“If you can’t play with it why bother?”

If you have been reading this blog for a while then my title will come as no surprise to you.  I came across it in one of those books of funny quotations from pupils work called “Must Try Harder” (McGreevy 2006). It sums up some of the way I have been thinking recently about the relationship between thought and action.  The picture with this post is of what I call a two day table.  The project involves working with a group of pupils who have chosen to study my subject which is called resistant materials in the UK, designing and making in woods, metals and plastics for the rest of us.  For most of the year we teach our pupils in short blocks of time, perhaps an hour, maybe two.  Now if you are any sort of designer maker you will understand the frustration of that kind of work pattern, no sooner have you got tools and resources out and thought your way to the right place to start working on the project than the time runs out and you have to pack it all away again.  Your work becomes disjointed, you lose the flow and if you are not very careful you start making mistakes.  To get round this we developed a really simple project using basic construction techniques and very limited materials.  The challenge was to design and make a small piece of furniture so that it was ready to take home in just two days.  It helps if you can spend a few minutes looking at some really good contemporary design and focus thinking on line and form.  You can use simple card modelling to get the idea right or you can mock up scale models with a laser cutter, in fact you can make it whatever you want.  (For a case study of this project follow this link, https://www.ssatrust.org.uk/teachingandlearning/practitionernetworks/dtlps/Pages/Personallearningandthinkingskills.aspx)

The point is that pupils get immersed in an experience of what it is to work at a project until it is finished, albeit against a time pressure.  We built in a few tricks and critical points so that we had everything glued up in time for the painting, used small rollers and water based paints to get speedy finishes and clear lacquer spray to complete.   It is amazing what pupils come up with as design ideas and when you get feedback like, “This is the best thing I have ever done, I’m really proud of myself”, you certainly feel as if you have made an impact.  It is likely that if you are reading this in the first place you will empathise with the pupils and possibly with me.  You might recognise the frustration of working in small chunks and relish the prospect of immersing yourself in designing and making. You might even use the phrase, “I know what you mean”.   If you are doing any or all of these things it is because you know what it is to engage in this kind of activity for yourself.   Let me ask you a question, how do you think it would be for someone who had never had the experience of designing and making?

Very frequently I find myself showing my pupils how to do something, the classic demonstration model of teaching.  Increasingly I find ways of setting the learning deeper in my pupils minds by engaging them in responding to such a demonstration, sometimes I tell them that they all need to find at least five questions to ask me about the process, sometimes we remember together the sequence of operations so that between them they agree what we should record.  At the end of this I ask them if they know how to do whatever I have shown them, the usual pat answer is, “Yes” but almost always there will be a more careful dissenter in the ranks who will qualify this with something to the effect that they won’t really know until they have done it for themselves.  So my learning objective for the next part of the lesson is, “Body learn…..”.  The message is obvious, you know it when you can do it, you think about it by doing it.

If you have not yet come across Matthew Crawford’s wonderful book, “The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good” ( Crawford 2009) get hold of a copy.  He explores the relationship between thinking and doing in detail and with some captivating insights.  Crawford manages to combine a career as a philosopher with running a motorbike repair shop and the collision of ideas results in some very interesting thoughts.  His chapter on Thinking as Doing is particularly relevant.  In it he says, “If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.”   Learning to think like a designer maker is not a simple set of skills relevant to one particular form of human activity, it becomes a way of constructing a personal world view, of creating a framework on which to hang not only specific knowledge but also moral and spiritual attributes. You can see why I like his writing.   Most importantly what this is all about is learning to think.  The motto of the college where I found my calling was “Cogitare est augere”, we jokingly translated it t mean, “Thinking is agony”.  We had not recognised exactly what was going on as we refined our craft skills and learned the basics of how to be teachers.

"Two day tables".









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