Saturday, May 22, 2010

What do you know? vs. What can you do?

What do you know? vs. What can you do? and How can we teach in this age and under these circumstances?

If you watch children these days, you will no doubt observe them hunched over their electronic communication devices using tiny keyboards to write text. As more and more attention is withdrawn to within the device, it is removed from other things. Put simple tools in their hands, and they may not know what to do. An article from Wooden Boat, March/April, 2010, called "A Sharp Pencil" by Harry Bryan is a wonderful exploration of the means through which to mark and measure wood. It shows a young boy in the proper use of a square in the photo below.

A simple square is one of the most basic tools of carpentry. If the body of the square isn't aligned with the wood, the blade will not be 90° to the wood and a line marked using the blade as your guide will not be square. For some reason, time and again children these days need to be instructed and reminded in its proper use.

At one point in time, children learned the use of such tools by observing others at work, and when it came time to use tools themselves, they had a baseline of knowledge as a foundation for their own creative activities.

An illustration of the sophistication of technique required for even the most simple tool, can be found in the article. Who would have thought that the pencil could present such complications? Well, actually any experienced carpenter might from his or her own observations. When you are attempting to achieve any degree of accuracy in your work, you begin to notice more and more things... unlike the tiny keyboard through which you begin to notice less and less. You can click on the image above for a larger view.

Many of the craftsmen I know who teach are saddened by what could be described as a diminishing baseline of expertise in the use of simple tools. Students come to our classes well versed in the latest technology, but having observed less and less of physical reality, they must be taught more and more in order to achieve reasonable success. Will it come to the point at which lessons must be taught on how to use a pencil? Guess what? It seems we're there already.

Put away the devices sometime and see what you can see. As a dear friend of mine remarked one time, "There's a real world out there." Cook, care, make, plant, create. Use the precious hands you've been given to create objects of useful beauty.

Today I will work on the walnut chests in the wood shop. Famous wood turner Alan Lacer will be my guest this evening for dinner to talk about Sloyd. Last night was an exceptional White Street Art Walk. We had a great turnout with both locals and visitors and everyone seemed to have great fun.


  1. What is simple to people like you and me is no longer simple to young people. My son, who just graduated from college a year ago, admitted to me the other day that he has forgotten much of his times tables. The problem is that he never had to use them on a regular basis because they always used calculators all through grade school and college. It's not his fault as much as it is the educational system of today.
    When I require my students to figure board feet without a calculator, they cry me a river and say they can't do it. Some are just lazy, and others actually can't. It really is the fault of our educational system, and the parents and teachers as well.

  2. The saying is "use it or lose it." In schools, by not having kids do real things, their use of what we teach them is dead on arrival.

  3. Anonymous2:14 AM

    One of my greatest tasks in teaching the Industrial Arts to children is understanding their perspective. A lot has changed in the forty years or so since I was a boy and I have also forgotten a lot. My students, also, struggle to use pencils, squares and, rulers. Simple fractions give them fits. Of course their struggle to master these instruments helps them grow and I am happy to be a part of that.

    Your post about the jewellry class reminded me that a couple of years ago I gained new insight into my students' perspective. This generation does not know what sharp is. Few own a pocket knife and none will admit to carrying one, which explains why they treat chisels so casually. So, now I make it a point to demonstrate what sharp is and, with the occasional reminder, I've found another way to help them grow.

    Nick S. in Canada