Thursday, February 07, 2013

out of the box...

Imagine the feelings if you had REALLY made it yourself!
Researchers have described as the "Ikea effect," the feelings one can get from putting something together. You can listen to the story, Why You Love That Ikea Table, Even If It's Crooked, on NPR.  The story aired just as I was driving to school yesterday, so I asked my second and third grade students about it. A couple of them had no idea what Ikea was, but when I explained that the Ikea effect describes the feelings they have when they've made something, and the feelings they have for those specific objects they have made, they knew exactly what I was talking about. "I love the things I've made!" was the common response. The caption on the photo above on the NPR site was:
Building your own stuff boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent.
In comparison to those who really do make beautiful and useful things instead of from the box, the caption should be modified as follows: "In assembling this thing, I have proven (at least to myself) that I am not a complete klutz." The "Ikea effect" is just a catchy name given to a psychological phenomenon that applies to all kinds of accomplished or even pseudo-accomplished things. The name "derives from the love millions of Americans display toward their self-assembled furniture (or, dare we say it, their badly self-assembled furniture) from the do-it-yourself store with the Scandinavian name." Of course you can experience the Ikea effect from all kinds of minor accomplishments, or by doing even bigger things and feel even larger rewards and greater attachment to what you've done.

My apprentice has made more Shaker-style  benches following the design offered in Fine Woodworking. One of two he regarded as a failure because of a mistake that led him to adjust the design. But what he's done with hand tools easily surpasses the finest Ikea made boxed table or bench in the world. His work involved real materials, tools other than a screwdriver, and the chance to recover from his mistakes without having to call customer service. And then, after spending years as a carpenter, he learned yesterday to regrind and sharpen a chisel free hand. That's a skill that most carpenters no longer have.

Sadly, the naming of this phenomenon the "Ikea effect" will normalize the consumer relationship with boxed furniture, rather than reminding us that there are even greater rewards available in true craftsmanship, in which a solo craftsman has built something useful, beautiful and real from his or her OWN creative inclinations and skill.

Now why is it that in American education, folks fail to understand the child's ever-growing need to do things that are real and true to the child's creative spirit? In American schools we've settled for an education which allows kids to feel successful if they can say, "I'm not a complete klutz."

According to researchers, the "Ikea effect" also applies to ideas. Folks will defend their turf and feel a special relationship to their ideas, falling in love with those ideas even when they came from a box, and are later proved stupid and wrong. Hearing that, I felt a moment of self-doubt. Have I gone out on a limb? So yesterday I asked my 7th, 8th and 9th grade students about how they feel about hands-on learning. I asked them to explain if and why it works. They knew exactly what we are doing at Clear Spring School and why and assured me that yes, it works. The difference appears to be how they feel about learning, as hands-on  engages the heart, just as the researchers note in writing about the Ikea effect. Please believe me.  If you try it, you will see that hands-on learning surpasses all else hands down. And the ideas you will find here are ones you can test in your own hands. You need not take my word for that which, given the slightest of hints, you can discover for yourself.

Make, fix and create...


  1. The NPR caption is a lot like the "Made in America" label. ☹

  2. I assembled bicycles for a summer in college. After that, I started picking and choosing parts to assemble my own, including refining dérailleur settings, brakes, tuning and rebuilding wheels, etc. it was great, but after a while, it all had that kind of Ikea, tab-A into slot-B kind of feel. Eventually, the desire to get deeper into making things led me to North Bennet.

    And Ikea things break... Leading people to learn that there are better things out there, and hopefully leading to a demand for higher quality, hand made things.

    So, I must grudgingly admit that there's some reason to feel ok with people enjoying the assembly process. It can lead to better things.

  3. JW, I agree it can lead to better things. Years ago, I assembled my sister's out of the box kitchen cabinets. I had so much fun nailing those together that I knew I would enjoy being a woodworker.

    But I also found out that I'd gotten in trouble. My sister had been wanting to assemble the cabinets herself, and I was in trouble for butting in where I wasn't wanted. In any case, I became a wood worker and she became a kitchen designer. So, yes, out of the box things can lead one on a quest for greater accomplishments.

    And you are right about Ikea things falling apart. If you plan to move a desk from one room to another and don't want to destroy it, take it carefully apart and put it back together.

    When I helped my daughter move from one apartment to another, we were careful to do it that way, and it's still good. but if we had tried to carry it up and down stairs and across town and 4 blocks in the Uhaul, it would be ready for the dump.

  4. I'm new to your blog. Interesting post!

    I've thought about this idea some while helping my mother in her doll business. She designs and makes dolls for children, and also does classes. In the classes people buy a kit, and make their own doll. I'm always amazed how each doll turns out differently, feels unique. It makes me think how some assemble-it-yourself projects allow for more creativity than others. (Ikea furniture is an example of the least creative assembly, perhaps?).

    I love reading about your conversations with students.