A confluence of interests

By day I’m an educational researcher studying different facets of how kids and adults learn new things. By night (well, depending on the season) I’m a craftsperson, and my current medium is wood. Over the past few months I’ve become aware of places and writers who touch both of these interests in significant ways. I’m intrigued by the possibility of combining the two professionally – that is, studying how learning “hand work” impacts people.

It started when I became aware of the Wisdom of the Hands blog (written by Doug Stowe). Doug Stowe is a professional woodworker and educator. He teaches at the Clear Spring School, where, to quote from the school’s web site,

Since 1974 Clear Spring School, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, has thrived on the educational principle that engagement results in learning. The school’s hands-on curriculum for pre-primary through 12th grade is based on proven Clear Spring traditions blending core subjects, camping, community service, travel, woodshop, environmental education, and conflict resolution.

Oh my!  A curriculum that integrates camping, wood shop, and conflict resolution along with core subjects?  In this era of No Child Left Behind, how could such a school exist? (Well, it’s an independent private school, for starters).  Seriously, Doug Stowe is quite the advocate for integrating the manual arts into the core educational curriculum.  He’s done research on the 19th century Swedish educational philosophy known as Sloyd. From the Wikipedia entry,

Sloyd differed from other forms of manual training in its adherence to a set of distinct pedagogical principles. These were: that instruction should move from the known to the unknown, from the easy to the more difficult, from the simple to the more complex, from the concrete to the abstract and the products made in sloyd should be practical in nature and build the relationship between home and school. Sloyd, unlike its major rival, “the Russian system” promoted by Victor Della Vos, was designed for general rather than vocational education.

After reading about Sloyd and the Clear Spring School, the researcher in me wants to know what the impact of a Sloyd-style education is on youth development. Certainly we have lots of anecdotal evidence of positive impact from promoters like Doug Stowe. What would it take, I wonder, to document these impacts using the rigor of current social science research methods?

So I’ve been pondering how to put together a research program (in particular, funding) to study the impact of “hands on” education.  Meanwhile, a wonderful excerpt of a book appears in the New York Times Magazine  – Shop Class as Soul Craft, by Matthew Crawford.  Crawford has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago, but makes his bread and butter running a small motorcycle repair shop.  Huh?  Why would he do such a thing?  I’ve ordered his book, and it’s next on my reading list.  It appears that he’s turned his philosopher’s mind to analyzing just why “the trades” have fallen into such disrepute among the intellectual elite over the years. Clearly, an impartial empirical examination of, say, the work of a master motorcycle mechanic reveals all sorts of high level cognitive abilities in diagnosis, planning, visualization, etc.

No sooner have I heard of Crawford’s book than another book by Mike Rose crosses my path: The Mind at Work. In it, Rose documents his research as he followed student carpenters, plumbers, and hair stylists on their educational trajectories, noting when and how considerable “intelligence” was called for in those tasks.  While other scholars criticized the traditional American definition of “intelligence,” Rose brings this argument home to a lay audience not necessarily versed in the history of psychological research.

Now I’m definitely intrigued.  To tie it all together, a few of us at the Center for Technology in Learning are starting to systematically plan a research program to document and assess the impact of “informal” learning environments, particularly in after school settings. Historically, CTL has studied the integration of “high tech” innovations in education. I’d argue that learning to use a Sloyd knife well counts as educational technology, and can be studied similarly. Stay tuned as we put our thoughts together – I hope to document our progress in this blog.

Meanwhile, my work in the shop has taken a bit of a hiatus. This often happens during the summer months, when I can’t resist the long daylight hours to hop on my mountain bike after work and on the weekends. It’s just part of the seasonal ebb and flow of life.


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