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Shop v. the Computer

November 20, 2013

Now and then I write essays on my professional life. Some of them get posted on two websites associated with my work place, the Dearborn Academy in Arlington, MA, one of Schools for Children, Inc.’s multiple schools in the Greater Boston area. I have submitted this one to these others sites, but you saw it here first.

The other day I was asked by my supervisor whether I thought my students were enjoying shop class as much as they used to. I had to admit that fewer students had been signing up for shop at recess than in previous years. She was surprised. She knew during tours of our school the shop is always a big draw. It’s true. I see the potential students on the tour. They get to the shop and their eyes widen and a look of great excitement comes over most of them. Their parents/guardians too get that look. The adults invariably remark on how they love the smell of the wood, that they wish they could take shop, or tell me about their three fingered shop teacher and the step stool they made in junior high school that they still use every day.
However, if they are eventually enrolled at our school many of these students find that shop does not quite match their expectations. And lately computer recess has become a much more popular option. There are several reasons for this, some are intrinsic to woodshop, and some have to do with the comparative qualities of shop and computers in general.
Interestingly, the most popular game in computer recess these days is Minecraft, a deceptively primitive looking online game, in which gamers build, virtually, any number of things, including houses and their contents. Despite its low quality graphics, what engages kids is the ability to make things. Why would students prefer building virtual objects to real? The answer is twofold. First is speed. In the virtual realm, building a table requires approaching a tree with an axe. Several mouse clicks later a pile of boards appears in place of said tree. When the player swaps the axe for the hammer, it only takes a few more mouse clicks and a table appears where the pile of boards had been. The real world has a tough time competing with that. In addition, the pride that we might expect they would feel only from making something in the real world, is available to them in the virtual world as well. Because these games are multiplayer internet games, my students are playing them with their friends at all hours with no geographic restrictions. Those who are good at them can show off and share their skills with many more people than they could ever show their real world shop projects. They also have access to items they “made” in school anywhere they have an internet connection and a computer.
The social aspect of these games is an important part of the appeal. The chance to feel competent within a large community while doing something one enjoys is very seductive. If I did not believe so deeply in the value of the skills a student can learn in shop I’d be tempted to throw in the towel, and just say, “Let them have their fun.” But much of what is hardest to “sell” about shop is what makes it so valuable. While I make an effort to help students make their projects in a reasonable length of time, their projects often take a few weeks to complete, as opposed to a few mouse clicks. The process also requires planning, manual dexterity, accuracy, and above all patience. Many of these skills can be translated to other classes and areas of their lives. Math is the most obviously transferable of these skills. But in shop one must read and interpret instructions as well. Both in school and out, what I hope students will learn, more than any particular wood working technique, is patience, planning, and the ability to carry a project through to completion.
Oddly enough, since the time I started developing this essay, a student asked me to write a note to his classroom teacher. In part it read, “Save me from myself and sign me up for woodshop recess every day, because I am addicted to computers.” Now, he was only half kidding, but since that note he has come down to shop every day and is working on a beautiful 1/8th model of a rowboat. Now, that’s a hopeful sign.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave M permalink
    November 20, 2013 8:22 pm

    I applaud your resolve to promote the hands-on education that is shop class. Your takeaways — patience, planning, and the ability to carry a project through to completion — are surely qualities that need to be emphasized in today’s “here and now” culture. A culture in which a simple click on the mouse button can get you what you want from eBay or Amazon …right here, right now! Much like the virtual world that is Minecraft,

    I would add another takeaway to your list…the pride and satisfaction in a job well-done; emphasis on “done.” What I remember most about the stepstool, the meat tenderizer or the sheet metal tool box that I made in high school shop, is that they were the product of my own two hands. They were not the most-beautiful or most-perfect pieces of work…but they were mine. Done, finito, complete!

    I have never played Minecraft…so perhaps this sense of accomplishment translates. But I find it hard to believe that a virtual stepstool will ever provide the sense of accomplishment I have when I use my stepstool to get to those sweaters off the top shelf in my closet. Forty years later and it works a well as the day I finished it. Surely those Mindcraft tables you described can’t provide the same sense of accomplishment.

    Take pride in the unique opportunities and skill you provide the kids that sign up for woodshop recess. Keep it up, Malcolm…you rock!

    • November 20, 2013 8:43 pm

      Thank you very much for the comment. I really appreciate it. The point that i was trying to get a across was that my students sometimes get a small dose of the satisfaction that you obviously felt from making, even in the virtual world. That, combined with the ease and speed with which they can “make” things on-line, makes competing with computers for their time a challenge. My hope is that they will eventually learn the real satisfaction that comes of making real things. However, it is a challenge that, as i am sure you would agree, is worth it. That is much of what keeps me coming into work every day.

  2. November 20, 2013 9:33 pm

    The lure of apparent instant gratification is something that many of us struggle with, not just the kids. But the deeper rewards possible from the “workmanship of risk” justify the struggle to get kids to experience them. Glad you’re fighting the good fight. [By the way: the Dearborn Academy link is missing a colon.]

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