Letting Down the Next Generation of Woodworkers

shop class I’m a big fan of Mike Rowe, the “Dirty Jobs” guy. I say that having only seen a few episodes of that show. I came to know him from his Ted Talks, online interviews and his address to Congress. I think the message he preaches about hard work, safety, life in general make sense. His foundation supporting skilled trades is making a concerted effort to pick up the slack in our education system. His work and message seems to be the distilled opinion of the general public about trade education in our public school system, and I want to point out something that’s bugged me for quite a while because it’s letting down the next generation of woodworkers.

I spent many years teaching in what is considered one of the better public school districts in Texas. My certification was Technology Applications, which meant I taught mainly computer classes such as business programs, digital media, web mastering, computer science and the like. I was asked to and did get “Tech Ed” certified so if needed I could step in and teach some shop classes. (The ridiculousness of that certification test is a whole blog post unto itself). But it was unlikely that’d ever be my main teaching focus because of the five large high schools in the district, there was really only one decent woodworking program.

The only reason that single program still existed was because of the teacher, a 30+ year veteran. He was a brilliant carpentry instructor and the district promoted the fact that his kids could go straight to a jobsite. Personally, he was proud his kids would be able to fix everyday things for the rest of their lives. Even though he had a full complement of industrial power tools that’d fit right in at a cabinet shop, most of the work was about reading blue prints, zoning and building codes, building walls, basic plumbing and wiring, etc. When he retired, the program was eliminated in favor of a more computer-based education.

This is a common situation. People have been lamenting the disappearance of shop classes in our public school system all across the country for decades and it’s our own damn fault because of how we’ve been marketing this type of education for generations. And what’s strange to me is it’s so radically different than every other activity we push kids toward during their development years.

shop class Think about all the elective classes offered during your school years or activities toward which your parents guided you. How many of us started musical instrument classes as a kid?  Our parents led us in that direction so we’d develop our mathematical thinking capabilities, be able to better appreciate and enjoy the art form, make friends, plus maybe find an activity we’d enjoy for a lifetime. When you first signed up for orchestra or band or were given a keyboard from Sears, do you really think in the back of their minds your parents were thinking that you could get a job with this skill?

When we take kids to art classes it seems most parents are motivated by expanding the creative side of their kids development so they’ll be better problem solvers and communicators while having fun and making friends. Turning a kid into a mural painter probably isn’t the plan.

With the exception of football (I live in Texas), I doubt many parents think their kids are going pro when they sign up for a team sport. Development of teamwork, communication skills, competitive aptitude, work ethic and a respect for healthy living are more likely the motivation.

But when a child reaches 8th or 9th grade, that’s when shop classes start being offered – not as an exploration of creativity, but of job/career possibilities. Because there are jobs that need filling.

Recently I overheard a very good guidance counselor talking to a kid about her course selections for the upcoming school year. This girl was discussing taking orchestra and the counselor was asking things like, “Oh, you like music?” When the discussion turned to woodshop, the discussion turned to becoming an architect or builder. For me, this illustrates our society’s mentality towards the crafts in school.

Why is it that craft is so career focused while every other subject area taught in our public school system is more generalized or inquisitive in nature? Do we really expect every math student to progress to become mathematicians or is it knowledge, thought processes and basic life skills that are learned? Sure those who show interest may progress to work for MIT, but they’re outliers. The same can be said for the other core curriculum subjects – as well as electives and sports.

So at a the time in life when we have to most opportunities to learn, develop, explore and enjoy subjects, we limit the availability of the crafts to those who self-select them as a career path. We’re marketing to the outliers. By doing so we also limit the development of ancillary benefits of learning crafts.

That’s where we are letting our kids down the most – and thus the next generation of woodworkers.

If we were to shift our focus from career orientation to ancillary skill development then I believe two big things will happen: The general populous will see greater value in the subject matter thus enrollment in craft-centered classes will balloon; and because more people are introduced to the subject, we’ll find more people choosing it as a career path.

Here are just some of the ancillary benefits I see for woodworking:

  • Technology Skills. In a world where 3D-modeling rules, why aren’t we encouraging woodworking to develop 3D visualization skills at the very time a kid’s brain is molding higher cognitive skills? Let them carve out a bird from a block. Build a chair from a bunch of sticks. See the relations of 2D drawings to 3D reality. Seating kids at a computer to learn CAD teaches a skill that will likely be outdated and demoted by the time they reach the workforce. Better to develop a brain that can think like the types of programs they will use; the computer skills can be picked up later if needed.
  • Focus development. Woodworking is not a fast paced, wham-bam process. How many activities in a kid’s life have that attribute today? Letting a kid express artistic creativity by carving a single panel of a chest, maybe a half-hour to hour at a time of intense focus, can help develop an attribute that isn’t practiced much in our modern lives.
  • Emotional Outlet. The type of focus woodworking demands allows the mind to wander, to think through things, to slow down and reveal new tangents, to examine beliefs and formalize character. Basically it’s personal thinking time. A student’s role model could even plant subjects for students to contemplate. “Actions vs Intent”, “Ideals vs Reality”, “Service vs Production”, etc.
  • Communication Skills. From designer, to builder, to finisher, to sales, modern woodworking is the model of modern communication. By combining electronic, oral, visual, print and abstract communication, students get practice in maximizing communication efficiency.
  • Relationship Skills. While it probably wouldn’t be prudent to promote to a high school crowd, woodworkers make the best lovers. (Side Note: We need to encourage more women into the craft!). There are lots of activities that develop hand control, strength, dexterity and endurance … but all at the same time? A woodworker spends hours exercising and developing strength, feel and control in their hands, plus a mentality to appreciate curves and textures, and is willing to spend hours manipulating them to make them their best. These are trasferrable skills…if perhaps a later in life.

So what do you think? What are more benefits of woodworking education for young folks?

— Shawn Graham

17 thoughts on “Letting Down the Next Generation of Woodworkers

  1. SteveJ

    Excellent article. There are additional problems not addressed here.
    I am a retired toolmaker active in the local tooling and machining assoc. The national organization has a wonderful video presentation promoting skilled trades that is geared to high school students. We have a very difficult time getting to show our video to high school students because the schools do no want to take the time to let us in. Mostly because they spend all of their time teaching what is on the yearly ISTEP test that is used to evaluate schools and teachers. They also receive their funding and pay based on these results. Between government specified tests and “No child left behind”, schools do not have time for much else. It is a shame but it is reality.
    The educational ranking of our young people in the world has dropped dramatically in the last 25-30 years. Much of the reason is because of the ideas brought out in this article. But a lot of the problem is also because the government has gotten involved in education, and their ideas are not working.
    If we can put education back in the hands of the educators, I believe a lot of the misguided directions we now experience would be redirected.

  2. neobassman

    Bravo Shawn, for sharing your thoughts on this. For another perspective on the benefits of manual classes in schools, some may want to ready my blog post at http://wordpress.ssfs.org/?p=2384. Warning to xMike and others, it’s even longer than Shawn’s, so if you just read headlines, you may want to skip it…

  3. Nate_WY

    We are currently fighting this trend in our local high school. We have a large wood shop program along with a great automotive shop, a large metal shop and an agriculture shop. There is a new high school being built here and the shop space for all programs in the new facility has been cut to about 1/3 of the current space. The wood shop will be about 2000 square feet as opposed to the current 6000 square feet. The auto program is being cut from 6 bays to 2 bays. The metal and ag shops are being combined into one space that is smaller than current two shops.

    We are fighting to get the new space expanded. It has been proposed by the idiots in charge that these programs are becoming obsolete. I would offer that these idiots in charge will not work on their own vehicles, fix anything at their own houses or build anything useful. All they do is sit in offices and create policies that hinder the rest of the world.

    I have always enjoyed building things even from the time I was little. My parents encouraged this and my dad took the time to help me learn about building things and gave me the gift of freedom in the shop. When I reached Junior High, I had a teacher that taught me how to use a metal lathe and a mill. I learned how to draw by hand my plans from the same teacher. I then went on to high school where I had a wood teacher that taught us how to use all the machines in the shop. Not only did he teach us the machines, he taught us how to plan and design whatever we were building. He also took the time to teach us how to frame, drywall, run electrical etc. I spent my time in college working in construction. I knew what I was doing thanks to my dad and my wood shop teacher. I started my own business building and repairing homes. I also build wood products in my shop. I would never have even thought of heading down this road had it not been for my early educational experiences.

    It is frustrating that the current learning environment encourages compartmentalization with a healthy dose of technology. Creates a generation of people not able to do for themselves.

  4. MarkSmith

    I agree with Shawn’s comments completely, but there are also other things working against shop classes. One of these is the grade point arms race. For core subjects, a student can get 6 points for an A, but only 4 points for an A in Shop class. Any student worried about going to college, or worried about getting a scholarship to go to college, will be reluctant to risk a hit to the GPA by taking SHOP class.

  5. cowboy

    I put in a rant about this on my blog here… http://taylorbenchworks.blogspot.ca/2012/02/shop-class-lesson-learned.html copy and paste if you care to read it. But this guy has a point and most are missing it. What is all this learning if you cannot apply it. Education is trying to make eggheads out of everyone. Someone has to unplug the shitter. Put a roof over your head so you don’t get wet while looking at FB. Pave the roads so you can drive your fat ass to the store for chips. Machine parts for the rocket that puts the satellite in orbit so you can watch UFC bouts. How many people do you know who have furniture that fails to perform the function it should because it is crap. Lots I am sure. Shop belongs in the system. Do your part to have it reinstated or do like I do and teach anyone who is willing to try.

  6. Christopher

    •Emotional Outlet. THE TYPE OF FOCUS WOODWORKING DEMANDS ALLOWS THE MIND TO WANDER, to think through things, to slow down and reveal new tangents, to examine beliefs and formalize character. Basically it’s personal thinking time. A student’s role model could even plant subjects for students to contemplate. “Actions vs Intent”, “Ideals vs Reality”, “Service vs Production”, etc.

    What is this drivel? I think you’ve been to one too many gobbledygook personal development seminars in your time as an “educator”.

    1. ctdahle

      Really? Maybe Mr Graham ain’t Hemingway, but I think you missed the point. Maybe you need to let your mind wander a bit…

  7. Mostly Square

    I would disagree with xMike. I thought this was one of the best written and thoughtful articles of its kind that I’ve read in a long time. It is long for this type of venue, but it speaks to it’s purpose.

    When I went to high school in the late 60’s I could take music, art, and shop, but not together. I had to decide. My mother was an artist, and I wanted to take art classes. I also wanted to take drafting, but could do so only if I took shop and abandoned art and music. So to me shop came as an afterthought. After a career in the sciences and accountancy I can look back and say that shop class provided me the best education and most valuable life skills of all. As I enter my retirement, I’ll never prepare another tax return (other than my wife’s and my own), but I’ll spend thousands of hours in my workshop making beautiful things.

    1. Shawn Graham - wortheffort woodworking Post author

      I always like the step stool analogy. You spend about the same amount of time on a step stool as a spreadsheet. Decades later do you still think about that spreadsheet. How about the step stool the next grand kid is using to brush his/her teeth.

      Making beautiful things definitely has it’s place.

  8. seawolfe

    As a kid, I took alarm clocks apart and sometimes got them back together, I took shop classes, made things and smashed my thumb with a hammer. My social skills are not the best but I seem to be the guy people go to fix something or build something or solve a computer problem. All that because I liked to actually do things and get my hands dirty. When I finally got that degree, the powers to be took the requirement for learning how to weld, run a lathe, a mill and melt metal out of the program so they could get certified! What a loss! I will always remember a experience I had in one of my first engineering jobs, another engineer, who came from a fancier school and got better grades than I, specied a part with no tolerance. Not a + or – . I challenged the design. That person did not have a clue why it was important. He had never built anything and had no idea about all the trouble, time, expense, and effort that went into the actual build. Assembling parts made by others, sometime across the world, is dependent on understanding the simple concepts that you learn through actually building something, sometimes the hard way in the shop by yourself nursing the smashed thumb. What you say is more true than you realize. A little guidance from someone who has already smashed their finger shortens the learning curve and avoids the pain. It teaches an appreciation of the world around us and not on the screen. It benefits us in so many unpredictable ways. I went through school using the same computer than my father did, a K&E slide rule, and I know how and why it works! I still don’t get it that someone has to hirer a plumber when it take less time to fit a problem than to make the phone call. But I digress, now where is that old chisel?

  9. xMike

    Hi Shawn,
    Great paper. Too wordy for an article. If you could say the same thing in a lot fewer words, a lot more people would benefit from actually reading it to the end.

  10. Macbass

    This is a subject that has bugged me for years. I am retired but was Engineer and I can tell you that the reason I went down that path was because of High school shop classes. Today I enjoy woodworking in my retirement and that spark was struck by my 8th grade wood shop teacher.
    Let keep shops in our schools.

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