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.


  1. Doug, you do NOT need to apologize!!! There are others of us out here who are also hoppin' mad about this whole situation. The attitude of "prove it" is rampant, and as a person trained in educational research, I will tell you that nothing can be proven. The purpose of research is only to disprove. It may sound far-fetched, but it is true. The bottom line is that we cannot "prove" anything! The whole purpose of a research project is to disprove a negative hypothesis! How's that for backward process!!!

    Keep on, Doug, keep on. You are absolutely right...don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

    Hope you and your family have a very Merry CHristmas!!!

    Cheers from icy, foggy North Carolina


  2. John, thanks for your support. It is gratifying for a wood worker to know that there are people like yourself reading and understanding.

    Unfortunately, making change is like pulling teeth. I had a great conversation with the provost at Teachers College, Dr. Thomas James, and even though he is sympathetic to the cause of hands-on learning, changes in major institutions can be like turning the Titanic. At this point, we can see that the ship is nearing the icebergs, running through the fog of disinformation and we don't have enough lifeboats, and no one at he helm has any idea of the proper course. And so the simple idea I present is hands on. Put your cotton pick'n hands on the wheel and steer the danged ship toward the full implementation of our children's hands. And since no one is standing at the helm, we have to do it all ourselves. Just as you do woodworking with your grandchildren, others must do the same. I hope the weather in NC improves. It has been cold here, too, but no ice.

  3. Anonymous2:30 PM

    Your conversation with the report and the researcher brings up another angle on research: we can only study what we get funding for. We get funding based on what's either in vogue or in the interests of the funders. So when a reporter might innocently say "there is little published research supporting a hands-on curriculum", readers interpret this as meaning hands-on education may have shaky foundations, or be another educational "fad." What we forget is that a lack of evidence is not the same as evidence of lacking.

    I for one will continue to look for ways to incorporate hands-on learning research into my own work. Keep up the good work and writing!

  4. Larry, given our inclinations to disregard research findings that present inconvenience, I've come to the conclusion that we need to find other ways to make the case. Poetry and the arts, for example. If I can make my writing more interesting and more compelling, that would be worth a bushel and a peck of research data, that is just preents further inconvenient data. And so, we can encourage each other in keeping our hands on. Thanks for your comment and encouragement. the great thing about the hands is that our minds and hands co-evolved as a learning system, and try as hard as we can, the hands can only be ignored at our own peril.