Sunday, December 21, 2014

parsimony and craftsmanship

How to drill from corner to corner?
A couple years back I was accused of being parsimonious, and was puzzled at being insulted before it was explained to me that parsimony was a good thing. My understanding of parsimony was as follows:

extreme unwillingness to spend money or use resources.
"a great tradition of public design has been shattered by government parsimony"
synonyms:cheapness, miserliness, meanness, parsimoniousness, niggardliness, close-fistedness, closeness, penny-pinching;
informalstinginess, minginess, tightness, tightfistedness, cheeseparing;

But in academia, parsimony can refer to Occam's Razor... the principle of simplicity related to having started with the fewest assumptions. Or in craftsmanship, parsimony can be the reduction of method to the fewest steps. One of the things that comes through practice is that the body makes fewer unnecessary movements and both the  speed of the work and quality of the work can increase unexpectedly. When you reduce the number of steps, you reduce the introduction of error. So in accusing me of being parsimonious, I had been offered a compliment.

So I raise a toast to parsimony and craftsmanship. Yesterday, a blog reader asked me how to drill a hole in a wooden cube from one corner to the other for the making of Froebel's Gift number 2. In some models, holes were drilled and dowels inserted for rotation of the objects. I asked Scott Bultman, who has been associated with a Michigan toy maker his whole life. It is a family business and they used to make Froebel gifts before they arranged to have them made in China where gift number 2 can be made by a small manufacturer at a rate of 300 sets per week. When they made the sets in Michigan, the holes were not drilled, but he assured me that Froebel must have known how to do it.

That exchange with the reader and with Scott led me to examine the cube and sent me to the woodshop after dark to develop the process. As with all things, the first inclination is to dream up something complex. We make a natural assumption that if we don't know how to do it, some complex tooling or methodology must be used. But, WWFFD? (What would Friedrich Froebel do?) Without a full woodshop and complex apparatus the law of Parsimony would have been in effect.

With the observation of the cube, I began work. Applying the law of parsimony, all complex solutions were tossed out. With two false starts, I have simplified my approach. I will share what I discover, as success is close at hand.

Between teaching and writing, I have been negligent in the marketing of my work, and yesterday I sent a number of boxes, a piece of small furniture and two sculptural forms to a new gallery opening in Memphis. To see work go out the door leaves opportunity to make more. That's a good thing. To sell it and move it into other people's lives will be even better.

Make, fix and create...

Saturday, December 20, 2014

development of form

While modern education seems to have fallen on the narrow shoulders of the alphabet, and so many children (even in pre-school and Kindergarten) bear the heavy burden of letters and have chosen to shrug off such a heavy load,  Pestalozzi had recommended an "alphabet of form". The idea was that there were other things than reading that offered value of study. Form for instance. All learning was to arise from the senses first, and from the child's direct experience. The illustration above is from How Gertrude Teaches Her Children, Pestalozzi's book that proposed a revolution in education, based on how an exceptional mother might take care of her children and influence her community.

If you think of progressive education as a relay, Comenius handed off to Rousseau, Rousseau to Pestalozzi, Pestalozzi to Froebel, Froebel to Cygnaeus and Salomon (running side by side) and then Salomon to Dewey (even though they never actually met.) As has always been the case, most runners think only of themselves and their part in the race, and may be inclined to disparage the contributions of those who handed off to them. Maria Montessori, for instance, was critical of the performance of Froebel, even though her method was not independent from the foundation he laid in the invention of Kindergarten. Education as to form, was one of the important differences perceived by N. Christian Jacobsen between Danish Sloyd and Swedish Sloyd.

Swedish Sloyd, as taught by Salomon was deeply rooted in the progressive tradition launched by Comenius, in which children were to learn from experience, and adults responsible for their learning would take advantage of their greatest resource... the natural inclination of the child to follow their own interests in learning. To ignore those interests, in the view of Comenius would be o lay obstacles in the path of effective teaching.

The letters (in the view of most progressive educators) could wait until after the child had been guided to make intellectual sense of their own perceptions. And so for Salomon, and as he tried to reinforce through his lectures in 5 languages, Educational Sloyd was about the development of the whole child, and was part of a philosophical lineage of progressive education. And it was extremely important to him that his students (teachers) understood their own positions in the development of education. He knew that at some point, time would march past him, just as time had eclipsed Pestalozzi, and that educational sloyd was but a "casting mold" from which an even more modern and progressive system of education would emerge. It may be of interest to readers that Salomon kept a stone from Pestalozzi's gravesite on his desk as a reminder of his role in an historic progression. It may seem egotistical to some that I have stones from Salomon's gravesite on my own desk.

Some might wonder why it is important to understand the history of manual arts training. The purpose for me, is that we re-establish the lineage of education. Two points form a straight line, but if you do not know which point came first, you have no true sense of direction. Readers might discern a relationship between Pestalozzi's alphabet of forms and Froebel's gifts.

We had the Clear Spring School holiday program last night, and I marched for Save the Ozarks in the Christmas parade. It was amazing to hear the cheers of our community as we passed by, and to know that in our opposition to the power line, we do not stand alone.  Now it is time to settle in for the holidays. I submitted a proposal to Taunton Press for yet another box making book, and plan this week to develop more chapters of the book on Making Froebel's Gifts.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, December 19, 2014

a careful transformation of self...

Last night I dreamed of my sister Ann who died about 15 months ago of multiple systems atrophy, an awful disease. Ann was involved in arts and crafts her whole life, and in my dream offered to show me a new way of welding dissimilar metals. She thought it might be something I would be interested in writing about as it would be of use to other artists.

I thought at first in terms of some kind of flux that would allow the bond. We walked down a long corridor, opened a small door and took out two small packets of paper like those a homeopathic physician might use to offer his or her medicines. One contained a powder and the other a small live caterpillar, which were to be taken for transformation. Not all that is to be accomplished in the arts is through transformation of the material. Some requires the transformation of the artist.

Yesterday I invited my 6th grade students to play with Froebel's Gift number 7. I was curious what they would come up with. One girl wouldn't let me see what she had designed until it was finished. If you can't guess what it is, read carefully. In the photo below, my student insisted that I share what she had made via iPhone with her mother. Such is a child's pride at the time of transformation.

There are indeed many processes requiring both skill and transformation of the mind and heart of the artist.

The following is repeated from an earlier blog post and concerns the transformation of humanity in our earlier years. Were caterpillars required?

Six ways in which segments can be rotated for use as
tools and weapons. The stippled areas represent adhesive.
Mary Marzke sent me links to an article by Lyn Wadley on the use of adhesives to attach stone to wood in the making of shafted tools, weapons and instruments. Wadleys's work was published in Current Anthropology, and illustrates the intellect involved as early man crafted tools to enable his survival. Evidently, there was enough adhesive remaining on some crafted pieces of stone from 70,000 years ago to reformulate the means through which they were attached and through which the adhesive was made. This work pushes forward by 40,000 years, the earlier speculation by V.G. Childe and others that the handle came as late as 30,000 years ago.
Compound adhesives were made in southern Africa at least 70,000 years ago, where they were used to attach similarly shaped stone segments to hafts. Mental rotation, a capacity implying advanced working‐memory capacity, was required to place the segments in various positions to create novel weapons and tools. The compound glues used to fix the segments to shafts are made from disparate ingredients, using an irreversible process. The steps required for compound‐adhesive manufacture demonstrate multitasking and the use of abstraction and recursion. As is the case in recursive language, the artisan needed to hold in mind what was previously done in order to carry out what was still needed. Cognitive fluidity enabled people to do and think several things at the same time, for example, mix glue from disparate ingredients, mentally rotate segments, talk, and maintain fire temperature. Thus, there is a case for attributing advanced mental abilities to people who lived 70,000 years ago in Africa without necessarily invoking symbolic behavior.
There is no concrete evidence that man's development came as a result of language alone, but there is evidence that the making of things took a leading role in the development of man. There is a growing body of evidence that making the tools for our survival and the increased size of the human frontal lobe were parallel developments. You can find Lyn Wadley's article Compound‐Adhesive Manufacture as a Behavioral Proxy for Complex Cognition in the Middle Stone Age here. In order to understand all this and write this paper, Wadley had to make the adhesive from materials found in the natural environment and then replicate the methods for attachment, demonstrating again that you won't really learn all that much about real things by just yakking. "Her main research interest is ancient cognition and her experimental archaeology is geared towards understanding the mental architecture required for various behaviors."

In order to better understand your own mental architecture,

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Formell education?

The following is from an earlier blog post, November 7, 2007.

Today the words "formal education" refer to learning that takes place within the context of established educational institutions, as contrasted with "informal" education in which students learn on their own, self-motivated and self-directed.

Back in the late 1800's and early 1900's, the words "formal education" had a distinctly different meaning, particularly when used by Otto Salomon, director of the Sloyd Teacher School at Nääs or by one of his students. The following is from Hans Thorbjörnsson, Swedish historian and curator of Otto Salomon's library at Nääs:
"In Swedish language Salomon is using the terms (expressions) ”formell bildning”, ”formell uppfostran” och ”formella mål”. In The Theory of Educational Sloyd they are translated ”formative education” (education meaning both bildning och uppfostran) and “formative goals.” You are quite right interpreting the Swedish formell as general competence, character development, citizenry and responsibility. Salomon talked about the child’s development morally, intellectually and physically being promoted during sloyd work. For the mere sloyd skills (handling tools and material/wood) he used the terms “materiella mål” (material goals) and “materiell utbildning”. In The Theory of Educational Sloyd the Swedish terms are translated utilitarian goals / utilitarian education."
This simple term, in Swedish, "formell" or in English, "formative" or "formal" recognize the wood shop's goals of shaping lives as well as giving shape to wood. As any shop teacher or former shop teacher can tell, there are important things going on as children engage in the process of working with wood. Sure, they are developing skills in the use of their hands that would benefit society were they to become carpenters, craftsmen, engineers or surgeons, but they are doing much more. In our current political and cultural climate with our obsessive concern to teach those things we can measure on standardized tests, we have largely forgotten what those other things are.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

shape to fit, or fit to shape...

Gift number 7 with obtuse angle and two equal sides.
Today, I worked on Gift number 7, its variations and the chapter that will include it. Swedish Sloyd and Finnish Sloyd were both intended as means to extend the Kindergarten principles into the upper grades, whereas other forms of manual arts training were more directly concerned with supplying bodies to industry. To give a child some experience with various tools might make their transition to employment easier for them and for their potential employer. To give a child the capacity to shape his or her own destiny was a more noble inclination.

There has been a controversy since the earliest days of education, whether the purpose of schooling was to shape the child to fit societal norms, or whether it was to fit (prepare) the child to participate in the shaping of human culture. The concern with form was to begin in Kindergarten and the whole of the child's education was to be "formative."

Barbara, in the translation of I Sløjdsagen Et Inlæg is challenged as are all translators  in that a single word may have many meanings or interpretations. In the example above of instance, the word fit, my be active or passive. Benjamin B. Hoffman attended Salomon's teacher training in Nääs and used the term "formal education," meaning "formative education" as was used by Salomon. "Formal education" in the US has a whole different meaning, and the idea of "formative" has been brushed aside in the name of economic efficiency.

Hoffman and Salomon both meant "forming" the child's character as a whole person, capable of fitting into society, but also acting strongly within it. Dewey's progressive education was of similar purpose. Jacobsen noted that Danish education remained "one-sided," missing the mark of addressing the whole child.

I think my readers might enjoy going back to Kindergarten and spending a day doing what I just did... playing with gift number 7. Don't you think gift number 7 offers some lovely opportunities?

Make, fix and create...

the search for form...

Today, I hope to spend writing. I need to catch up on a couple chapters that need selection of photos, captioning, and organization. Barbara in Stavanger has provided more pages of N. Christian Jacobsen's text, I Sløjdsagen Et Inlæg.

 In these pages, Jacobsen tells of a primary difference between Salomon's Sloyd and that promoted by Mikkelsen and taught in Denmark. It is a simple but distinct difference. Swedish sloyd starts with form and the tools and their exercises are the means to establish form. In Danish sloyd, tools came first, and form was the by-product of their use.

How can that matter? The Danish version of sloyd might lead to development of carpentry skills. The Swedish version of sloyd was intended to develop the individual.

As my middle school students stood yesterday at the lathe, turning blocks of wood into finished dreidels, they were comparing what they saw transforming before their eyes, and in their hands with a preconceived notion of perfect form.

Comenius had said something to the effect, that the craftsman and his or her work arise in the same gesture. The woman standing at the lathe, transforms the material and herself at the very same time. You can choose to call it artistry or craftsmanship. The inclination to do something well was described and understood by educators since the seventeenth century.

As this is the first day of Chanukah, I should also note the importance of craftsmanship in the Jewish tradition. Parents were instructed that to fail to engage children in craftsmanship was to throw them into a world of thievery.

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Happy Chanukah

Elementary school dreidels.
The Jewish holiday Chanukah, starts this evening, and at school, as an exercise in woodworking and multi-culturalism, we made dreidels, grades 1-9. I had planned the project and then just this morning realized how appropriate the timing was.

For the youngest ones, none of whom had played the dreidel game before, I did the turning for each on the lathe. They formed the dowel with the dowel maker, and wrote the names on each side. Of course they wanted to color and personalize each one. Then we played the game and it did not take long to catch on. As we played, each used his or her own dreidel.

Dreidel made by Oakley.
For those unfamiliar with dreidels, you might confuse one with a top. But a successful top spins for a long time, and the dreidel being used in a game would bore you if it spun for too long. So a top and a dreidel are not the same thing and should not be confused. Also, a dreidel has 4 sides, each marked with a symbol for a Yiddish word. Not having a stamp for those symbols, we simply marked the first letter of each word, Nun, Gimel, Hay, and Shin.

My older students did their own turning at the lathe. All the students were pleased with their work. Some Clear Spring School students will play dreidel in their homes tonight, just as Jewish boys and girls will do with their families on the first day of Chanukah, 2014.

Make, fix and create...

Use a lathe and drill chuck to bore the hole for the dowel.

Use a gouge to shape the point.

self check out vs. "check this out."

Yesterday I made various iterations of Froebel's gift number 7 which consists of small square and triangular wooden tiles. Each set of 64 tiles fits in a small wood box. It was not likely that all Kindergartners (teachers of Kindergarten) would use all sets, as these are similar enough to each other that the results of exercises with each set would not be marked different. The use of square tiles can be seen to closely resemble the use of cubes from the earlier sets.

But the making of these sets is worth doing. Making boxes to hold the various tiles is excuse enough.

Yesterday I told how the self checkout has become the model for American education. The other side of the coin is "check this out!" when a student takes exceptional pride in his or her own work and cannot resist the inclination to show others what he or she has done. That happens in wood shop.

Other variations of tiles might be to paint them various colors, or to make them from various woods. Yet another option exists in that the tile shapes can be cut from colored cardstock and the arrangement of them can be made permanent, by gluing them on paper.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, December 15, 2014


If you live in the US, you have no doubt had experience with the self-check out, either at Walmart or one of the other big-box stores. The idea is this: You walk up with the items you've selected and scan them yourself. It will observe whether or not you've placed the scanned item into the bagging area, and when you've scanned all your items, it will ask you to pay. It can take your credit card, or count your cash and give you the correct change dispensed below. There will be a clerk nearby to monitor the transaction and watch to make sure customers don't cheat.

That is the model some hope to achieve in modern education. The student, taught primarily by digital devices without human intervention or human instruction will simply download the contents of their brains for evaluation, correction, and assessment. It will be guaranteed cheap, as it will take no near-by human teachers to impart knowledge, and no trained intervention or inspiration apart from what's available on youtube. High paid teachers in this situation can be easily replaced by low paid check-out clerks.

Role models will be supplied as they are today. Television.

I am working on Freobel gift number 7 which consists of sets of small tiles cut in square and triangular shapes. There are 3 kinds of triangles used in different sets. As with all things in "progressive education," the tiles were progressively introduced. so that the students could move in increments from simple to complex, easy to more difficult, and literally  expand and exhaust their creative potentials. "What can you do with these two tiles?" a student might be asked of what is given. What shapes can you create with 4 or  or with 6? At the age in which children with crayons or markers can do little more than scribble on paper, with tiles they can create perfect forms.

The craftsman might ask, "How can I make so many of these small tiles safely?" I will be showing that in the book.

Self-checkout in education is nothing new. When children are engaged in self-activity as they were in Kindergarten and in shop classes, they are self-directed into craftsmanship, and learn to self-assess their own work.

Make, fix and create...