Should Your Honor Student be in Shop Class?

Matthew Crawford’s essay in New York Times Magazine last weekend, “The Case for Working With Your Hands” really resonated with me. The primary focus is the intellectual challenges and rewards of repairing motorcycles, as compared with “knowledge work” jobs that our society seems to value. But one point at the end captured my attention:

The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason, then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly things can go wrong even with the best of intentions (like when I dropped that feeler gauge down into the Ninja). In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?

As a student, I was often frustrated with school. The frustration stemmed from the contrived problems we were asked to solve, and the often contrived methods. This was particularly challenging in science classes, where hands on experiments were used to validate conclusions which were easily derived from information in the textbook. In mathematics, similarly, we covered only topics mathematiciansa had finished with long ago, even though we mechanistically approached them as if they were new. In both cases, it might have been nice to try to solve a problem with an actual unknown answer. Similar problems came up in classes like history, where most of the research was on well-worn topics.

Most “gifted” education is simply more challenging or more advanced versions of mainstream education. Some students do benefit from early introduction to good literature or high-school math, but I think the reason this strategy is popular is because it is easy on teachers. They are able to stay in their comfort zone, covering material only slightly more advanced than the material they usually cover.

Doing real science, or real mathematics, or even real history, may be beyond the abilities of many teachers. However, there is no requirement that gifted education be based on the core academic pursuits on which students are already focused. The core academic subject are very abstract areas, and professional competency not only requires years of study, it is very difficult to measure. There is probably more benefit to doing something real, with success and failure and where abilities can be applied and challenge, than to doing things which fit into the existing topics of education.

Working with your hands has easy, short term measures of success and failure. It’s is possible to achieve performance that is comparable to a professional much more easily in carpentry than in algebraic topology. This isn’t to say you will be a professional woodworker in short order. But your amateur woodworking, with its flaws and limitations, lends itself to measurement and learning from mistakes.

Studying a trade will give gifted students a sense of concrete accomplishment. They are rarely presented with challenges where they can see for themselves how well they have done, and how they could do better. Instead they compete in abstract ways against contrived problems and abstract metrics applied by far away individuals and organizations.

Who hasn’t met a gifted student who could have used more early experience with failure?

1 Comment »

  1. Jered Floyd says:

    Readily perceived failure isn’t the only value in working with your hands, and in fact the shop class (or mechanical engineering) lessons that most need to be learned are the failures that aren’t readily apparent. (Consider the Tacoma Narrows bridge, or the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. I think that working with your hands gives a very valuable physicality to information concepts. Classes like 6.270 and 2.70 where you have to build devices in the physical world allow students to learn far more about the underlying concepts than pure textbook experiments.

    Since it happened, I’ve mourned the switch of 6.004 from discrete TTL logic devices, wired by hand, to FPGAs. Yes, the FPGAs are more like what students will be using in the real world, but I think being able to trace logic by hand in a physical embodiment provides for a much deeper level of understanding.