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Have You Thanked Your Shop Teacher Lately?

Image of drywall tools mixed with hair stuff juxtaposed

Drywall tools + hair care tools = bread & roses?

I’m embarrassed to say I never did, not that I recall.  Yet, I believe he taught me as much about general education outcomes as many traditional academic classes.  Terry O’Banion’s keynote speech this summer at a League of Innovation conference I attended used the “bread and roses” line (Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself)  to encourage everyone ensure that vocational education students receive roses along with skills.  I was disappointed the reverse was not also addressed.

Tonight’s view of the dirty drywall tools in the tub gave me  words to define my disappointment.  I realized my seventh grade shop teacher (whose name I do not recall) taught me far more than how to solder a sugar scoop and build a miter box.  He taught me the foundation for life skills that have afforded me choices, and also taught specific ways our college general education outcomes relate to my own life.

  • Critical thinking:  “Design, test, build” inherently assists critical thinking skill development.  Especially when the stakes are low enough to afford multiple opportunities to design something that fails.  The freedom to learn where your own skill limits are and where more help is needed is  a great gift to receive long before your future depends on it.
  • Quantitative reasoning:  “Measure twice, cut once” in practice brings higher stakes to quantitative reasoning.  Personally, I hate to measure multiple times. This may be fine when the cost of a mistake is only having to redo a homework problem on the Pythagorean Theorem.  Measuring steel roof panels for a custom order has much different impact when your mistake translates to either spending thousands more and delaying construction or going up 34 feet in a snowstorm to install a larger roof cap.  I promised myself that is the last time I’m going on a roof!
  • Communication skills:  “Lefty loosey, righty tighty” might not be poetry to many, but this is a memorable way to communicate a concept that is needed in diverse contexts.  Although I do firmly believe in the need for composition and rhetoric, using words to communicate important information concisely is a challenge at times, too.

As a bonus, there are two more lessons that he taught me I’ve never forgotten.

  • You can’t fake or hurry quality.  Trying to for short term solutions only creates more work later.  For example, failing to sand before varnishing gives remarkably the same quality of results as failing to use the writing process.
  • Look beyond the surface.    Whether it is wood, metal, rock or people, what excavating imagelies beneath the surface is often more important than what is visible.  I have no idea what he thought about the two geeky girls in his class along with most of the boy jocks.  All I know is that I learned to use power tools and a love of building that has supported me financially and emotionally off and on throughout my life.

Currently the move to competency-based education aimed at speeding up time-to-degree and the relevance of rankings for assessing higher educational institutions are being hotly debated.  I embrace the potential for change these discussions bring, but I also hope that lessons I learned in shop class are not forgotten.  Creating a balance that serves students as lifelong learners and active citizens in our global environment is certainly a challenge that will need all of us!

The unspoken relationship between black students and white instructors described in Langston Hughes’ Theme for English B seems often like the unspoken relationship between vocational and liberal arts education.  “As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me –“

Resources worth exploring:

Helping Colleges Move Beyond the Credit Hour

A Collection of Links and Resources from Western Governors University session at the 2013 Innovations Conference

Experience Matters:  Why Competency-Based Education Will Not Replace Seat Time

Time, Space and Learning

When a Better Ranking Is a Bad Thing

Disrupting the Time-Space Continuum;  Competency Based Learning Explained


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