Saturday, December 31, 2011

greeting the new year...

As we welcome the end of 2011 and greet with hope the arrival of 2012, which of course are only mental constructs in the first place, some will be making resolutions about what to do next and how to improve our lives. My apologies, first of for not being as clear and concise as I would like.

Yesterday I listened to an NPR radio program, Talk of the Nation, with interview guest Roy Baumeister, co-author of Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. His suggestion with regard to New Year's resolutions was not to try to change everything at once, but rather to address one small thing at a time. The successful change of one small thing can have major impact on the sense of self and the growth of confidence to change other things. Baumeister suggested that even the effort to change one's posture could be enough to awaken latent will.

So here, as I address the change necessary to bring a new age of American Craftsmanship we will start simple things.

For instance, set up a regular pattern of interchange with others. Most Americans are strategic shoppers looking for the best deal. But if we did our shopping based on the simple objective of establishing relationships instead, we would find different results. If instead of focusing on the objective of getting the stuff as though the maker and source of supply did not matter, we were to look toward building the foundational relationships of local supply, the fabric of our communities would be dramatically changed.

First is that instead of rushing from place to place seeking the best deal, one would build relationships with those in the store of choice, and build relationships with other customers likely to be shopping at the same time. This idea is based on observation here in Eureka Springs, where there are just three places to shop for food, and each has its own niche. We have the farmers market, where we meet the actual producers of the food, we have the health food store, and we have Harts Grocery. Each is a social center, each offering opportunities for social engagement within the community. You can drive 20 minutes to Walmart, and you may meet one or two friends who are also there shopping for the best deal, but if you are shopping for meaningful relationships instead, you will find your truest bargains at our local stores, as you can see in the graph.

After living in this small town for as long as I have, it is near impossible to go to any of these three stores at any time of the day without a chance encounter with friends and conversations that assure deep roots in community. By understanding the need for community development as being greater than getting the best deal assures greater things.

If you live in a larger community than Eureka Springs, you will need to refine and narrow choices, whereas here in order to build community, we simply need to make the choice of not driving to Berryville. Of course there are other ways to build your community. For instance regularly attend your local public library, or join civic groups. These things are free.

Another key to being successful in either craftsmanship or the building of community is to wear your heart on your sleeve. Instead of being armed, let others know your kindness, your accessibility and availability, and your hopes and aspirations. They will often arise to enable your progress and be encouraged in their own.

The article for which I was interviewed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette came out this morning and I will try to get a link through which it can be read. The point I hoped to make is that if we want craftsmanship we need community. As we develop skills, our communities may grow wider. At this point, my own community due to the sales of my products and publications, my teaching and this blog is rather wide, but it was not always so, and even now, it is the participation in local life, and local community that is most real and offers greatest depth. In order to create a society in which craftsmanship is encouraged and supported as a wide foundation, and to present the widest possible opportunity for our children we need the fabric of narrow deep community to do so.

My simple notion of change is built on the model of progressive education. Start with the interests of the child. The first community is that of the family, then the child is brought through gradual awakening to greater, wider things. Blog reader JD sent photos of his grandchildren in his workshop, showing the projects they had completed together. Such things are the foundation of our future.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, December 30, 2011

community and craftsmanship...

I live at the edge of a small tourist town. Living here at the edge of Eureka Springs, pursuing my career here as a woodworker, and marrying my wife Jean, a public librarian, were the three best decisions I made in my life.

When I moved to Eureka Springs in 1975, it was a small town recently discovered by hippies. Those of us who gathered here found instant community with each other, and with a few older open-minded residents who saw our arrival as a good thing. That sense of community made Eureka a place worth proselytizing about. We were all excited about this place as though we'd discovered paradise. Some were just here to grow pot, but others were here to build lives outside the main direction of things as craftsmen, potters, painters, poets, writers, musicians, storekeepers, teachers and every possible niche one can think of when we think about small town life. Within that matrix of aspirations, we gave aid and comfort to each other. Many of us had grown up in cities where we'd been anonymous. In our midst and welcoming us were nationally known senior artists like Louis and Elsie Freund, Ely De Vescovi, and so many more who opened their homes and hearts to us. As they listened to our aspirations they offered to us a sense of our own personal credibility as though we fit here.

After first trying out as a potter in a town rich in potters, I found my own niche in making small wooden boxes, display cabinets for shops and galleries all up and down Spring Street (most of which can still be found in use today) and a bit of furniture for the homes of artists and friends. Woodworking is on my own personal list of best things because in it, I found the opportunity for life-long learning. Each day there was some new joint to cut, some new skill to master, and it was not just what I could learn in my head each day but in my hands as well. After having found myown place in the community, I called the meeting of artists on the shores of Lake Leatherwood that led to the forming of the Eureka Springs Guild of Artists and Craftspeople. Through along shaggy do story we later morphed that organization into the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. I'm telling you that not to brag, but just to point out that in a small community, one person can truly make a difference, and what we all found here was a small pond in which we could each join forces, offer our best and be encouraged to do so.

I will not attempt to describe what being married to a public librarian has meant for me. And so, rather than make a feeble attempt, let it be known that being in the heart of community, woven in, warp and weft, is a profound experience that too few in this day of upward, downward and cross-lateral mobility know enough about.

The creative work of one man is seldom the craftsmanship of one man alone, but is instead related to the community in which he lives, and the support he or she receives within that community, and the way forward that I am attempting to describe on the entry to the new year is of those things. Craftsmanship and community.

As I reflect back on those early times, my companions in the discovery of this community I see hearts beating on shirt sleeves. We were each filled with deep personal aspirations not having much to do with money, but rather with growth toward fulfillment in deeper things. We were lucky to find each other for support.

These days, I wonder how we can apply this example set by this small community in Arkansas to bring about a transformation in American life. I have this day and one more left in 2011 to spell it out. In your own life and as the best starting point wherever you find yourself:

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

make local...

Yesterday I suggested finding a way forward from the situation we are in as a way of closing out 2011 and greeting the new year, 2012. We are suffering from economic recession that goes on and on with no end in sight. Our homes have lost value in the trillions of dollars. Our schools cannot compete successfully with schools in many other nations. Educators and politicians have pushed for national standards, but those standards and adapting to them have pushed us further behind. Major industries have complained that they have jobs unfilled because of lack of qualified applicants, and here in Arkansas, Whirlpool is shutting down a plant and moving the jobs to Mexico.

Not all on the horizon is so bleak. Reader Tim Holton sent a link to an article about a restoration of a wood shop program in San Francisco. Shop class retooled for future at O'Connell High We are beginning to see efforts at local levels to bring things back.

Yesterday I mentioned widening the narrow path forward. And what I really mean by that is opening all the doors to our children's success. In schools we have very narrow definitions of success. If who you are cannot be easily laid on a spreadsheet of data, you will not measure up and are led to know it. But what if we had so many more ways in which children's successful spirits can be expressed? The arts are one key, and community is the other.

I am curious how many of my readers take full advantage of the communities in which we all live. The idea of local is essential to widening the narrow path toward becoming a nation of craftsmen in its highest sense. Whether we are talking about music or food, or consumer goods the power we afford to others in our communities by listening, hiring, buying and making, are transformative.

René Dubos was a French born American environmental activist who coined the slogan, "Think globally, act locally." And this sage advice applies to nearly all things. Listening to an artist on your iPod should not prevent you from encouraging the musicians in your local pub. The internet and human global connectivity should be inspiring local effort, not diminishing it. But in order for this to be the case, we each must act in the encouragement of others.

The idea of local is at the heart of "progressive" education like what we practice at the Clear Spring School. It should not be thought that progressive and progress within the macrocosm are the same thing. Progressive means movement from the center of the child through a gradual awakening to community and beyond. In so far as each child is unique and each community is unique, the idea of imposing standards of curriculum, standards of measurement and standards of "success" for all children is to neglect the teachers best ally, the child's inquisitive relationship with all that surrounds. It is easy to see how the term progressive has become misunderstood, as it was presented as something "new" as shown in the marvelous video above.

As the last few days of 2011 pass I will continue to greet the new year with ideas on the path forward. I invite my readers to consider how the concepts of local and taking matters into our own hands are exactly the same thing.

In the wood shop, I have been making parts for small boxes and am now in the midst of hundreds of small parts, at various stages in the milling and shaping operations.

At school I am preparing for classes to resume on Tuesday.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Widening a narrow path...

As we close the year 2011 and consider what we wish might come next, and what we might become next, I would like to spend a few days laying out breadcrumbs that might be followed to a new American century of craftsmanship.
"When a man teaches his son no trade, it is as if he taught him highway robbery." Talmud
and to that, I would add, when a man teaches his son or daughter no art, he has blocked the door to the kingdom of heaven.

We all need ways to make an honest living. We each need ways to discover true self. One path fills the larder, the other elevates the soul.

Living in my small town of Eureka Springs offers evidence of a path forward.  I have been lucky to make my living from a thing that I love.  But I have friends whose lives are just as rich as mine, who have dual roles, one more practical and the other in the arts. Cynthia is an APN at our local medical center. When she's not seeing patients, she does incredible oil pastels. Ken serves at a fine restaurant, and plays classical violin. Nick is a carpenter but also a singer/songwriter.  Jim graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts, became a shop keeper and now with 3 stores and a gallery has returned to crafting his own exquisite work. The list here goes on and on, and for the new year, my wish is that for all America, the example served by my own small community could widen the narrow path.

Can you see what's happening here? It is called enrichment. It serves the pocketbook, the soul and the community. These persons, each pursuing both vocation and avocation are not simply community servants, but also have great stature within the community achieved through performance and discipline in the arts.

Doesn't this make you wonder why we would choose to ignore the arts in our nation's schools and lay such extreme emphasis on standardized tests?

As I was driving the the post office this morning, I listened to Performance Today on National Public Radio, and the interview with Charlie Albright, young Harvard pianist, spoke directly to the point of today's post. Albright pointed out that everything he's done has built depth in his study of piano. If he were not so successful a musician he would be describing how music has brought such depth to his engagement in everything else.

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

a plea for skills based learning...

My wife and I enjoyed another day at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and enjoyed introducing out daughter Lucy to our new  favorite area destination. There are some wonderful things about the museum. The collection of early works showing the wilds of our great continent through the eyes of our nation's earliest artists is made more poignant by the lush American wilderness that surrounds the museum itself.

Today I am making more boxes. It is a thing I normally do this time of the year. If you were standing in the shop watching, you might think it is a near mindless operation as I stand at the table saw, making cut after cut, but there is an intense observation going on as the materials is evaluated moment by moment in order to select the best flawless piece of wood for each part.

There are foolish assumptions made about skilled behavior... That it is mindless, That it can be performed without benefit of cognition, and that those who perform it are evidently capable of nothing more.

Years ago, I took a tour of the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago with a college class. The tour guide was careful to explain to us that just because we saw a man with his head down on his desk, he was not "doing nothing," but rather was deeply engaged in thought.

With the current misunderstanding of the qualities of cognition involved in skilled labor, a similar warning should be stated wherever tactile cognition takes place. Just because a man or woman's hands are busy, does not mean their minds are absent, or that their work is absent minded.

There are values of character and intellect that best arise when the hands are busy making things of useful beauty, making music,  or serving others in a myriad of intelligent ways. To leave the earning of skill outside the efforts to reform American education is the greatest foolishness of our age. Skills based learning should be front and center in the debate.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, December 26, 2011


The word skill implies a variety of components. One of these is practice. Another is observation. A third is evaluation. A fourth is reflection. Then there is an investment of time. Ideas may come quick. Skill often takes time.

Did you know that you can develop skill at taking bubble tests that has major impact on results? Back when I was first exposed to bubble tests, I was an elementary school student in Omaha, NE. Later, I took the SAT test in preparation for college, and there was never any thought of practice or test preparation beforehand. Now ACT preparation, SAT prep, GRE prep, training classes and practice tests are big business in all three, and students are promoted or afforded (or denied) major opportunities based on test results. ACT prep alone, to prepare students skills in taking the test is a 4 billion dollar industry not counting the efforts made within schools to raise test scores.

I am not saying that there is an easier/better system for all this. As long as we keep looking for easy ways to measure smarts, there will be a denial of the value of those skills that are hard to measure. How about being able to concentrate through the whole of one's body as one must do in taking a straight shaving off a plank? So many behavioral expressions are cognitive but also connected through the whole of one's experience, not isolated in the brain alone, and these skills and abilities, often described as "noncognitive" are difficult to measure and thence ignored in American education. We are all diminished by their absence. A major portion of a child's interest in learning comes through the development of these real skills. Interest in learning arises through the sense of deeper connection one gets through being involved in real multisensory experience and personal agency within.

Today, my wife and daughter and I are going to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. I'll make a delivery of small boxes as shown above to the museum gift store.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

by the way, happy holidays...

Here in Arkansas, we have been cooking all day. My daughter and I went out for a last minute shopping adventure. I've been making pies, apple and pumpkin. We are set for a holiday feast. I am grateful to have my daughter Lucy home from grad school.

There are those who take offense at those of us who say "season's greetings" or "happy holidays!" in place of Merry Christmas. There is no war against Christmas despite the anger they may feel. There are many of us who may not believe that the story of great faith is exactly as was told in the Bible. For instance, there were no Christmas trees in the Bible. That symbol came through the Christian conquest of pagans. There were no ornaments, no giving of gifts, and no wishing of Merry Christmas. But these are things we have come to do, that we have grown up with and find meaning within.

This is a time for reflection, for being thankful, for giving gifts. Those gifts are best when they come from the heart, not through some obligation imposed by others wishing to control what we think, who we are or what we express of ourselves. Friends have sent me photos of some of the things they've made. Gifts made with love express the very best.

Season's greetings is an inclusive wish, that ALL may find peace, ALL may find joy, and ALL, even the least among us may enter the new year to find it better, that we may each live in better health, be more creative, more successful, more fulfilled.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all women and men.

Make, fix and create...

fakability question...

ETS gives as their reason for not taking "noncognitive" skills into consideration in their wide array of tests like the SAT, and GRE and other more basic tests used throughout education the fact that these "noncognitive" skills cannot be easily measured without running the risk of answers being faked. So, even though they claim to recognize the importance of "noncognitive" skills, they choose to ignore them rather than apply concerted effort toward resolving the matter.
"With a strong justification for developing noncognitive assessments and ETS’s history of involvement with them, why does the organization not offer a full array of noncognitive assessments today? Why is there no noncognitive GRE or SAT subtest? The answer: Many policy makers and scientists are skeptical that noncognitive qualities can be measured reliably and in a valid way. Typically, in both research and operational use, noncognitive qualities are assessed through self-ratings. Examinees are asked questions such as, “Are you exacting in your work?” “Do you get chores done right away?” “Do you keep your emotions under control?” “Do you take time to reflect on things?” There are two problems with these kinds of ratings—the standard is not clear (i.e., relative to whom?), and they are easily faked. In almost any serious discussion of the use of noncognitive assessments, the issue of “fakability” or “coachability” comes up, and this issue is the trump card that thwarts further discussion."
In other words, they know these "noncognitive" skills are important, but they are too hard for them to reliably measure. That they choose to thence ignore these skills creates a state in which they no longer receive the emphasis they deserve. One of the important reasons they acknowledge for using "noncognitive" skills as part of standarized testing is as follows:
"An argument for noncognitive assessments is that they go beyond “academic intelligence” as Robert Sternberg (1985) puts it and tap the full range of qualities that affect and are affected by schooling. But another argument is that using noncognitive assessments may serve to reduce the test score gap, the mean difference in scores between White and Black test takers commonly observed on more narrowly focused cognitive assessments. Research suggests that there is no score gap or a reduced score gap on noncognitive assessments (Sackett, Schmitt, Ellingson, & Kabin, 2001). Combining noncognitive and cognitive test scores in a selection index would result in a reduced overall score gap."
So, in other words they are willing to ignore the full range of skills and they acknowledge the distortion in the testing of black children vs. white children but this doesn't matter enough to ETS to do anything about it. It takes a huge amount of academic arrogance to make such a major adverse impact on American education while being knowledgeable of the harm they inflict, and to thence to do nothing about it because of the vast amount of money they are raking in at the time. Skills actually fall into two convenient categories... those you can easily measure and those you cannot. Measuring one while ignoring the other is distorts the whole fabric of American education.

My own use of the term "noncognitive" is placed in quotes as even ETS recognizes the term, despite their frequent use of it is a misnnomer. They excuse themselves as follows:
"The term noncognitive, although a misnomer, is widely used in psychology and measurement. Other relevant terms are nonacademic, socioaffective, affective-motivational, and personality."

Unlike the realm of high-stakes standardized testing where there all kinds of opportunities for fraud and fakability can and do occur, when you make something from real wood, its truth of its character and intelligence is present for all to see. You cannot fake the cutting of a joint. The grain at the corners of a box was matched with care or it was not. The lid fits or does not. The work expresses care or it does not. So let's not fake our children's educations. Let's give them real things to do that promote real hands-on learning and all the important facets of human character and intellect that arise from it.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, December 23, 2011

cognitive vs. noncognitive part 4...

This morning I delivered a table to a customer. It is made of maple and cherry and was featured in my book Making Elegant Custom Tables. I had kept the table for years, and while I could have sold it on any number of occasions, I was waiting for a special home for it... The one to which it was delivered this morning.

It seems that in the minds of ETS and the American psychological community, human intelligence deserving the term "cognitive" is that which can be most easily displayed by filling in bubbles on paper with number 2 pencil. But even dogs have a way of knowing things. There are certainly other ways that human cognitive capacity can be observed. For instance, when my mother was a young first year kindergarten teacher in Ft. Dodge, Iowa, her classroom was in the basement of the school building with windows that led right out onto the playground. The bathrooms were upstairs, and so it was a challenge directing her children of which she had 30 at a time, through the daily routines. The windows offered the children a chance of escape (which they sometimes did) and at the top of the stairs on the way to the bathrooms was a long rope hanging down with a sign attached that said "pull." You can imagine the challenge facing a first year kindergarten teacher... Sixty kindergarten students total in morning and afternoon classes, windows luring children to even more interesting activities, while children learned their first words including the word "pull." The long rope on the way upstairs to the bathroom was attached to the fire bell, its sign inviting the demonstration of newly developed cognition and all the senior teachers throughout the building were watching to see how Miss Bye would handle the strain.

There was a time in America when teachers were trusted to observe and measure evidence of their student's learning, of cognitive development and growth. They were trained for such things, not just in the narrow confines of reading and in math, but in the development of the whole child. These days, 30 years after Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind and his presentation of the many ways in which we are smart, for us to have undermined the traditional role of teachers, and to have narrowed our assessments so as to marginalize the many forms of not-so-easy to measure cognition is ridiculous, destructive and absurd.

If you've been reading the last few days, you'll know that I took umbrage at the deliberate use of the acknowledged misnomer, noncognitive by the testing industry to describe those skills that are are difficult to measure. There are a wide range of them that roughly correlate with Howard Gardner's list of human intelligences. All involve cognition. They include music, dance, and the visual and tactile arts. They ARE expressions of human intelligence, though not so easy to measure with standardized tests. And I was asked, how would I describe the difference between those testable forms of cognition and those not so easily tested. To be completely honest and to avoid the repetitive use of the misnomer noncognitive, and to avoid opening other cans of worms, like "academic vs. nonacademic" the testing services should state, "We test those components of cognitive skill that are easy for us to test." It would be honest. It might humble the industry to be so honest and save American education at the same time.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

to be fair...

As pointed out by UUupdater in a comment on last night's blog post, Cognitive vs. noncognitive part 2..., I should note that the article from ETS that incited my ire over the issue of cognitive vs. noncognitive skills, was attempting to point out some of the shortfalls of the current methodology of standardized testing. In addition, it did point out in  a footnote that the term which it used consistently throughout the report, "noncognitive" is a misnomer, in other words, a term which suggests an interpretation that is known to be untrue. That the report then chose to persist in using it despite the term's perpetuation of a serious misunderstanding prevalent in the halls of academia... that skilled trades and performance art are noncognitive activities and thus of significantly lesser importance than those matters of cognition that can be most easily measured, illustrates the depth at which the industry bias exists.

I know for some, I may seem like Dorothy's dog Toto barking at the Wizard, but that Wizard and standardized testing have been allowed to become all powerful in American education. It is past time to draw back the curtain and reveal that there are other skills of hand and heart that are important in our children's educations, and furthermore in their lives...

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

cognitive vs. noncognitive part 2...

Materials published by ETS, Educational Testing Services offhandedly suggesting a difference between cognitive and noncognitive skills is damning in that it tells of the distinct bias they sustain thus disparaging the value of the skilled trades, engineering, hands-on learning, and all those components of American education that don't lend themselves to easy measurement on standardized tests. To portray only those skills they measure on their tests as cognitive, while describing those more difficult to measure as noncognitive, they display their own ignorance and indifference to what it takes to craft beautiful and useful objects or to participate in a myriad of other non-academic skilled professions. You can read part one, yesterday's post here. I am uncertain what to do here. I feel like Dorothy's dog Toto barking at the foot of the Wizard. ETS is too big for one man, a woodworker in Arkansas to challenge for their arrogance. So rising up against the testing industry by myself is fool hardy at best. But to throw around terms like cognitive and noncognitive thus disparaging the actual cognition required in the mastery of not so easily measured skills is an abomination if not a crime against intelligent humanity. They should be taking every possible step to mitigate the harm they do.

Is music noncognitive? Is dance noncognitive? Is woodworking noncognitive? I would invite any of these ETS turkeybuzzards to join me for just one day in the woodshop. I (with the help of their own hands) could teach them a few things about cognition.

Make, fix and create...

cognitive vs. noncognitive...

I'm following up on yesterday's post. Evidently in the psych world, the distinction between cognitive and noncognitive, as absurd as it may seem is a real one (to them). Google "noncognitive" and see what I mean. You will find it referenced seriously in many scholarly articles all over the place as in this paper at MIT, or the following from ETS, the world's foremost testing service:
ETS is known for its work on the SAT®, Graduate Record Examinations® (GRE®), National Assessment of Educational Progress, The Praxis SeriesTM, and other tests of knowledge and cognitive ability.

But does ETS have assessments of noncognitive qualities — persistence, dependability, motivation, the ability to work with others, intercultural sensitivity? Do these matter? Do they affect success in school or in the workplace?

Are Noncognitive Skills Important?

They apparently are important in industry. Employers report valuing job stability and dependability, and they often use noncognitive assessments in employee hiring decisions, for good reason. Meta-analyses (analyses of the combined results from multiple studies) have shown that noncognitive measures provide a 20% improvement over cognitive ability measures in predicting training success and job performance(Schmidt & Hunter, 1998).
You can download the ETS pdf here. It is rife with references to noncognitive skill. The interesting thing to me of course is the absurdity. First, what is skill and how can it be noncognitive? How in the world did they arrive at the conclusion that skills other than reading and math are not demanding of congnitive engagement? Are these skills for the mindless or what? Development of skill, even those that cannot be so easily measured as those in math or reading, require feedback, observation and reflection which are clearly cognitive activities unless you've been trapped in an academic or institutional environment so long as to have lost touch.

It is completely amazing to me that we have turned American education over to the testing industry, and yet we can see so clearly that they are fundamentally flawed, misunderstanding skill and expressing academic bias against it... unless that skill is one of filling out bubbles in number 2 pencil.

Some things like reading and math skills are easy to measure. There are skills and qualities of character that are not so easy to chart. But to presume one set to be cognitive and the other not, is arrogance of the worst kind. And that arrogance has been damaging to American education. It seems that those difficult to measure skills of heart, and skills of hand that matter most to our children's futures have been assessed as having no value in American schooling. Take matters into your own hands.

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

non-measurable qualities of success...

Our local school officials are pleased that standardized test scores are on the rise. According to an article in our local Carroll County Newspaper, "Carroll County schools were among several listed for improved test scores on the Benchmark and End-of-Course (EOC) exams given this year." Unfortunately, there is no direct correlation between what the tests measure and the qualities of hand, mind and heart required for student long term success. Others on the horizon are looking at what they've termed "non-cognitive," behavioral or emotional predictors of success. According to Paul R. Sackett, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, the greatest predictors of student success are "conscientiousness (e.g. work ethic, dependability and perseverance) agreeableness (teamwork, emotional stability) and various kinds of extroversion and openness to new experience." Those are qualities that don't show up on standardized tests.

I have become suspicious of the use of terms like "non-cognitive". The implication is that there are elements of human behavior that do not require thought. For instance, the waiter serving you tonight's dinner might be assumed mindless by those who've fallen on the less comprehending side of the academic divide. And yet he deserves only to be considered mindless if he has forgotten nearly everything in delivering what you've ordered.

There are two areas of cognition, involving the left and right hemispheres of the human brain. Standardized testing measures only that which comes from one side, and we have to wonder when American education will remember the whole child which cannot be fully educated without music, the arts, crafts, dance, creative interpersonal problem solving, play, athletics and hands-on learning.

It will be interesting to discover down the road many years from now whether the teach-to-the-test experiment will pay off in leading children to become adults who have some drive toward their own success. But I strongly suspect, based on what we know of the left-right brain divide through study of other species, that we will have neglected the most important of that which we as responsible teachers and adults have been entrusted to impart.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, December 19, 2011

thrashing wildly through the woods...

Those of us who live in Arkansas on regular basis come into contact with those who've never been in the woods before, never floated a stream, never walked in the dark under a starry sky, and it seems remarkable, unbelievable to us that there can be those among us who have never been so touched by real life.

Back in the earliest days of the manual arts movement in the US, John Runkle at MIT, Calvin Woodward at Washington University and others had noticed that since so many of their students were no longer growing up on farms and were thus no longer engaged in hands-on problem solving from such early ages, something must be done to bring their engineering and math students up to snuff. When thumbs are left twiddling, little sense of real life is discovered. That sense of real life is the foundation for all subsequent real learning. Runkle and Woodward started woodworking education at their prestigious universities to bring real-world hands-on learning to their students in engineering and math.

Then (as now) we had the problem of schools which Eugene Davenport, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Illinois from 1888 to 1911 described as follows:
Schools have much to do to compensate for the fact that they take the children out of real life for a period of years into an artificial world that we call the school house. They come out of it "long" in information to be sure, but they have lost a subtle something that comes only from personal experience in real life during the days of development. We are coming at last to realize that there is more than one avenue to a successful life, that the way by the schoolhouse may not be the best for all people, and that whether it is the best will depend upon whether the school gives a true or a distorted picture of life. Is the mirror of life which the schools hold up a true one? Is it badly concave or convex at any point? If so, then that concavity or convexity needs correction.

The farm and the shop and the work of the household have a powerful influence in developing executive ability and the power of initiative quite independent of acquisition of knowledge, and if we make the mistake of substituting mere accumulation of facts for this sort of development, and sacrifice the one for the other, it is more than an open question if on the whole we have not lost more than we have gained.
I am reminded of Felix Adler's essay on the value of manual training delivered in Buffalo, NY 1888, at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. He described a meeting with an aging poet* who turned to him and said,
"That is all very well. I like your factories and your wealth; but tell me, do they turn out men down your way?"
And Adler asks, "Is this civilization of ours turning out men — manly men and womanly women?" Those are the values of character that come from hands-on learning that our schools neglect and that our children so desperately need. Do you think those experts looking for what are essentially non-measurable qualities of success will know where to look for them or how to create opportunities for them in our nation's schools?

I have a friend Ernie who is a watercolor artist. He also runs a float service on a local river. He is an expert paddler, having survived the worst of river conditions and water rescues. You could think of him as a "man's man". He told me about the tourists he meets. One thought that that the river went in circles, that he could put his family in canoes here and after a wonderful day on the river take out there, pointing immediately upstream. Another customer after hours on the river assumed he had missed his takeout point, abandoned his canoe and then spent hours thrashing wildly through the woods. He emerged from the woods looking like a scratched and half-naked madman.

I am also reminded of my friend Chon who had taken 50+ year old guests on a night walk with flashlights into a meadow. They were terrified to turn out the lights and to experience the dark night star-strewn sky for the first time in their lives.

So what the heck are we doing in American education? John Dewey had asked that schools become engaged in real life... That schools not be artificial constructs that distort children's understanding. And yet, that is what they have become. And so much more so in our present time.

Take matters into your own hands. Help your children to:

Make, fix and create...

*When asked about Adler's quote of the "aging poet," Walt Whitman said, "I guess that's me: and it is very kindly and friendly, isn't it?"

Sunday, December 18, 2011

power of making...

Victoria and Albert Museum has an exhibit called "Power of Making" and my readers might find as much interest in what is said about making as the objects themselves included in the exhibit. For instance,
"Thinking by making"
"Many people think that craft is a matter of executing a preconceived form or idea, something that already exists in the mind or on paper. Yet making is also an active way of thinking, something which can be carried out with no particular goal in mind. In fact, this is a situation where innovation is very likely to occur.

Even when making is experimental and open-ended, it observes rules. Craft always involves parameters, imposed by materials, tools, scale and the physical body of the maker. Sometimes in making, things go wrong. An unskilled maker, hitting the limits of their ability, might just stop. An expert, though, will find a way through the problem, constantly unfolding new possibilities within the process."
I take pleasure in the things I have made. I also take pleasure in what I've learned in making them. The new wooden hinge on the recipe box is an example. I had visualized how it would work and then made it. And in that is a sense of agency that psychologists will tell you is essential to human feelings of well-being.
This was the first wooden hinge of this design for me. Having done one, I can visualize now how to further refine the process and will do so before writing an article about how it is made. One of the things that worked for me in making this box was a decision that came late in the game, that of extending the hinge beyond the ends of the box. It is evidence of the thinking process that takes place during the process of making even the most simple of objects. The effect was to dramatize the wooden hinge making it an even stronger element of design.

In this month's Wooden Boat Magazine, the "Getting Started in Boats" supplement is by Joe Youcha describing how building a skiff teaches math. Joe runs a program for inner city youth to build boats at the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. The article is a wonderful example of what some of us know by heart: that we learn best, we learn most effortlessly, and we retain learning longest when that learning is hands-on doing real things. Like building a boat...

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Folks are now talking about the need for people to get back into making things, but the new high-tech way. High-tech seems to be an idea with sex appeal for those who've never made anything before in their lives and are slightly afraid of breaking a nail. Or those who are slightly afraid of the long hours one needs to invest to develop skill.

This movement (if it is indeed a movement) is called HTSP, or "high-tech self-providing," and is described in this web page: New work centers and HTSP by Juliet Schor.

Can you imagine do-it-all fabricator machines in place of our TV's? Instead of watching TV at night, we could watch our very own small trash cans and other self created plastic objects being molded, trimmed and spit out the fabricator's side door in a variety of fashion colors. Because these are production machines in a non-production environment, we could set up Amway like customer marketing schemes to bring in just enough profit to keep feed our addiction to the making of HTSP stuff.

I am reminded of the Styron® crystals my dad brought home for us to play with in the 60's. They would melt at temperatures reached in our home oven into whatever shapes we could imagine and make molds for. My dad's idea was that big 100 lb sacks of Styron® direct from Dow® could be repackaged and sold at a huge profit through craft supply outlets. In using this wonderful product there were  gasses and fumes emitted that turned our house into an industrial danger zone. Fortunately my dad gave up on the idea of marketing home-crafted plastic products before any of us were permanently damaged or deranged, and before health related law-suits began pouring in.  We have love affairs with our ink jet printers, don't we?  We can buy one cheap and then buy expensive ink cartridges for it until its planned obsolescence. The same thing will be true of these devices that are suggested to turn our lives into creative bliss. 3-D thermal object printers? Give me a happy hammer and a cheerful saw and some real non-toxic wood any day of the week.

Out of concern for the health and happiness of others I would propose a different scene. I call it LTSP or "low-tech self-providing." Imagine if we were to take a fresh look at the pleasure and satisfaction that can come from self-supplying goods for our own consumption, but instead of insisting on high-tech banishment of skilled hands, we were to take a low tech approach using traditional tools. In honor of the past and the long heritage of intelligent craftsmanship, we might also call it Hëmsloyd. For that is what they have traditionally called cottage crafts in Sweden.

Yes, the idea of just self-fabricating stuff without skill is appealing to our generations all abuzz with high-tech devices. But we must not overlook the merits of doing things the old hard way that lifted our spirits, raised our intelligence and put a polish on our sense of self.

ABC News did a survey claiming that:
If every American spent $64 on something made in America, we could create 200,000 jobs right now.
That might sound like a lot to spend until we heard that the average American spends $700 on Christmas or holiday gifts.
So where will you spend your money this year?
Don't wait, make something beautiful and useful today and join what might become a growing legion of the LTSP, more commonly called craftsmen.

The photos above are of small cabinets made during the filming of my DVD Building Small Cabinets. These were all made with relatively low-tech tools, the skilled way. And you can spend wonderful hours making fine furnishings for your own home and reduce your carbon footprint at the same time. For some reason the high-tech folks don't seem to know that.

Make, fix and create...

Making wooden hinges...

Open, the wooden hinge is attractive.
Yesterday I made a prototype wooden hinge as a sample for the editors of Fine Woodworking. In order to keep articles coming through magazines I have to keep busy pitching proposals, and in this case, the editors wanted to actually see a box made with the technique I was describing to them. My idea is to write an article showing at least two ways in which wooden hinges can be made, and I know from teaching that wooden hinges always interest my students just as they will subscribers to Fine Woodworking Magazine.

The box shown in the photos is a "recipe box" made of black locust. The size is intended to offer the space required to hold recipe cards. The box is not finished. I will do additional sanding and apply a Danish oil finish.

Yesterday's post mentioned Calvin Woodward's "alphabet of tools." If there is an alphabet of tools, there would also be a library of techniques, and a whole language of form in the making of useful things.

The idea of an alphabet of tools was probably not original to Woodward.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) had created an "alphabet of form" breaking down the patterns required to observe, draw, illustrate and design that I had described in an earlier blog post. He also suggested that an "alphabet of practical abilities" should be designed so that manual work and physical exercises could be broken down into elements, and teaching schemes devised to develop skill.

You can see Pestalozzi's ideas more fully developed in the work of Victor Della Vos and Otto Salomon who formulated the early programs of manual arts instruction. Pestalozzi's alphabet of form has proved more difficult to use. But children with words alone and no tools with which to commence real learning are deprived of their creative capacity. Is that the world we would consciously choose for them?

Make, fix and create...

Friday, December 16, 2011

gaining an alphabet of tools

The following is from Calvin M. Woodward's book, the Manual Training School, and outlines his vision for American education.
This distinguishing feature of a polytechnic school, next to the kind of knowledge it aims to give, lies in its method of combining theory with practice. Not only should a polytechnic school aim to give instruction in the scientific principles theoretically involved in every important branch of industry, but it should not be satisfied until the student himself is sufficiently familiar with the details of the processes in question, and sufficiently skilled in the necessary manipulations, to enable him to illustrate these principles himself. These two things characterize the ideal technical school, and mark the educational progress of this generation: First, the things studied and taught are of immediate importance and of intrinsic value; second, one is not supposed to understand a process or an experiment till he has performed it. You know how it is in music. I may be quite familiar with the mathematical and physical theories of music. I may have studied with Helmholz the wonderful mechanism of the ossicles of the ear. I may be deeply read in the aesthetics of harmony and thorough-bass. I may even be able to explain the exact difference between a euharmonic and a common organ. And yet, if I can not play, I am no musician. Moreover, this playing on an organ is not a manual accomplishment merely. The brain is more concerned than the fingers. It is so in every thing. What avails your knowledge of photography unless you can take a good picture, and of what worth is your engineering if your bridge will not carry its own weight, and you have designed an impossible engine? None but the wearer can know where the shoe pinches, and none but a man who has had some practice is prepared for practical difficulties. Prof. Tyndall says, "Half of our book-writers describe experiments that they never made, and their descriptions often lack both force and truth. No matter how clever and conscientious they may be, their written words can not supply the place of actual observation," and he might have added, "of actual manipulation." Theory and practice, then, must go hand in hand; and, in order that the practice may be adequate to the theory, the hand and eye and head must receive previous careful training,—the hand in the use of instruments and tools; the eye in measuring distances and angles, in detecting peculiarities of form, and in observing the details of a construction; the head in a knowledge of the common properties of the commonest material substances, such as wood, stone, iron, glass, etc. The hand is a wonderful organ, and capable of performing vastly more than it is usually made to do. The same is true of the eye. Close observation is a habit which few acquire.


Children should early be taught to use, as well as to beware of, sharp tools. Just as every boy should be taught to swim, to row, to ride and groom a horse, so he should be taught to use the ax, the saw, the plane, and the file. Even a little skill in the use of these tools is invaluable. No one possessing manual dexterity of any kind fails to find abundant opportunity for its use.

I do not think I overestimate the value of physical strength, dexterity, and skill. It is in vain to assert the dignity of labor. Unless it has something in it besides dignity, we are not likely to be very zealous in seeking it. But skill we delight in. It is the exercise of skill which gives zest to all our games and sports, and removes the curse of Adam. There is not a person before me possessed of unusual skill, — I care not whether it be in handling the carpenter's ax or the painter's brush, in playing the organ or in shooting game, in driving horses or in sailing a boat, in making bread or in fitting a garment,—who is not conscious of a feeling of gratification and pride in consequence. Carlyle says in his Sartor Resartus‎, "Two men I honor, and no third: First, the toil-worn craftsman," etc. It is obvious that it is the craft that lie honors, and not the toil.

I therefore plead for a more extended and more systematic physical [manual] education. It is the best aid towards securing a wholesome intellectual culture, and it is the only means for making that culture of practical use. The world judges and rates us according to what we can do; and as an accomplished gymnast never loses his presence of mind, whether hanging by one foot or turning in mid-air, so a well-trained engineer is rarely at a loss. An acquaintance of mine, a young man well trained in both the theory and use of tools, and accustomed to do things, chanced to pass, in the city of New York, a gang of workmen endeavoring to move an immense iron safe. The unwieldy mass had partially slipped from their grasp, and all efforts to bring it again under control seemed to fail. Taking in the situation at a glance, my friend stepped forward and assumed the command. Clearly and without hesitation he gave his orders; promptly and willingly the men obeyed. In a moment the safe was well in hand, and expeditiously moved to its place. As the young engineer turned to go, a gentleman stopped him and said, "Young man, I will give you three thousand dollars a year if you will enter my employ and take the charge of moving our safes." Besides saying that the skill thus displayed was gained by study of the strength of materials and the mechanical powers, coupled with the actual use of tools in his own hands, I ought to add, perhaps, that the blunt offer was politely declined.


But the acquisition of this desirable manual skill requires workshops and tools and teachers; and, as such essentials are not in general to be had at home or at a common school, the work must be done at a polytechnic school. Hence, at the earliest possible moment, in the lowest class, students must enter the workshop. From the bench of the carpenter they should go to the lathe. Wood-turning is an art requiring great judgment and skill, and any one accomplished in it will testify to its great practical value. After wood, come brass, iron, and steel turning, fitting, and finishing; then the forge, where each should learn welding and tempering. This is the alphabet of tools. Next will come their legitimate use in the manufacture of patterns for castings, in the construction of model frames, trusses, bridges, and roofs; in the cutting of screws and nuts with threads of various pitch; and in the manufacture of spur and bevel wheels, with epicycloid and involute teeth. This shop-work should extend through the entire course of four years, varying somewhat according to the professional course selected.
Professor Woodward was the professor of mathematics and engineering who is considered the father of manual arts in America. We have an alphabet of letters that we push in schools whether the children are ready or not. We have an extreme sense of urgency about that. But if we have no alphabet of tools, what will children do with the many words they can can spell? And will they have any deeper sense of understanding?

Hinge made of hardwood dowels and brass rod.
This afternoon, I have been working in the shop, putting finishing touches on small cabinets in preparation for a show that begins in January in Little Rock. I've also begun playing with another type of wooden hinge shown in the photo above.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

disgusting and despicable...

A man or woman can lie with words, create verisimilitude capable of  deceiving a half billion fools, but a thing made is either well crafted so that all can perceive its truth and that of its maker, or poorly made, so that all can see the truth of its shameful bluster and wasteful effect.

I have nearly given up on watching American politics for the shame of it. Where are the truthful makers when we need them most? Where are those who have a well worn grip on reality? You will not find them on Wall Street or in the halls of congress. Usually when ideological principles become the main thing for political parties, you can count on real people being cut short. When we gave up on craftsmanship in American education, we gave up on the principles and values of craftsmanship as they can be applied to nearly everything else.

Fortunately there are matters we can take into our own hands. There are matters of personal integrity that can learned through the process of making simple things. Get a grip.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

today in the woodshop at CSS...

Children from Clear Spring making our annual delivery of toys.

Ian's marvelous wooden truck and example that inspired it.

Today we visited our local food bank to deliver toys that our Clear Springs School children made for holiday distribution. Then the first, second and third grade students had their last wood shop before the holiday break. Ian finished his marvelous wooden truck which was inspired by a children's toy truck loaned to the wood shop by our art teacher.

Make, fix and create...

into the not so vast scheme of things...

I have a small Norwegian box called a tine or cheese box that my great grandmother used to carry her personal precious things from Norway to the US in 1864. She was 11 years old at the time. Those familiar with Norwegian handcrafts can examine it and know that it came from the particular small town from which my mother's family came. The patterns are there in the Rosemaling. The method of work is there that reflects the culture from which it and my great grandmother arose at nearly the same time. When my mother was a small child, the bentwood box was where family photos were kept. When my grandmother died, the box came to my mother empty, the photos having been divided and shared. The box, missing parts, and having suffered indignities of repair is an object that tells a great deal about an earlier time. For instance, the cheese box belonging to my great grandmother would have been made by someone known to her. But the things in our own lives have become anonymous, ubiquitous, detached from their human makers, and thus of so much less value.

We have gone from a time in which we would have had a few precious things to lives filled with too many, and they have each declined in value. As a culture, we browse far and wide for our collection of things, but they are made no more meaningful to us as a result.

Can you see how when a person might commission work, or be on the other end as maker, relationships are woven that encompass and sustain the object made, making it of greater value? As each object becomes reflective of striving, and humanly care, it can become symbolic of so very much more... invested with human love, creative capacity,  and aspirations toward humanly perfection.

And so in the scheme of things, things once brought us together and now hold us apart, as we are often overwhelmed and left disconnected by them. To quote Wordsworth, "getting and spending have laid waste our powers." That, however, is an easy thing to fix by taking matters of making into our own hands.

Today the first, second and third grade students at the Clear Spring School will be making Christmas ornaments, and we will make our annual delivery of kid-made toys to the local food bank for holiday distribution. It seems that the ones most impressed with the toys our children have made are not the children of the poor but the older men and women who still remember the power of having made something themselves.

My great grandmother's tine is shown in the photo above.

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Liberty Tool and the importance for all to make...

There is a great message here:
The great idealistic notion from the Reagan administration that shaped our American economy is that if the rich had more money, it would trickle down to the poor as the rich engaged the poor to develop and express skill and create beauty. But if the rich have learned to have no sense of creative design, and have earned no understanding of the ways that craftsmanship lifts all boats, all persons within a culture to greatness, they spend money on themselves, not setting others to work in the making of useful beauty to thus arise in character and quality through such acts.

Sotheby's is having a record year as the rich bid up prices on antiquities and art of certified market value. Market value is the only thing so many rich people have been taught to understand. It seems to be a great time for dead craftsmen and their work. And so this is a sequel to yesterday's post on furniture making.

Children of all classes and from all income levels and particularly those in positions of entitlement need to learn the values that are acquired from working with their hands. And yet, we cannot expect a groundswell of understanding to arise for this issue without the participation of all those who know that great meaning can arise through great making. The following is from Otto Salomon:
"Persons not manually trained, generally regard the products of manual labor at less than their real value. They think it much more difficult to solve a mathematical problem than to make a table. It is not an easy thing to make a parcel-pin or a pen-holder with accuracy, and when students have done these things they will be the better able to estimate comparatively the difficulty of making a table or chair; and what perhaps is of still greater importance, they will become qualified to decide between what is good and what is bad work, and thus avoid the misfortunes which befall the ignorant and credulous through the impositions of knaves."
But the matter is even worse now than what Salomon describes. So many from all sectors of society have so little sense of what it takes to create, and have not learned that craftsmanship is the foundation of human culture. As our economy fades, those who have power and those who do not have little to do but stand idly by with twiddling thumbs.

I assume that if you are reading here you know better than that.
"When a man teaches his son no trade, it is as if he taught him highway robbery." Talmud
We have witnessed that very robbery taking place in the halls of congress and in the financial industry.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, December 12, 2011

Furniture making

I had an interview yesterday with a writer from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette newspaper on the subject of furniture making. A couple of my friends who are also furniture makers had suggested that she contact me. There aren't many professional furniture makers in the state despite our abundance of beautiful woods. She wanted to know why.

First, it can be a hard way to make a living. Homeowners can buy what they want at a price they can afford from any number of suppliers foreign and domestic. It takes plenty of imagination for most customers to walk into furniture stores and choose ready-made things that will look nice in their home. When it comes to having something made by a craftsman, it will most likely cost more money, the customer will have to wait for it, there are no exact guarantees that it will work the way they've conceived it, and most customers don't have quite the visual imagination to know how it will look. Most are so used to thinking in words, not pictures, and will have great difficulty applying their imaginations to how a custom-made piece of furniture will fit their home or office decor.

It can be hard for a craftsman to sell enough work to keep in business and get good at making furniture. I was reminded of Joe Doster, one of the furniture makers who had given my name to the reporter. For years, Joe and I sold our work at the same craft shows. He would travel with a truckload of furniture that he hoped to sell in addition to the cutting boards he made. I would always travel with a piece of furniture or two along with my boxes just to let my customers know that I could do so much more. Loading work in and out of exhibit halls is work. Keeping customers aware of our skills as furniture makers was a challenge. Even with all the shows, taking time away from our wood shops, few would know that our skills were available, and selling fine furniture at craft shows did not work for for either of us.

There is an upside. From the craftsman's perspective there are few occupations offering more potential for growth. For customers, there can be no better chance at making their home environment unique and uniquely expressive of personal relationship with fine craftsmanship and materials. Imagine having furniture made from real woods that were grown in your own state or community instead of particle board. A few still care that there is a difference.

But here we come to the crux. Commissioning work from a real live craftsman in a customer's community, fosters growth within that community. Ask a craftsman to make something unique and of great value, and you've asked that craftsman to arise to his or her highest standards, greatest creativity and to a lofty place within human culture.

Perhaps we've all had the experience of being in a major city where buildings are no longer crafted with such care as they once were and seeing beggars in the street. That is the choice we made by going cheap and neglecting craftmanship.

Comenius (1590-1652) was the first great theorist of education. He said, "We give form to ourselves and to our materials at the same time." In other words, the maker of beautiful and useful things busily shapes him or herself at precisely the same time. Thus the woman with paint and brush becomes the artist, the potter at the wheel, hands wet with clay, a craftsman, and in the vast scheme of humanity there are no greater values than those expressed through the arts. It is an alchemy of the truest sort... turning lead lives into the purest gold.

People gripe that they see a dearth of values in our nation and within our communities. We spend our dollars in other countries and understand that our commerce in foreign lands may lift their poor to higher standards, but we have no shared notion that the same principle works amongst our own. As we've given up on craftsmanship in our cities and towns, we've given up on the effort to arise as a culture of caring folks. We were once a nation of craftsmen. Now we are a nation of consumers, and the great pity is that there are some who do not know the difference or care that there is one.

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

the debate over cursive...

They're still talking about whether or not cursive should still be taught in schools. Many states have already cut out just about all things that require the non-keyboardian use of the hands. With pressures on standardized testing, and trying to squeeze maximum value from our teaching staff, our schools have been dismasted. Politicians and administrators hack away at the rigging and let the ropes trail behind in an angry sea. As a society we are deeply engaged in a transfer of intellect from the mind and hand to our machines. The process makes a huge volume of human knowledge instantly accessible for our amusement, but leaves us unable to contribute anything real or of real value. This article in the Baltimore Sun, Writings on the wall for school cursive courses tells a bit about the ongoing story. Who needs to write with some physical semblance of skill or beauty when you can type or rely on voice recognition software to tell your tale? Who needs to sign documents when you could scan a retina, or spit to have your DNA scanned, analyzed and affixed?

We are in a process of losing fundamental human creative techniques and expressive capacities, just as when the pioneers reached the Rocky Mountains and threw precious heirlooms off the backs of their wagons to ease their climb to the top. Nowadays significant elements of human culture are being tossed off the backs of our wagons for the climb to the top of a digital divide. The hope is that as we arrive at a promised digital land, cursive and all other creative things requiring skilled hands will have no longer have use.

Today I will have an interview with a reporter from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette about furniture making. Will anyone be interested in such a thing? Can't they just live their lives as avatars swirling around among tiny screens? As avatars they can choose digital furnishings at no cost, no real wood or effort or skill required. On the other hand and at the risk of sounding crazy, I suggest we engage our fingers in exploring things that are not flat and have texture other than glass. One landscape is far richer than the other. If you are bothering to read here, I suspect you know which.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

15,015 hours in school...

K. Anders Ericsson, is a Swedish psychologist at Florida State University, who came up with the 10,000 hour rule on the attainment of mastery. The rule is understood to apply to a wide range of practices and was made popular through Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers... The rule can be applied to writing code on a computer, athletics, dance, or music, woodworking, art, and so many things that offer the opportunity to earn and express mastery. Anders Ericsson's article in the Harvard Business Review can be found here, or a pdf download here.
"Back in 1985, Benjamin Bloom, a professor of education at the University of Chicago, published a landmark book, Developing Talent in Young People, which examined the critical factors that contribute to talent. He took a deep retrospective look at the childhoods of 120 elite performers who had won international competitions or awards in fields ranging from music and the arts to mathematics and neurology. Surprisingly, Bloom’s work found no early indicators that could have predicted the virtuosos’ success. Subsequent research indicating that there is no correlation between IQ and expert performance in fields such as chess, music, sports, and medicine has borne out his findings. The only innate differences that turn out to be significant— and they matter primarily in sports—are height and body size.

So what does correlate with success? One thing emerges very clearly from Bloom’s work: All the superb performers he investigated had practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years. Later research building on Bloom’s pioneering study revealed that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise people achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born."
All of this presents a rather frightening scenario for the future of American culture and economy. We have no innate claim to excellence or superiority, and if we give up our inclination toward hard work and long practice we will make very little of ourselves.

Last night I began wondering how many hours children spend in school and what they learn from it. Bear with me as I do the math... Nine months with 4 weeks per month and with 3 weeks off for breaks equals 33 weeks. Thirty-three weeks times 5 days per week times 7 hours per day equals 1155 hours per year. Kindergarten through 12 grade equals 13 years which times 1155 hours equals 15,015 hours in school. Children in preschool have even more hours. Those hours are enough time to attain mastery in one thing, and half-mastery in another and yet there is not much chance of mastery of even one thing in sight.

They say that children facing employment in the next few years may have as many as 5 to 8 jobs in a 10-15 year period. What does this all say about the rewards of accomplishing difficult and demanding things that reinforce one's sense of self? Will there be opportunities to get really good at something? Even just one small thing?

What children most often learn in school is that they do not like school. And while 10,000 hours may be enough time to become world class in something, 15,015 hours could be enough to enter to make masters in boredom and mediocrity.

In our homes, we present children with wonderful technologies that entertain, and make easy. So again let's do the math. In an average day at home, each child sits in front of a TV or computer screen 3-5 hours (or more). Three hours times 365 days a year times beginning at age 3 equals 16,425-27,375 screen-time hours by the time a child reaches 18 years of age. That would be enough time to get really good at something. How about basketball or the clarinet, or wood turning... Mastery of one thing, and half-mastery of another?

1/16 in. brass stock is perfect for forming small cabinet door pulls
Yesterday we finished the filming of my DVD Building Small Cabinets which will be released in March, so now I can do all the finishing touches on the cabinets which will go in a show at the Historic Arkansas Museum starting in January. What you see in the photo above are brass pulls I'm making for a small white oak display cabinet. To bend the curves to create finger grips, I used the DuoMite bending jig shown in the photo below. Next I will need to cut these pulls to length, drill and countersink mounting holes, sand and polish the edges smooth and mortise the edges of the doors for them to fit.
The Duo-Mite bending jig is used to bend
precise curves in brass or steel stock.
After rounding the edges, I drill mounting holes.
After polishing the pulls are ready to install.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, December 09, 2011

what difference does it make???

Some of my readers may wonder what difference it makes whether human intellect first arose through the use of the hands or through man's verbal-linguistic capacity. That is the current argument going on between followers of Noam Chomsky and those who are exploring the roots of human intelligence in the use of the hands. It is actually an interesting intellectual battle which rests upon the presumed supremacy of the academic mind. If we knew more about the development of intellect, that understanding could alter our expectations as to what children should be doing in school. Is it enough that they be taught reading and math? Or should they be instructed in other things, like art, laboratory science, music and wood shop. This last sentence was in the form of a question, but one posed without a question mark, as I believe we all know what the answer should be.

If every aspect of human intellect arose through our capacity for speech, then reading ought to be enough to fill the bill. But many of the greatest minds point to the wide range of activities through which human intellect is developed and expressed. If we wanted to encourage the wide range of intellect and full development of our children's minds, our schools would be workshops humming with music, noise, self-directed developmental activities of all kinds, all well beyond the capacity of standardized testing to record.

One of the things that we find in schools is that the activities are made for one hand or the other, with the right being the preferred hand. And as the left (or right) is neglected, left untrained for much more than holding the paper in place as the dominant hand holds the pencil or pen, we are missing out on important components of brain integration that lead to human intuition, or in German, fingerspitzengefühl, which means having the appearance that all knowledge is at the tips of one's fingers. It is no coincidence that this term for the full expression of human intuition would be described in the language of the hands.

When thinking of human intelligence we rarely think of human intuition as an expression of it. German Field Marshal Rommel, the "dessert Fox" was described by as having fingerspitzengefühl as he eluded the British in North Africa, but his feat was not a matter of divine intervention but one of integration of the two hemispheres of his own brain. Through the integration of his left and right hemispheres he was able to maintain what appeared to be an extrasensory grasp of the minute details and a simultaneous sense of the whole range of battle. Of course you could say this is just woodworker's speculation, but it has been observed by others. This phenomena was what Jean Jacques Rousseau was describing when he said,
"Put a young man in a woodshop, his hands will work to the benefit of his brain, and he will become a philosopher while thinking himself only a craftsman."
And so, if you are paying attention, you will know why we need to turn our schools into workshop/laboratories, where children are making things, doing experiments, learning hands-on, playing instrumental music, each activity engaging both hands. Children may feel a powerful, intuitive capacity as they slide one finger over glass, but real fingerspitzengefühl arises when children are engaged in their learning hands-on, both hands, and with their hearts engaged also.

So, yes it does make a difference understanding how human intellect arose in the first place.

Today Gary Junken and I will finish the Building Small Cabinets DVD. We may have just a few voice-overs later to finish up and meet a February deadline and spring release.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Back to small cabinets...

This morning Gary Junken from Taunton Press will arrive to continue filming my building Small Cabinets DVD. We will be cutting one kind of corner joint, retaking footage on another, and then getting background video on the various cabinets, and small cabinet details featured in my Building Small Cabinets book. The video work leaves very little time for other things. So read deep in the blog if you come here and find nothing new.

Six ways in which segments can be rotated for use as
tools and weapons. The stippled areas represent adhesive.
Mary Marzke sent me links to an article by Lyn Wadley on the use of adhesives to attach stone to wood in the making of shafted tools, weapons and instruments. Wadleys's work was published in Current Anthropology, and illustrates the intellect involved as early man crafted tools to enable his survival. Evidently, there was enough adhesive remaining on some crafted pieces of stone from 70,000 years ago to reformulate the means through which they were attached. This work pushes forward by 40,000 years, the earlier speculation by V.G. Childe and others that the handle came as late as 30,000 years ago.
Compound adhesives were made in southern Africa at least 70,000 years ago, where they were used to attach similarly shaped stone segments to hafts. Mental rotation, a capacity implying advanced working‐memory capacity, was required to place the segments in various positions to create novel weapons and tools. The compound glues used to fix the segments to shafts are made from disparate ingredients, using an irreversible process. The steps required for compound‐adhesive manufacture demonstrate multitasking and the use of abstraction and recursion. As is the case in recursive language, the artisan needed to hold in mind what was previously done in order to carry out what was still needed. Cognitive fluidity enabled people to do and think several things at the same time, for example, mix glue from disparate ingredients, mentally rotate segments, talk, and maintain fire temperature. Thus, there is a case for attributing advanced mental abilities to people who lived 70,000 years ago in Africa without necessarily invoking symbolic behavior.
There is no concrete evidence that man's development came as a result of language alone, but there is evidence that the making of things took a leading role in the development of man. There is a growing body of evidence that making the tools for our survival and the increased size of the human frontal lobe were parallel developments. You can find Lyn Wadley's article Compound‐Adhesive Manufacture as a Behavioral Proxy for Complex Cognition in the Middle Stone Age here. In order to understand all this and write this paper, Wadley had to make the adhesive from materials found in the natural environment and then replicate the methods for attachment, demonstrating again that you won't really learn all that much about real things by just yakking. "Her main research interest is ancient cognition and her experimental archaeology is geared towards understanding the mental architecture required for various behaviors."

In order to better understand your own mental architecture,

Make, fix and create...

The chart above was made at MIT to show the number of jobs created through the spending of 1 Billion US dollars in various economic sectors. You can see that government support for education pays off far more as an economic stimulus and essentially gives two bangs for the buck. It is kind of like how cutting firewood warms you twice. But we are far too stupid in the politics of this nation to do anything about it.