Monday, January 2, 2012

Cartesian Conundrum

Once upon a time, René Descartes predicated a whole line of philosophical reasoning on the notion that all of his senses had been corrupted by a daemon "as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading me." And he set out to logically prove some of the fundamental truths of the world, exclusively in his own head, to prove that the foundations of math and science could make sense, even if you had no direct knowledge of the world. I wonder how long ‘Cogito, Ergo Sum,’ must have echoed around in that skull  before he realized he was so alone in there that he needed to verbalize his existence to another human being, imaginary or not. After Descartes came David Hume, and other cerebral thinkers who continued to pursue the notion that logic and science was to be grasped on a mental level, and that the real and physical world was unimportant in this endeavor.

Around 300 years after Descartes, vocational training was instituted to help produce more competent workers for the factories. And over the course of the next century, the notion that shop classes were only for the disreputable blue-collar working class persisted. When I was in High School in the early 1990s, the local Vo-tech school had a reputation of being part school, and part dumping ground for children that the ‘real’ high schools considered undesirable or incapable. A few years ago, a friend of mine worked at a vo-tech school as a substitute teacher, teaching math, and was told not to worry too much about the work, because most of the students would never really need to understand the subject. (This seems really backward to me.)

Meanwhile, the students at ‘real’ high school continue to learn subjects like physics, algebra, calculus, etc... And most of them complain that ‘This is nice, but when will we ever need it in real life?’ This tells me two things: One, they are finding the classes hard to wrap their minds around, and Two, they don’t have any context within which to use them. Ironically enough, this is exactly where shop classes would come in handy. It’s hard to make up a decent stock list without algebra. It’s hard to understand a lot of shop jiggery, or how to design really solid furniture without an understanding of basic physics. And one of the reasons I think kids have such a hard time wrapping their minds around the subjects is precisely because they haven’t used any of it in context, let alone used it enough to know that physics and algebra are remarkably useful things to understand. And I think that given the right mentality and approach, the shop could possibly be the best place to learn and use math and physics in a real-world kind of way.

But I think that teaching and learning is more than just context, it’s about sensory experience. There are things that our hands can help us comprehend that the blackboard simply can’t. Any child who’s just learned to pull a nail with a hammer has gained a visceral understanding of leverage that’s based on feel, and that makes natural sense. Anyone else who’s used a block and tackle to lift something heavy will have a different understanding of what it feels like to use pulleys for mechanical advantage. And that’s an understanding that’s much different than anything that comes out of a book: It’s not bound up in logic, and it’s no more intellectual than walking. For myself, I can say that there are times when I need to close my eyes, and feel, to understand what's going on with a project that's not coming together.

I don’t think that combining math, science, and woodworking would help make most normal students into better woodworkers, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s easier to wrap the mind around basic mechanical processes when you’ve actually felt and seen them work. That kind of thing doesn’t necessarily help with shop productivity. But it would probably help a lot of kids learn math and science more cleanly and clearly through application, than they currently learn through ‘word problems.' I think it’s more practical than the idea that physical subjects should or could be taught by ignoring the physical world.

Micrometer as drawn by Robert Hooke
I also think it’s important to remember that many of the scientists that students learn about now; Newton, Hooke, Galileo, et al, were all very well versed in how to make things by hand. They had to be, to construct the experimental apparatus and instruments that they used to prove their theories, and to modify them as needed. It wouldn’t surprise me if the process of designing and building these devices contributed a fair portion to the theories that were being tested. Just a thought.

Needless to say, I'm not a fan of the continuing epidemic of school shops getting closed down, and good, old machinery going off to the salvage yard. I think it's a waste on so many levels, but I also think that it really does a disservice to the principles of the movement that brought school shops (and home economics, and a few other subjects) into being in the first place. Sloyd classes, as pioneered in the west by a man named Gustaf Larsson, were designed to develop students as a whole, and not just to instill vocational skills.

This is another subject that I'm going to expound on in the future. Stay tuned.

Happy New Year.

1 comment:

A Sketch of an Artist said...

I almost got hired to be the math teacher at a vocational high school.
A teacher.
A MATH teacher.
No education in teaching, let alone math teaching, let alone teaching 35 high school boys.
I expressed concern about the idea, especially since I thought vocational student would need a really strong math education...but the principal assured me all I had to do was stay one chapter ahead of them in the book.
Luckily a retired teacher from the school asked to be re-hired, so I never even had to decline the job.
For my part, any hands-on education I've had has been roughly 50x more powerful than classroom work, not to mention they provided much-needed confidence boosts.
Fiction was the only other thing that ever gave me an epiphany, but I feel like that isn't true for all students.
Even though being waaaaay too slow in completing my projects garnered me a low grade in wood shop, I'd be very upset if I heard my high school cut the class.