Tuesday, November 15, 2011

why children need wood shop...

What follows is a short piece composed for the Clear Spring School newsletter to share with parents, grandparents and supporters, the role the wisdom of the hands program plays at our school.

Most early educators from Comenius in the 17th century to John Dewey in the first part of the 20th, shared an understanding that children learn best through their senses and from their activities.  And so, it should come as no surprise that for many of the children at Clear Spring School, woodworking has become a favorite activity.  When students walk in the door of the wood shop they are greeted by the smell of fresh sawn wood. When the children take their places at the workbenches, the sounds of sawing and hammering commence. The sight, sound and smell of real wood being formed for new use is exactly what the early educators were talking about-- students learning from their own activities and from their senses rather than from dull lecture notes, or from pre-packaged lessons delivered under contrived circumstances.

While most schools in the US have eliminated woodworking programs, parents might wonder why one of the smallest NAIS accredited schools in the country would have wood shop. Sure, it's a program that almost all students enjoy. It is fun to make things, and if you are a parent, you may have noticed the pride students feel for the objects they have crafted in wood shop. But there are many reasons for wood shop beyond the fun students have, and beyond the pleasure they may feel from the objects they have made.

Otto Salomon, one early advocate of woodworking education said that the value of the carpenter's work is in the objects he makes, but the value of the students' work in making similar objects is in the student. He was suggesting that the real value of the objects the child makes in wood shop can be observed in the child's growth of confidence, her skill in creative problem solving, his close scientific observations as real materials are shaped, her development of skill in the use of tools,  and as each child develops his or her self-image as a creator of things that may be of service to others. Schools tend to offer one of two choices to our children... that of being consumers of ideas and products, or that of becoming makers and thinkers prepared to test their own creative notions. An education at Clear Spring School is clearly directed toward the latter.

You may remember from your own school experience, that wood shop was where they placed students who were not going to college. Ironically, the first wood shop/industrial arts programs in the US were created for a completely different reason.  They had nothing to do with finding a place in school for those who could not handle academic subjects. Calvin Woodward at Washington University and John Runkle at MIT (where the school motto is Mens et Manus--mind and hand) realized that their engineering students were handicapped by having no experience in the practical arts. Woodward and Runkle started woodworking programs to provide practical experience as a foundation for abstract academic thought. The success of their programs revolutionized American education for a time, helped us win two world wars, and led the US to become the world's center for innovation and quality manufacturing. But the pendulum made a big swing back.  If we take a good look at where we are now, we begin to see that a grave error was made in failing to see the full impact of hands-on learning in our nation's schools.

It seems that by now, with all the attention given to education, things should be better. But despite 10 years of No Child Left Behind Legislation, teaching to the standardized test, use of iPads and smart boards in the class rooms and who knows what else, children in record numbers are dropping out. They spend too many hours sitting idle and bored in sensory deprived classrooms, despite the understanding of early educators that children learn best from their senses and from their activities.

Clear Spring School offers a somewhat low-tech solution to education.  We don't offer all the latest in high-tech gadgetry to enhance learning. But children have not really changed that much since Comenius. Helping our students develop an inclination toward lifelong learning is our primary goal. We can see from the level of heart felt enthusiasm that our children express each day that hands-on/hearts-engaged learning really works at the Clear Spring School.

You may wonder about the things students make. Our woodworking scholars all love making interesting things from their own imaginations and of their own design. Making those things are important. But we also make things that are intended to encourage greater hands-on investigation in their other classes. For instance, this year, the lower elementary school students have made weather vanes for study of wind, abacuses for study of math, and writing pens to begin writing in cursive with real ink. The idea is that wood shop should not simply be an isolated activity at Clear Spring School, but one that brings extra value  and deeper engagement in studies throughout the school.

On a related subject, Frank Wilson, author of the Hand sent me a link to an essay called a Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design. Watch the video showing our glorious intended future and the read the essay which accompanies it.
Make, fix and create...


  1. Doug, this very well done and compelling. I have started to read Salomon's writing on Sloyd...very, very informative.


  2. JD, Salomon was an educational genius. The theory he developed for Sloyd applies to all other areas of learning. I hope at some point he is recognized for his contributions. I'm glad you are reading his work.


  3. The instructor matters though. When I went to school everyone hated wood shop, which was a reflection on the ability of the teacher to kill the real joy that could come from such a class.

    Metal shop was not liked either, even though the instructor was different metal shop came after wood shop, and the bad taste of wood spilled over.

  4. I have been a silent admirer of your blog for some time now.

    My daughter sent me the following link to a TED video that I thought you would appreciate. ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html


  5. Stephen, the Ken Robinson TED talk was a good one. I've had it in the blog before.But thanks for reminding me. It is worth seeing more than once.

    Hank, being a good humored, well-liked wood shop teacher is really difficult with large classes. There are too many accidents waiting to happen. And so the fault is in administrative thinking that if you can get 30 students in a history class you can get at least 25 to fit in a shop class. There is a difference between processing words and the safe processing of materials.

    I could get downright curmudgeonly if put in a classroom of 25 7th graders, each holding a hammer or saw.