Woodworking in General Education

The great secret of education is to combine mental and physical work so that one kind of exercise refreshes the other. – Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

As a self-employed woodworker and writer, I have lamented the decline of woodworking programs in schools and the steady shift in education away from direct, hands-on learning.

Many years ago, when I was a student, working with my hands was my personal salvation. In high school, my dad’s basement workshop gave me a much-needed escape from academics. In college, pottery classes provided the mental health necessary for me to graduate. In examining my own learning style and educational experiences, I have come to believe that having the hands engaged in learning is important for all students, even those planning academic careers, and the common view that hands-on education is only for slow learners as a precursor for vocational training is way off the mark.

My experience is reinforced by stories from both local parents and teachers and from the national press that paint a picture of modern education in which too many students are disengaged from the learning process and disruptive of the education of others. I began to wonder whether there was a link between the failure to engage the hands and the failure to engage the head and heart in the learning experience.

You may have observed in your own learning process that when you have a direct application for a skill or knowledge, you find more energy for learning, even when the subject is difficult or the skill hard to master. One of the major challenges facing educators is that of helping students to understand the relevance of subject matter to their own lives. Fractions? Geometry? Algebra? Environmental studies? History? Physics? These subjects may seem unrelated, and it is often difficult to help students understand how they will be useful in life. But time in the woodshop can amply demonstrate the connections between these “isolated” subjects, bringing their study into practical application and use.

With all this in mind, in the fall of 2001, the woodshop at The Clear Spring School in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where I work, began a woodworking program, Wisdom of the Hands, to explore the potential of the woodshop in general education. As our mission, we adopted the following:

  • To make woodshop participation relevant to the lives of all our students and meaningful in their education.
  • To utilize the woodshop to encourage the student’s interests in other areas of study.
  • To serve as a model to demonstrate the relevance of woodworking in modern education.

In the five years since our program started at the high school level, it has grown to now engage all students, starting with pre-kindergarten. I have become even more convinced that woodworking should be offered in all schools and available for all children. My convictions come not only from watching my own students but also from studying modern educational theory.

Howard Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles suggest that students require diverse learning experiences such as those that woodworking can provide. Neurologist Frank Wilson’s book, The Hand: How its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture, illustrates the important role of the hand in shaping human intellect and culture. Research scientists using magnetic resonance imaging to observe the developing brain in children have learned that not all brains develop exactly alike nor in the same time sequence, perhaps explaining why some of us are late bloomers and offering reason for great caution in our teaching of children.

It is far too easy to convince a child forevermore that he or she is stupid or inadequate, when perhaps the real stupidity lies in our own failure to understand the natural variation in the ways our intelligences develop. In error, we try to fill our children’s heads with facts and theories, when perhaps they would be best served by time in the woodshop, being drawn to discover confidence in their own direct powers of observing, learning, practicing, and creating. Every woodworking teacher in the country, whether in public or private schools, can point to his or her students’ growth in both confidence and character. Every day, we see changes that will be charted in real life, in common sense, and in the willingness of our students to embrace the changes and challenges of their lives.

We need to look at our own educational objectives. Are we passing children through an educational assembly line, upgraded for efficiency, but modeled on the factories that made Model Ts, or are we teaching to engage the confidence and curiosity required for a lifetime of learning?

While none of us are empowered to make the kinds of changes that would provide woodworking opportunities for all children, those of us who have woodshops can make a small gesture with our own children and grandchildren while we press for educational reform. Let’s invite children to our woodshops and share our love of wood, of tools, of the processes of cutting, shaping, assembling, and finishing, creating objects of lasting purpose and beauty with new generations.

Doug Stowe is a self-employed and self-taught furniture maker. He is the author of four woodworking books and a contributing editor at Woodwork magazine. He teaches at the Clear Spring School, Marc Adams School of Woodworking, and the Eureka Springs School of the Arts.


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