Left Ed: Summer Beach Edition

by: jeffbinnc

Sun Aug 08, 2010 at 13:00


I'm spending a week on the outer banks of North Carolina, so today's post will be much lighter than usual. And instead of focusing on education policy I am thinking more about the nature and content of education itself and how out of sorts our nation is in terms of seeing math and reading standardized test scores as the only meaningful measurements of academic achievement.

Sharing a house on the outer banks with my friend Bill, who I've written about previously here has brought me into contact with a circle of artisans, craft workers, and  contractors - the makers and fixers in our society - who have prompted me to think about an overlooked aspect of school reform that is rarely discussed in the media - even among the ed-press. What I'm talking about is the now ancient concept of what was called vocational education when I was growing up and whether it still has a place in the curriculum.

While much of the emphasis among the education community is on "21st century skills and common core standards that completely ignore the notion of education for the trades, there is still a need for people who work with their hands. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford explains how this negligence came about:

"Around 1985, articles began to appear in education journals with such titles as 'The Soaring Technology Revolution' and 'Preparing Kids for High-Tech and the Global Future.' Of course, there us nothing new about American futurism. What is new is the wedding of futurism to what might be called 'virtualism: a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. New and yet not so new - for fifty years now we've been assured that we are headed for a 'postindustrial society.' While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, th manual trades have not. If you need a deck built, or you car fixed, the Chinese are no help. Because they are in China. And in fact there are chronic labor shortages in both construction and auto repair. Yet the trades and manufacturing have long been lumped together in the minds of the pundit class as 'blue collar,' their requiem is intoned.

Crawford points out how schools create artificial learning environments that children know to be contrived while in the meantime there are readymade opportunities to engage them in useful arts that are intrinsically satisfying and cognitively challenging. Educators far too often push a false dichotomy of thinking vs. doing - a notion that arose from a designed degradation of all forms of work into a "clerkdom" engineered principally by the military industrial complex and high finance.

What Crawford and other advocates for education in the trades point out is that there is an overlap of the notions of "meaningful work" and "self reliance" that is being totally ignored in our education system. And what gets lost is the concept of "individual agency," in which we come to view ourselves as having a handle on our world rather than being at the mercy of impersonal forces from afar.

Food for thought . . . now back to the beach.

jeffbinnc :: Left Ed: Summer Beach Edition

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Excellent thoughts, Jeff! (4.00 / 4)
As one who has seen in his lifetime two careers offshored (well, one I'm still in but by the skin of my teeth) - one "blue collar" and one "white collar" I have a perhaps unusual perspective on this.

I find the careers (skilled machinist and computer programmer) more similar than different.  Both involve the ability to "make something useful" and to think about the most efficient means of doing so.  Both allow the job satisfaction that comes from doing a job well.  But both kinds of skill are the kind that drive management groups crazy, because managing such people means managing someone who knows more than you do about some aspect of the operation, and this makes the manager dependent on the employee to an extent that the manager often is not psychologically prepared to handle.

Thus the drive to "rationalize" production, "deskilling", or as with computer programming, get it offshore, reduce it to a commodity, at all costs.  This usually works out badly, but is inevitable as long as there is a managerial elite class that not only believes that it deserves its overlord position, but considers maintaining that position its main priority - to the extent of not believing itself accountable in any way for the well-being of its underlings.  No noblesse oblige here, please.  

We should not be organizing our society primarily to allow the continued dominance of the elites, but more and more we are.  Witness the squealing like stuck pigs of the Wall St. elites over even the mostly symbolic efforts of the Obama administration to imply that their gains are other than 100% legitimately earned.

When we used to hear, back in the eighties, "we don't want those kinds of jobs in the new America", I always wanted to say, "who's we, motherfucker?  Speak for yourself, not for me."

We need a balanced economy that recognizes the value both in hand-work and in mind-work.  Things like apprenticeships need to be valued more than they are.  Inevitably this will mean that college no longer be deemed essential or the determinant of whether a person is a "success" or a "failure" in life.  Getting there is one of the key places where Reaganism->neoliberalism needs to be rolled back?

sTiVo's rule: Just because YOU "wouldn't put it past 'em" doesn't prove that THEY did it.


Thanks for this sTiVo (0.00 / 0)
What you're talking about in terms of "making something useful" is directly related to what I think Crawford is talking about when he suggests that education in the form of shop classes gives students an understanding of how applied knowledge in the form of making and fixing stuff resonates from meaningful learning into self-reliance. And what the corporate state we're evolving toward is totally against that.

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
Hitting close to home on this one (4.00 / 4)
I can't agree more. One of the common misperceptions I've experienced from school boards, administrators and parents is that "shop class" is nothing more than sanding block of wood for "marginal" students. "Working with ones hands" is too often seen as menial labor having little if anything to do with higher order thinking. In my experience, this couldn't be further from the truth.

If you look at well designed Tech Ed programs, you'll find these subject areas focus on problem solving as taught through the design process - whether housed in construction trades, automotive, or engineering, design or any variety of tech program of study. Knowledge and application of the design process is a critical to adapting to and overcoming any problem presented in society. Rarely is the design process touched upon in any other curriculum in schools today, yet it is core to all modern Tech Ed curriculums. Application is a critical factor that all too often curriculum design in "core" subjects excludes.

In most schools, Tech Ed classes are seen as "lesser" than the "college prep" classes. AP and Honors classes bring prestige building statistics to a school, and are often looked at closely in state and national school rankings. Tech Ed and Voc Ed offer no such glamor or perks to state and national school ratings.

What we are seeing with initiatives like STEM is the branching out of Tech Ed into the more traditional academic fields, showing more often than not Tech and Voc Ed can be the common glue that provides real world application to more obscure science and math concepts. However, these initiatives can be seen as ways to eliminate positions or subjugate curriculum into core academic subjects where the material has a greater potential to be glossed over or applied in rote outcomes that produce one single solution.

Key to the design process is that in the real world, there is no one correct solution. Factors such as time, material, budget, environment, political climate, etc.  all factor into creating solutions that are often imperfect, but fit the overall criteria. The difference between a one-week mod unit and a full blown curriculum is like watching one of those home improvement shows where the host says to insert the window and check for plumb and level - but never explains what to do when that 50-year old house the new window is being installed into isn't ever plumb or level.

I routinely see students refuse to take these classes for fear to hurting their GPA due to this stigma. In my school I see students go off to college for engineering or architecture with absolutely no idea or exposure to these fields. Essentially, this leaves students who are college bound less prepared, and students who not college bound completely unprepared for the work world.



If teaching is so easy, then by all means get your degree, pass your certification test(s), get your license, and see if you can last longer than the five years in the classroom 50% of those who enter the profession never make it to.


Is there some way to score this comment a 10? (4.00 / 2)
Tech Ed classes are seen as "lesser" than the "college prep" classes. AP and Honors classes bring prestige building statistics to a school...

I'd argue that Tech Ed is seen as "lesser," and AP/Honors as more prestigious to parents, too.  How may attorneys do I know that hate practicing Law.  Docs that are unhappy practicing medicine.  Psychologists miserable doing therapy.  Too many to count.  Many have developed avocations which bring them a lot more joy, and the fortunate ones have tossed their professions over to pursue them.

Your points about the complementarity between the "abstract" and the "concrete" are too self-evident to need comment from me.

Enjoy the beach, jeffbinnc!  


[ Parent ]
There's Irony in Here, Too (4.00 / 1)
My parents both stressed that college, the BA degree, was to learn how to think, how to identify problems, marshall resources and solutions, then implement solutions. They pushed their kids to major in English, Political Science, or History, where students are forced to read, absorb, and think. Grad school was for the law degree or MBA or MFA or MS or whatever, if we wanted.

What strikes me about your comment is that kids who learn design (what I would call problem solving) in high school in a vocational class actually are ahead of their peers. They can do more before college. Now some high school classes teach you how to think but most of them are rote classes. It's ironic that a maligned vocational program actually would put kids ahead of their peers.

What I've learned as an adult and a parent is that there is great value in being a widget in society, personalizing your role, and making time for yourself in your off hours. Playing rat in the corporate maze actually is a waste of time for many people because they'll never rise to a level of material success they need and they'll spend all kinds of overtime in that doomed effort.

In many ways, working as a mechanic or a teacher or a government employee, assuming you are passionate about your work and you do it well and you engage your work in a constructive and personal fashion, that could be far more satisfying to more people than the corporate rate race. If you had told me this insight in my twenties, I would not have believed you. Yet I have a friend who's worked for UPS as a driver for decades, had a great time, saved his money and bought land, and now he's in a position to retire. There's a lot to be said for the "staid" blue collar life, in other words, if it is infused with our personal interests and values.


[ Parent ]
Design and Problem Solving (0.00 / 0)
Just like the scientific method, the design process is a well established course of action that can and should be taught - and is the basis for a well designed Tech Ed curriculum. It is a problem solving methodology, but where the scientific method seeks to divine the understanding through the testing of hypothesis, the design process seeks to create a solution to a challenge that involves multiple correct solutions that address a wide variety of factors. In this way, the design process focuses on synthesis and evaluation.

If teaching is so easy, then by all means get your degree, pass your certification test(s), get your license, and see if you can last longer than the five years in the classroom 50% of those who enter the profession never make it to.

[ Parent ]
Design Ed (4.00 / 1)
Well, judging by what's being taught in one of the more exclusive private schools in the crucible of innovation for this country, it sounds like the technology leaders in the US (who send their kids to that school) agree with you.  Nueva School is a private school for gifted kids that is located in Silicon Valley.  They joined together with Stanford to build a design program for their students and which they open up to local kids during summer camp:  http://nuevaschool.org/program...

Our daughter took a one week class in tinkering at Nueva this summer that included instruction in brainstorming and prototype building, together with an invention store the last day where the kids had to "sell" their inventions.  She loved it.  So the public schools might not be there yet, but the schools that people who have the $$$ to opt out send their kids to, seem to agree with you.

Voter Genome Project


[ Parent ]
Old thinking made new (0.00 / 0)
Things like rapid prototyping are key to design, and need to be integrated into design curriculum, especially for engineering. But even with the cost of RP machines coming down, they are still large capital expenses for most schools at a $5 - 10K minimum investment, and then substantial costs for the media they use to produce the prototype. But building prototypes teaches evaluation skills that lead to better designs and more complete understanding.

Also, brainstorming is something people take for granted, but really needs to be taught to be done correctly. This is a critical skill for kids to learn as without it they generally become too self critical of new ideas (that's a stupid idea!) and always work within their comfort zone of known information and skills they feel confident about (I don't know how to do X but I know how to do Y). This type of thinking doesn't lead to innovation. True brainstorming stretches the possible and brings ideas to light that require new learning and the trying of new ideas.

If teaching is so easy, then by all means get your degree, pass your certification test(s), get your license, and see if you can last longer than the five years in the classroom 50% of those who enter the profession never make it to.


[ Parent ]
I'm glad you brought up the point about STEM initiatives. (4.00 / 1)
Reading today that many of the winners of the "innovation" grant money from the fed government emphasized STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math), I'm informed that much of the emphasis is on being more "innovative" rather than helping schools and teachers do what a lot of them already know how to do in the realms of Tech and Voc Ed.  

Save Our Schools! March & National Call to Action, July 28-31, 2011 in Washington, DC: http://www.saveourschoolsmarch...

[ Parent ]
STEM = Current Hot Buzzword (0.00 / 0)
STEM is a great concept, and one that I like many other Tech Teachers have been  including in our curriculum long before it had a nifty acronym.  But the term is in vogue right now, and as such will be highlighted greatly in the Administration and Legislative arenas.

Also note in that article that the winners highlighted were largely science based. Tech Ed organizations like ISTE have partnered with the National Science Foundation a long time ago as many of the concepts are readily transferable.

If teaching is so easy, then by all means get your degree, pass your certification test(s), get your license, and see if you can last longer than the five years in the classroom 50% of those who enter the profession never make it to.


[ Parent ]
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