Some of the truth about making things…………..

The thrill of creation, designed and made by one of our pupils.

I am privileged to meet and work with quite a number of teachers of Design Technology, teachers who love their subject and love teaching children.  For anyone reading this who is not up to speed with UK education Design Technology is the name given to a grouping of subjects whose common themes are the processes of tackling problems to do with designing and making; in my own school we teach pupils how to design and make in resistant materials, graphics, electronics and  food.  That may seem an odd grouping but there are some common themes and one of them is that they all involve making an outcome.  It is the making that is on my mind.

The real issue is this: if you are reading this and you are a maker you will understand what I am talking about.  If you do not know what it is to be a maker then you probably won’t understand and that is the point.  Underlying almost all of our western thinking is the implicit idea that intellectual activity is more sophisticated, or of greater worth than physical activity. ( Admittedly there are some problems surrounding the arts, which are generally regarded as high brow but nevertheless have to deal with sensory experience and the physical.  More of that in another post perhaps.) All too often that assumption is made by people who do not have the experience to make a valid judgment.  The origin of our word technology gives a clue to the problem.  The Greek techne, meaning skill, art or knack, and the word logos, meaning word.  In other words the use of language to think about a set of processes that are not conducted verbally in the first instance.

Think for a moment about the four stages in acquiring a real skill, any skill.  The first is unconscious incompetence, you don’t realise that you cannot do something.  Next comes conscious incompetence, the realisation that you cannot do something, followed by conscious competence as you learn to do something by thoughtfully carrying out the steps in the process with a greater or lesser degree of skill.  Finally unconscious competence, mastery, the performance of a highly skilled process without conscious thought.  The figure much talked about at the moment is that to arrive at full and unconscious competence takes around 10,00 hours of practice. Thats a lot of practice!  My pupils get by in total with around eighty hours a year in my subject.  Most people never arrive at full competence in more than one or two disciplines in a lifetime.  The real unfortunates never discover their expertise.  If you would like to pursue that line of inquiry read ” The Element”  by Ken Robinson (Penguin 2009)

Let us now take the example of a truly gifted and expert violinist.  (By the way, in this country according to education chiefs a pupil can be gifted in maths, geography or science but only talented in art, music or design.  I find it always pays to put these ideas into use, e.g.  “Michelangelo was quite a talented artist”.  We may have a problem with that idea.) Our violinist gives a wonderful performance of a piece of music and we listen to it enraptured.  In a multitude of ways we have wondered at the performance,  responded to it intellectually and emotionally, even felt it physically.  Do you know what it was like for the violinist to play like that?  I suppose the answer is, only if you are a violinist of comparable ability.

You can see where I am going with this.  If you are not a fully competent maker you may see an object and respond to it in wonder, just as the listener responds to the music, you may even experience that most treasured of aesthetic response when the work impacts on you physically, when your body responds without conscious thought.  Those of us who make at that level are far too bound up with the necessity of the constant pursuit of excellence to have the time to articulate the subtleties of the process.  And those few who do find both the time and the words   find their audience in those who share the bond of craft skill already.  Add to this problem the natural tendency of every human to valorise their own expertise against that of another and you have a situation where those who do not understand the psychology and physiology of making are the ones who arrive in positions of power where they can dictate the future of those whose expertise is not in the written or spoken word.  For example our secretary of state for education.

I found myself in the middle of what was, for me, a fairly complex building project.  I had enlisted family help and we had spent a very happy morning knocking down walls and shifting rubble.  I paused in my work, leaning on a shovel and immediately attracted the attention of one of my children who asked if this kind of work involved a lot of leaning on shovels and doing nothing.  In all fairness to her she had shifted about a ton and a half of stone by hand.  My cause was championed by my son in law who leapt to my defense.  “He’s working out the levels and what we still have to do in order to make the rest of the job possible.”  How true.  There are some physical tasks which are relatively routine and can be done with little mental effort, far fewer than the average person suspects.  Almost all making, of whatever kind, involves the maker in a constant stream of decisions, some conscious and derived from the intended aim, many more unconscious and based on acquired knowledge about the chosen material and how it can be cajoled to cooperate in the intention of the maker or what compromises need to be made between intent and material or technique.  That this is a difficult process to describe is evidenced by the evolution of the term tacit knowledge, coined by Polyani to describe the set of understandings used by makers which are not capable of description.   (An idea developed by Peter Dormer in his book, “The Art of the Maker, Thames and Hudson 1994)

In the brief time I have to work with my pupils I cannot take them to the level of mastery, what I can do is give them a taste of what it might be like, of the thrills, the pitfalls, the excitement and the deep contentment of being an accomplished maker.  I can show them a glimpse of the world of the maker so that,  if they choose a different path, they will at least have some grasp of that vast area of human experience and of what it means to achieve mastery in it.  I can offer some the chance to discover what it is to find a lifetime of challenge and satisfaction in making at whatever level.

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