Time to use the “C” word………..

It is a common fallacy in education that the end of the summer term is quieter; post exams some of our pupils are not in school freeing us teachers up to catch up with all the admin, plan exciting new projects and generally make whoopee.  The reality is somewhat different.  Lesson observations, sports day, field trips, concerts, fund raisers; you name it and we try to cram it into the last four weeks of school.  Just to add to the mix there is the prospect of strike action over government proposals to alter teacher’s pensions.  This is probably not the place to get into that discussion however as the same government is setting out to attract only the best graduates to the teaching profession perhaps the connection between this ambition and cutting pension arrangements is lost on them.

This week is a busy one for my team as we gear up to take part in DesignEd, a great exhibition of design  technology work from schools and colleges all over Cornwall.  If you are near enough it is well worth a visit.  University College Falmouth host the event at their Tremough Campus, the opening is on Wedenesday evening, schools visit on Friday and public viewing is on the Saturday.   The range and quality of work that our young people produce is amazing, come along and have a look, it will provide you with a perfect opportunity to consider the issues that I am about to raise.

Regular readers, (or those of you who check the older posts) will not be surprised by what I am about to say.  I finally got round to ordering a copy of  “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett, (my edition, Penguin 2009)  If you know the work and your edition is already heavily underlined, dog eared from use and full of your  margin notes then you will understand my excitement.  His acknowledgments set out his cris de coeur, “Making is thinking”.  Yes!  Sennett defines his notion of craftsmanship widely, encountering it in the performing arts, medicine, parenting and computer programming as well as the more conventional craft practices.  He goes on to say that, “Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.”   The core of the discussion aims to recombine the elements of intellectual thought and practical activity that at least in western thought have become separated.  With their separation came a stratification in a kind of neoplatonic schism between the person who engages with the physical world and the higher being who deals in abstract thought.  Is it only in the UK that this separation has lead to the core construct that dominates so much debate; those who do something but think are  intellectually lesser beings than those who do nothing but think?

I find a parallel in the history of the rise of the artist.  Initially quite unashamedly part of the craft system artists gradually separated themselves from it in order to establish a distinct and socially superior status.  Sennett illustrates his point by example, using instances where analysts of craft practice have been unable to describe it satisfactorily; he concludes that this is because what constitutes craft is not capable of description by language.  All too often the skills of the wordsmith, if I may be forgiven for using a crafts based adjective, are not up to the task of comprehensively describing the work of the blacksmith.   Of greater significance is the argument that the distinction between making and thinking is at best arbitrary, the reality is that they are not opposed, rather making is one way in which humans think.  In this model Descartes statement, “I think therefore I am”, becomes what it was always meant to be, a starting point, not an expression of the highest from of human activity.

For some time now the word craft has been that which dares not speak its name as far as education is concerned.  The reasons for this are largely positional, several generations of teachers were prepared for their careers by being inculcated into the mysteries of a craft in an echo of the medieval system of craft transmission and protection.  My own tutors were the pupils of second generation Arts and Crafts designer makers.  I was given an excellent grounding in cabinet making, silversmithing and engineering.  Educators anxious to change the way that design was both taught and understood in education wanted to shift the perspective to a more contemporary view of what constituted the cutting edge of the subject and, ever mindful of the force of a name changed the subject first to Craft, Design and Technology and more recently to Design and Technology.   The subject matter and underlying philosophy of the subject as we know it today has emerged through debate and the formulation of a National Curriculum.  It has been, and for some schools continues to be no easy matter for staff to change the way in which they perceive their subject and how they teach it.  For some the struggle has been too great a challenge but in almost all schools Design Technology thrives and is one of the most popular subjects chosen by pupils at exam level.  This last is certainly not because the subject is perceived as easy or non academic by those who study it, quite the reverse.  For most pupils the range of challenges posed by the subject and the demands of producing work of very high quality at a young age result in a sense of satisfaction and achievement which they do not necessarily find in other subjects.

In a largely unrecognised irony the craft community are struggling to come to terms with the impact of technology, fearing that in some way technology is cheating.  At the interface between craft and digital technology there are some fascinating developments and as we refine what we do and how we do it the boundaries will become even more blurred.  In the final analysis it will,  as always be an individual choice by the maker, a choice driven by the degree to which the maker can think with  freedom and fluidity by using digital techniques.  Sennett sounds a warning note here, for many designers the facile use of CAD techniques stifles the creativity they so long for and limits their engagement with the materials and processes of their craft.  Well at least teaching the subject will never become boring.

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