Dr. Randy Byrd writes."Some individuals on our staff are being held accountable for what is going on in their classrooms, many for the first time in a number of years."

The school hired The Learning Institute to redesign course material to "achieve better test results." In other words, help teachers to better "teach to the test."

And so, this is a long story told short, but one that is played out in nearly every community in America.

choir practice

Jason, a technology teacher from Victoria, Australia wrote as follows:
Your site is a revelation and is like a breath of fresh air.
I am a technology, building and construction and work related skills teacher at my local secondary school. I have had real life experience in industry for a number of years as a builder and relate to the students very well. I stumbled across your site and was instantly connected to the content.

Technology teachers aren’t represented that well in academia as we tend to just ‘get the job done’ quietly in the background. I am interested in presenting your ideas to staff and just want to ask if this is ok?
Yes, of course. Please do.

We technology teachers haven't done a very good job of blowing our own horns, and haven't done a very good job of discussing the values of what we do. We haven't even been very clear among ourselves what those values are. There is a challenge, being in staff meetings or even in the same room with those who have well-cultivated verbal linguistic capacities when we on the other hand, have been quietly developing skills of hand and eye rather than of discourse and proclamation. Like a fine craftsman, we hope what we do is self-evident and leaves others speechless, but we fail to understand that others are self-absorbed, enough out of touch, out of the sensory framework of hand and eye, that the only way to address their attention is through words.

So, this blog is not just preaching to the choir, it is choir practice. We must tune our voices and our language so that we can firmly and confidently address the world of the verbal/linguistic and remind those mired in it that the true power of our humanity is not what we say, but what we do, that our real human soulcraft is that which emerges through the creativity of our own hands. On the subject of verbal/linguistic dominance over the hands in education, readers might enjoy this earlier post from October 2, 2007.

Our election to raise school district millage passed yesterday by a large margin, so Eureka Springs will be building a new public high school. I and others have been promoting the notion that it be a school of the arts. Keep your fingers crossed. Every school should be a school of the arts.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

testing and snow gone wild

An interesting discussion of testing can be found on the liberal blog site, Dailykos.

Would it surprise anyone that many liberals are interested in education? Check out Testing Gone Wild.

We need a new test, which I call the PSI, or Parental Stupidity Index, or "How crazy can parents be???? Or maybe we don't need such a test... Slack jawed wide-eyed staring in bedazzled wonder should suffice. Evidently parents are spending thousands of dollars for copies of the test used by the New York Public Schools for selecting "gifted" students for special placement and then using that test to prepare their nice average kids for special placement opportunities in first grade and kindergarten. They are spending thousands more for coaching and test preparation. A whole industry has grown up for the purpose of sneaking kids into "gifted" programs. Fortunately, in many small schools like Clear Spring, all children are known to be gifted and creative. It is not something you need to be tested for. It is expressed day to day through what the kids do and learn.

You can't blame parents for wanting to give their own children every possible advantage in an educational system we all know to be broken. We all want to prepare our children to compete in the now global marketplace. But what if we were to invest in a full-fledged educational renewal instead? Devise a system of education in which the talents and "gifts" of each child might be revealed and celebrated? It is what we do at Clear Spring School.

The day here in Arkansas is exquisite. The overnight snow covers everything, and there is no way human beings can create such beauty. In my wood shop, I'm inlaying stones as the final part of the walnut and maple table before the finish is applied. The stones are used to cover defects in the wide walnut plank, becoming like pebbles dropped in a pool, with the ripples of grain moving out from the place of impact.

I've been at this awhile

Popular Woodworking Books is selling a CD compilation, Box Making Bonanza, containing my first two books with a third by another author for a combined price of $23.99. It's not the same as having real books, but offers the content for a lower price and also allows you to print out pages for more convenient use in the woodshop.

The image below is from my much younger days in the wood shop.

Monday, February 08, 2010


My piece of sculpture, Dancing Noguchi is complete with the exception of additional coats of Danish oil. The cherry will darken to a red brown through exposure to light.

no school today

You'll not have seen so many pictures of kids working with wood on the blog lately. We have missed so many days of school and wood shop due to snow. Today is one more of those days, and while we do not have the deep snow that has affected the Washington, DC and Philadelphia areas, even a small amount is enough to stop school when you have hills as steep as ours in northwest Arkansas. We had about an inch during the night and expect 5-7 inches more during the day.

I have been using my time to make progress on a variety of fronts. One is that I am working on chapter 3 of the Wisdom of the Hands book which is a much more coherent and organized view of the educational philosophy that you read each day in the blog. This is kind of a daunting task, as you know the hands touch every aspect of human life and culture. Prior to the machine age, everything we touched was either a natural form or bore the creative imprints of the human hands. To distill the impact of our hands down to 9 chapters is a daunting task.

I've also been working on woodworking articles, and a bit of stuff in the shop... my relentless friendly competition with the Chinese in which I make small wooden boxes, and custom furniture.
In addition, I am working on my first piece of sculpture in over 30 years. Presently called Dancing Noguchi, It is a simple slab of cherry standing as a human form. I am impressed when I see the price tag on sculpture as compared with the prices people are willing to pay for furniture, and have come to believe that I might as well join in the fun. If I sell a few pieces for big bucks, it might alleviate financial concerns in other areas.

Today I voted early to increase our school millage to finance construction of a new high school.
"What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy." - John Dewey
The images above show two works by Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and my own work in cherry is shown after oiling. Next, the walnut base will be sanded and oiled, the mounting pipe will be painted black and I will have my first finished piece of sculpture in 30+ years.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

how can we best measure school success?

Normally, in the US, school success is measured through performance on standardized tests devised by experts, and understood by few and misunderstood by many. These tests are thus an extremely poor tool for evaluation. Some universities like Wake Forest no longer require standardized tests for college entrance and prefer to look at other evidence of achievement, maturity and preparation. On the K-12 front, things aren't looking quite so sane. The rise of standardized testing as the primary tool for evaluation of teacher and student performance and distribution of federal funding has led to "teaching to the test," and neglect of many important developmental benchmarks that can't be as easily measured. There are lots of credible academic authorities that concur with my point. Type testing in the search block and you will find earlier discussions.

But, how can we best measure success? Do we give up on testing as the primary means and not replace it with something more meaningful?

Rubric is a term originally meaning red earth or ochre, used as a color in sacred texts to highlight important points.

In education,
"A rubric is a scoring tool for subjective assessments. It is a set of criteria and standards linked to learning objectives that is used to assess a student's performance on papers, projects, essays, and other assignments. Rubrics allow for standardized evaluation according to specified criteria, making grading simpler and more transparent.

The rubric is an attempt to delineate consistent assessment criteria. It allows teachers and students alike to assess criteria which are complex and subjective and also provide ground for self-evaluation, reflection and peer review. It is aimed at accurate and fair assessment, fostering understanding and indicating the way to proceed with subsequent learning/teaching. This integration of performance and feedback is called "ongoing assessment."
It is of great value for students to know precisely how they are to be measured, and what performance goals are important for them to set for themselves. Progressive educators are making great use of rubrics in organizing and motivating student activities.

What we really need in schools to replace our focus on standardized testing would be a rubric or set of rubrics through which parents and students as well as teachers and administrators can monitor and measure school performance and that would encourage teacher and student creativity as well as proficiency in reading and math. This would be a system of measurement growing from the foundations of K-12 education rather than being imposed from the outside by behavioral science.

Of course, there will always be those so little interested in the personal effects of education that they will prefer to monitor its progress or lack of progress from a spread sheet. But a real revolution in education will come when we reassert common sense, and it would be best if it grew from the ranks of educators and parents rather than from the halls of congress.

Imagine a rubric for schools that would ask that students be creative in their search for solutions. If you were to design a rubric, what would its components be? What elements of a child's education would be most important and given greatest emphasis? All things, even creativity, honesty, courage, and joy can be measured or observed and graded through use of a rubric. How do you measure joy in learning? One marker is when students become so engrossed in learning that they have to be told to go home. That happens in wood shop and at Clear Spring School.

Actually, a rubric is an easy thing for a craftsman to understand. As one works on the creation of an object, the maker evaluates progress on a variety of fronts. The object itself is a rubric of sorts. The craftsman looks at the selection of materials, the design, the fit of parts, the surface qualities of the materials, the application and fit of the finish, and the usefulness of the finished form, in assigning his or her "grade" to the work, and the fine craftsman learns to settle for nothing less than the best on all fronts. In a sense, the use of a rubric is the application of age old principles, from before science. The image above shows rubric, the lettering in red, reflecting the original definition of the term. The academic meaning of the term can be found here.

what's right with this picture?

The illustration is from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, and shows the inside of the Kindergarten Cottage, set up by the Froebel Society of Boston. At this exhibit, thousands became enthralled with the hands-on learning method developed by Friedrich Froebel and promoted by dedicated enthusiasts from around the world. The numbers of kindergartens in American Schools increased exponentially following the Exposition.

My mother became a kindergarten teacher in Ft. Dodge, Iowa in 1943. For the sake of cmparison, count the number of students in the illustration above, and count the teaching staff. In my mother's first year she had 45 students in a class which she was expected to handle on her own. The other teachers were watching to see that she did so, but facing similar situations of their own did not offer help.

A practiced story teller, my mother has some favorites to tell about her experience. One was the rope at the top of the stairs with a sign that said "pull," that had to be passed each time she ushered her 45 children upstairs to the boys and girls restrooms. A great invitation to beginning readers, but one that brought the fire brigade.

Another story involves "little Dougie Denker." He slipped out the window, making his escape from schooling. Called on the phone, his mother said, "Don't worry about Dougie, he knows his way home." An hour later, the school was informed by the police that Dougie was at the corner on Main Street directing traffic.

It is easy to take a wonderful idea and cheapen it by increasing the numbers and it is easier for students and teachers to find successful, rewarding experiences in the classroom when there is a reasonable ratio between them.