Saturday, November 18, 2017

class size matters

The principles of Educational Sloyd were based on direct observation of how children (and adults) learn. Start with the interests of the child. Move from the known to the unknown, from the easy to the more difficult, from the simple to the complex and from the concrete to the abstract.

These principles are not just for wood shop learning, but apply to all learning endeavors. They fit science, music, reading and math and all else as they are universal. If anyone is uncomfortable about learning something from wood shop that actually applies to all else, let me assure you that these principles came from the followers of Pestalozzi and Froebel and have their origins in the teaching theories of Comenius.

These very simple principles challenge conventional thinking about education.  Children are never exactly on the same page in things. They do not all have the same interests. They do not all have the same prior experience and capacity as a starting point for class room learning. Even if, through extreme effort and care, a good teacher is able to bring all students' attention to the same page for a moment or two, for a child (or an adult) to find a place in the mind for information to be taken in, successfully managed and usefully stored the mind must wander out of the moment into the student's catalog of experience and compared to what's known. At any given moment during a classroom lecture or presentation, the various students' minds are not all in the room or in the same place or on the same page. If you do not believe this, take a few moments to test the workings of your own mind.

And so, Otto Salomon likely got in some trouble with educational policy makers when he insisted that classroom teaching was ineffective. All those concerned with the economic bottom line would want learning (and values) to be injected into the student mind as cheaply as possible. And I will likely get in trouble with educational policy makers today, when I insist the same thing. We learn best when our individual learning needs are met, and small class size is a determining factor in school success. Class size must be small enough to allow for the teacher to make a very personal connection with the learning needs and interests of each child.

Mostly, however, educational policy makers are less concerned about student learning and more concerned about cheaping out.

The photo is of an old-timey fidget spinner, more commonly known as a button toy. We are making them to give children visiting at our local food bank. Unfortunately, most children no longer know how to use such things. With a bit of practice and a bit of skill in making it, and decorating it, you can be distracted, just as kids were in the 16th century...  even before Comenius, when children learned just as we all learn best, doing real things.

Make, fix, and create...

Friday, November 17, 2017


One of my students took a martial arts practice sword (boken) he had made in our wood shop to a weekend Akido competition and it faced scrutiny from a variety of masters. One (an expert in the sword) pointed out that there were several points about my student's boken that did not meet "standards." Nevertheless, all agreed that  it surpassed all others on the site in one particular way.  He had made it himself. None of the other practitioners could say that of their own swords. All of the participants wanted to try his sword, and so they did. The result was that the student received a dose of pride and brought his boken back to wood shop to do a bit more sanding and refinement on it.

Standards must be flexible enough for students to arise through them with spirits energized, not merely in tact. There are higher standards than those grasped tightly on the surface of things. Woodworking in school can be a means through which higher standards than those present in conventional schooling can be met.

Black Elk told that the Lakota Sioux selected their leaders from among those against whom nothing bad could be said. As an observer of the American political arena, I find it a shame that we fail to follow that same strategy. There are so many on both sides of the aisle, whose abilities to lead are encumbered by serious character flaws. They live in hopes that we do not discover the things they have done. I lay the blame for this situation on the failings of our educational institutions.

When you learn to do real things in school, you contend with real consequences that are visible as measures of character and intellect. When students are sequestered in abstraction and unreality, life becomes a game of manipulation and deceit. If we want better, we must be better and hold those around us to higher standards.

Yesterday in woodshop, and as shown in the photos, some of my students assembled a toy car to be given as a prize in a holiday raffle. Tickets are being sold by the parents, students, teachers and board members at the Clear Spring School.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

two points

A nineteen year study of child development and success conducted by Penn State and Duke Universities discovered that a child's success in college and in life is directly related to social and emotional skills developed and learned in Kindergarten. While many schools continue to focus only on reading and math readiness, they are missing the point, as reading and math have too little to do with it.

In Finland, they begin reading at age 8 instead of age 5 and by the time their students are tested in the international PISA study, they beat American students hands down in 30 percent less time. I can keep hammering on this in the blog, and on facebook, but until others join the chorus and make direct demands of our educational policy makers, we're screwed, our children are left behind and the American culture becomes increasingly dysfunctional.

Point number two for today has to do with the ineffectiveness of classroom instruction. As I've mentioned before, the principles of Educational Sloyd (derived largely from Kindergarten) are as follows: Start with the interests of the child, move from the known to the unknown, from the easy to the more difficult, from the simple to the complex and from the concrete to the abstract.

First, not all children have exactly the same interest.
Second, not all children entering a classroom have the same experience as a starting point.
Third, not all things are equally easy at the same point for all children.
Fourth, not all children adapt to increasingly complexity at the same pace.
Fifth, all children must be continuously engaged in doing real things as a foundation for abstract study. Even when the facility for abstraction is established, real testing of what is learned is essential to avoid traipsing into the realm of the absurd.

Otto Salomon stressing the ineffectiveness of classroom instruction, insisted that teaching become personalized to the needs of the individual child. To do so, we must drastically reduce class sizes in American schools.

Yesterday in the wood shop at the Clear Spring School my first, second and third grade students finished work on platforms. One made a cat farm as shown in the photo.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

just another gun-down-day

Whenever there is a mass shooting event, some representatives in the house and Senate who have sworn allegiance to the National Rifle Association, tell us we must not "politicize"by discussing the causes of the tragedy,  or ways to  prevent such things from happening again and that we should pray instead. "It's too soon to talk about it," they say.

About noon yesterday it occurred to me that there had been no mass shooting events having taken place up to that point in the day, so I wondered if it was time to talk about gun tragedy in America. But then I looked at the news. Damn,  there's another. It seems every day is gun down day in America and we have lots to pray about. If gun tragedies keep happening at their current pace, we'll never have the conversation we need to have about stopping gun violence and making dead certain that those who should not have guns do not have such lethal capacity.

As politicians continue to tell us not to "politicize the issue" we should recognize that the issues surrounding guns were "politicized" years ago when the National Rifle Association began pouring money into political campaigns and threatening those politicians who did not vote their way.

If you are hunting for food or for recreation, a fine rifle is a necessary tool. When we choose tools as means to threaten each other, perhaps we should be thinking in a more creative manner. There are lots of tools that do a better job of building character and culture. Woodworking tools come to my mind.

Yesterday, I made progress on projects. I routed the first side of a Bevins Skiff to shape, and also scarf-joined catalpa boards to sufficient length to use as chines. Chines, for those out of the loop on boat talk, are the boards that connect the bottom to the sides.

In the photo, a narrow and therefore flexible piece of plywood screwed to the side is placed according to calculations derived from the boat plans and serves as a router guide. When one side is fully formed, it can be used as a guide to rout the other using a router bit with a guide bearing on the shaft, thus assuring both sides will be perfectly symmetrical.

Returning to my home shop, I began making drawer parts for maple jewelry chests. The photo above shows using a router and a screwed-in-place guide strip to shape a boat side.

Make, fix, and create.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What will we do?

There are folks wondering what we will do when the efficiency of our machines completely overwhelms the need to do things for ourselves. It's getting bad folks. Human beings have always found our meaning in service to others.

And so what happens when our service is no longer needed and no longer demanded of us? Some folks are asking what we will do for a living when machines replace human beings at all tasks. There is hardly a thing humans do that cannot be done more efficiently by machines, as long as we are willing to accept a life stiffly scripted by standardization.

Some economists are saying we need to provide a basic unearned living allowance to all persons so that we can afford to keep all the machines going, producing the stuff of "civilization," thus keeping the machine owners happy as the money pours in.

The other thing that some have noticed is that mental health is dependent on finding value and meaning in one's service to others. What we must do is make for ourselves, and for others, useful beauty in defiance to the direction of our society. The easy path is to simply buy stuff and let the stuff overwhelm us and our environment. The more challenging and fulfilling path will be to make for ourselves and make meaningful lives in the process.

In Minneapolis, in about 20 minutes (I could have done it in 10 without 86 people watching) I made a simple box joint jig that would allow me to make lots and lots of boxes. I could instead have bought a similar jig from a retailer for about $50.00 and then would have waited a day or more for the UPS truck to arrive. Then I would have had to figure out where to store it when not in use (after all, I spent good money on it). Buy enough jigs and you need a larger shop. Make enough jigs, and you've made yourself smarter in the process and your work easy. The ones you've made yourself can be thrown out when you are done with them. Or used for years and years if they are still of use.

The jig shown is one I made and used recently to scarf join the material for the sides and bottoms of the boats I'm building with my high school students. It can be put away until we start some more boats. It could be sold to another boat builder. Or it could be taken apart and used as kindling.

Today, being back from Minneapolis, I will begin shaping the sides of Bevins Skiffs. My target is to have parts ready for my students to begin building in December.

Make, fix, create, and assist others in learning lifewise

Sunday, November 12, 2017

ON my way home

I completed my two days of class with 85 woodworkers in Minneapolis, MN. I've had a great time and made many new friends. Somehow or other, I was able to get through most of my planned curriculum and I'm grateful to all those who helped. I fly home to Arkansas tomorrow and will resume work on the Bevins Skiffs on Tuesday.

Those who are new to the blog, will find thousands of earlier posts, each gathered around the main point: We learn most effectively and to greatest lasting effect when we learn hands-on. To sequester the mind from the engagement of the hands leads to disinterest, disaffection and disruption, the 3-Ds of a failing educational system.

Some new readers may prefer to follow this blog on facebook as a means of sharing it with others. The link for that is: The point of sharing is that in order to have effect on the educational system at large and on the policy makers that keep screwing things up, we must each assert and reaffirm and demonstrate for them the ways in which use of the hands make us whole, rooting what we learn in real life.

Make, fix, and create.

Minneapolis, day two

I am here for day two of my box making seminar with the Minnesota Woodworking Guild. Yesterday we cut miters and installed miter keys. I adapted my most recent miter key jig to fit an old Craftsman table saw that was selected for the conference because it would run on 110 volt power and could be moved to the site. I have over 80 students.

Today, I will show how to cut the lid from the body of a box. I'll finish a demonstration on forming a mitered finger joint. I'll cut a hidden spline joint, and I'll show how I install butt hinges. It will be a short day with a lot of ground to cover.

I want to publicly thank the members of the Guild who have worked hard to transform the cafeteria of the Dunwoody Community College into a wood working shop. It is minimalist, just as was the shop I started out with over 40 years ago, reminding me that great boxes can be done with a relatively small commitment to tools and materials.

There's little standing in the way of finding joy in the process of creating beautiful boxes.

Make, fix and create!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

September 21, 1780

On September 21, 1780, during the American Revolution, American General Benedict Arnold met with British Major John Andre to discuss handing over West Point to the British, in return for the promise of a large sum of money and a high position in the British army. The plot was foiled and Arnold, a former American hero, became synonymous with the word “traitor.”

It is odd to me that so many members of the Donald Trump campaign and administration met with Russians with an eye toward sewing chaos in the American democracy, but few call it treason. Perhaps we should think about that.

In the meantime, I am in Minneapolis to teach. During the opening presentation we had a large crowd. Tomorrow for class, we have 85 or 86 students. They will all get a taste of my techniques.

Make, fix and create