Rainy day blogging


Laminated Pen Blank


Ebony Ring glue-up

It’s a rainy Saturday, and I’m spending the afternoon prepping some gifts and products for my company’s annual craft fair. The top photo shows a lamination I’m preparing to make a couple of wood pens. Sandwiched between the walnut are layers of veneer (light-dark-light) that will appear as a sort of “pin stripe” pattern in the pen body.

The second photo shows an ebony ring I’ve glued up. This will become a layer (an actual “ring”) in a walnut bowl I’m making. Some of these projects take several days, not because of the total labor, but because each gluing phase that will be subjected to any stress should dry overnight. The ring itself had three distinct gluing phases (pairs of sides, 3 sides into halves, then the two halves), each of which called for a pause.  Multitasking projects (and not letting my workbench become overwhelmed with clutter) is a must.

Meanwhile, I’ve been following Doug Stowe’s blog The Wisdom of the Hands.  If you’re interested in either education or the arts I encourage you to visit.  In addition to being a master woodworker and teacher, Doug has recently been shaping a coherent philosophy of education that emphasizes the role and benefits of “hands on” education.  We’ve had some e-mail correspondence around his ideas; in particular I’d want him on my short list of intellectual thought-partners if I ever decide to study this idea seriously.

Doug and I question what is lost when children do not routinely have a lot of practice manipulating real objects and crafting their own creations. It’s an interesting empirical question. For example, one psychologist has written a book titled Lifting Depression, based on the theory that our hands are hard-wired to the brain’s reward circuitry.  She claims that tasks involving manual dexterity (e.g., knitting, woodworking, etc.) can actually mitigate depressive symptoms. In my experience this idea has some merit; I’ve certainly felt my own seasonal blues recede after a few hours in the shop. So I’m interested in this hand-brain-soul connection. In particular, what happens to a generation that manipulates keyboards and game controllers rather than physical objects?  Perhaps it makes no difference; I guess we’re going to find out.

Being trained as a researcher can feel like a drag on enthusiasm sometimes.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the act of inquiry and shaping ideas. It’s the learned disposition toward skepticism that sometimes puts a wet blanket on creativity, perhaps prematurely. For example, I may have an intuitive sense that kids would benefit from bringing the arts back into education front and center (and arts education scholars such as Elliot Eisner have written thoughtful books on the subject, so the idea isn’t too far-fetched). The educator/activist in me wants to go forth and argue for the arts. The researcher in me, though, wants to gather evidence first.  How do Eisner’s ideas hold up empirically?  Did he base his thoughts on solid evidence? Am I (and he) paying sufficient attention to negative cases, where the arts don’t appear to have the intended effects?

I envy Doug Stowe for not being encumbered by this skepticism. He can see the concrete benefits of his work with students on a daily basis, and this evidence corroborates the ideas of other scholars of the manual arts. He believes in what he’s doing.

So I’m left with this question: what would it take for me to believe in a cause without first doing years of “due diligence” research?


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.

Exploring new territory

(Photo: feet waiting to be glued and screwed onto the legs of my dining chairs. See my web site for more photos)

Well, I’m back in the shop more regularly again. This is the final stretch for the dining chairs – lots of tedious sanding and finishing work, and I still have to make some decorative splats for the backs. Then it’s assembly time! I’m guessing they’re be ready (possibly except for the upholstered seats – gotta find someone to do that) in about a month.

Meanwhile, I’m really starting to get into that “what’s next” phase of life. My job/career is going well enough for now, I’m starting to get back into my groove of exercise and art, my relationship continues to blossom… So what else is there? Ah, that big meaning of life question.

I was talking with a good, wise friend about this “meaning” question, and in her opinion it was religion and children that gave most people the comfort of “purpose” in their lives. That puts us child-free athiests in a bit of a bind. 😉 I totally get how raising a family can be a really satisfying endeavor, having a house full of children to love and be loved by, watching them grow up into adults you can be proud of. For some reason, though, I’ve just never wanted it that badly. I’m sure there are all sorts of deep seated psychological processes at work here, but the bottom line is: absence of desire. Not willing to put up with the costs and effort for it. Not wanting it badly enough.

So, no kids (barring a lightning strike or fall on my head). I’ve also never bought into the standard religion story, at least since I was, oh, maybe 8 years old, give or take? Of course I had to stay closeted with that growing up in a very Catholic neighborhood. As I got older I thought about some of the fun spiritual or metaphysical ideas floating around out there, but at some point I realized it was more wishful thinking. Or rather, I began to separate personal experience from the stories we tell about it. That is, I may meditate or see a beautiful sunset or experience love and feel some profoundly deep experiences. But that doesn’t mean I have to then tell a story about God or Gaia or Cupid to explain them. The experiences just are. Oh, they do have true stories behind them, incredibly complex interactions of neurons and hormones and brain structures we’re just beginning to understand. But the point is, the experience is what counts.

BUT – and this is an important but, at least right now – without the story about “God’s purpose” or “everything happens for a reason” or “karma,” etc., life can seem a little… haphazard? Ultimately, there is no meaning other than what we make of it. That’s taking some time to digest. I think (and I think scientists have started studying this) we’re wired (neurologically or culturally) to need to tell stories about purpose and meaning. I’m sure there’s a community of like-minded folks out there who’ve thought about this much more deeply than I have, but they’re not as “popular” as the Standard Churches. If I want the Christian God narrative I can walk into any of several churches down the street. To explore meaning divorced from that story, though, means I’ve got to find like-minded others.

I just started reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I’ve heard him speak on the radio at several points, and he’s one of the most humorous, articulate, thoughtful people I’ve heard speak on atheism. He’s not particularly belligerant about his point – he just asks some common sense questions about why we should believe this (highly improbable) set of stories as opposed to some other (highly improbable) set of stories (e.g., the Greek Gods). He does, at some point (havne’t gotten to those chapters yet) suggest that choosing to believe the standard myths can lead one down some dark paths, so there are real-world consequences when large numbers of people start to engage in exclusive group-think.

Phew! Lots to write about. So much for a wood-working blog. 😉 These thoughts have been occupying a lot of my free time lately, and it helps to get them down in e-ink. I’d love to hear your comments (if anybody actually reads this?)

Home sweet home

(photo: rough-cut back rails for chairs waiting to be sanded and finished)

Just got back from a business trip to Chicago. Business trips aren’t like vacation travel – I’m on someone else’s schedule and agenda, and often don’t have the budget to stay an extra day to sight see. Plus, I was really worried I’d get snowed in – my outbound flight was delayed nearly 2 hours. It’s good to be home!

I helped give a one day workshop on educational test design for researchers. Not the large-scale standardized stuff kids are subjected too – this was about the careful craftsmanship of focused assessments on particular topics. I also attended a few sessions (including another one I gave a paper at) where the general theme was “we all know No Child Left Behind-mandated tests as they currently exist aren’t measuring much that we care about… but what would it take to do better?” I’ve often believed (and stated) that we don’t assess what’s important, we assess what’s cheap and easy. Some of the empirical research is bearing that out – we don’t even assess our own state standards particularly well. Or rather, the state doesn’t assess these things well – teachers (more or less) are constantly assessing the on-going learning of students in order to guide instruction, and isn’t that what counts most? (OK, off my soap box for now…)

Funny, I never saw the parallel before – when I do get involved in assessment (or research) design it’s a lot like my woodworking. I like to be careful, artisitic, and take pride in the product… hmmm… something to sit with…

One good thing about getting away for a few days is gaining some perspective on things. I was reading The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron (an American Buddhist teacher) while on this trip. It’s hard to describe the experience on a blog, but essentially it was about cultivating equanimity and taming our demons and the “stories” we often overlay over our direct experiences. In one sense, it was like being constantly reminded of some essential Truths I knew deep down inside, but have habitually forgotten. In fact, I think it’s a little like going to Sunday church services – it’s not like the preacher says anything we haven’t heard a million times before, but it’s helpful to be reminded, and for that brief period of engagement to have our attention focused on these essential ideas.

And babies, babies everywhere! So many of my friends/colleagues are parents now! For roughly the past 10 years I’d envisioned a future without children (long story – started as a joint decision with a partner, and never really changed after that relationship ended). Now, in my (very) early 40’s, I wonder… I still come back to my baseline feeling: an absence of desire. Not an active aversion to having children, just an absence of strong desire. And I feel like you have to really want to be a parent / have a family; it’s not something that should just “happen” along the way. But it’s interesting being part of essentially the first generation of people who’ve grown up completely in control of their own fertility (between widespread availability of contraception and the right to terminate pregnancies). There isn’t a long cultural history that supports having children as an active choice rather than a matter of course. We’re charting our own course in relatively new waters.

Yikes! Just looked at the clock, but it’s still set to Chicago time. Phew! Nonetheless, time to get to bed.