Again, we know that the human hand is a wonderful and exquisite instrument to be used in a hundred movements exacting delicacy, direction and force; every such movement is a cause of joy as it leads to the pleasure of execution and the triumph of success. We begin to understand this and make some efforts to train the young in the deft handling of tools and the practice of handcrafts. (Mason, 1989/1925A, p. 328-329)
The architect is a man of poetic temperament, of creative imagination, and of artistic taste and judgment: coupled with seeing eyes and deft hands, he must have scientific accuracy and constructive power; he is at once a designer, a builder, a man of culture, and a man of business. (Robins, 1890)
How does using our hands and our creative imagination connect with teaching our students in this wide large room of knowledge? Can we use arts and science to help stimulate our students to use their own creativity after main lessons? How are we using the ideas from reading about architecture and engineering to learn a new skill, initiated by the biography we’ve read about the person in history, geography, science? How are we using the new skill, to teach our students to live happy, fully engaged, satisfying lives? These are some of the questions that we can ask ourselves before diving into the world of architecture, engineering and craftsmanship studies.
As a teacher and parent, we do not know if our children will be architects, engineers, welders or carpenters. They may pursue a field in chemistry, politics, social work, or business. About half of a freshman class can easily change their major by their junior year in college. Many students do not even use their degree they so painstakingly acquired in college when getting out into the workforce. Many have a change of heart after working a few years in their chosen field of study, realizing that it is not something they want to pursue forever. These scenarios are not mentioned because the students were in the wrong; it is just part of growth as a developing individual and alterations in our society over a period of time that can cause a change in plans. Yet we would like our students to have some ideas, previously thought upon, that they can use to guide their decisions on what careers they would like to pursue in the future. As our Charlotte reminds us, “It rests with parents not only to give their children birth into the life of intelligence and moral power, but to sustain the higher life which they have been borne. Now that life, which we call education, receives only one kind of sustenance; it grows upon ideas. You may go through years of so-called ‘education’ without getting a single vital idea; and that is why many a well-fed body carries about a feeble, starved intelligence . . .” (Mason, 1989B, p. 33). As we provide our students with these vital ideas, many may use their hobbies to start their own businesses, becoming entrepreneurs–enjoying themselves more now, than when they were working for someone else in the corporate world.
This reminds me of a short time ago, watching my husband over the course of several weekends; I realized how happy he is with his hammer, screw gun, wood and level. He has always expressed his desire and a dream to own his own business, yet lack of assets has changed and altered his plans. Using his skills, passed down from grandpa to dad to son, my husband is very content using his hands and mind to plan, build and carry out his ideas in his head for a fun family project in the backyard.
Gathering up the kids, rising early, he starts his work before the sun has time to peek out from behind the trees. Even though it is hard, laborious work, we are all happily talking about how much supplies we will need to accomplish this sort of family project. Will the project fit within the financial budget and time frame that was already discussed during our family meeting? We pile out of the car at our local hardware store, with our list in hand, ready to accomplish the task of gathering supplies. And later on in the day, as we build the structure, we start thinking aloud. Who will be responsible for each of the different tasks needed to complete the project? Can the sequence of steps to be done, affect the outcome and end result? Who will measure to figure out the angles? Who will use their geometry and math skills to double-check the measurements are correct? What could we add onto it as to make good use of the space? Will there be enough room to share the space with friends, neighbors and community? How will we protect the tree with proper materials using the design thought upon? How will we give the tree room to grow and sway in the wind, yet endure the weight of each person? Hasn’t it been said, “The great secret to education is to combine mental and physical work so that one kind of exercise refreshes the other” (Larson, 1903, p. 10).
As the days pass, we are seeing with our eyes something that is visual; something that is measurable as the end product. We notice that our children enjoy the craftsmanship because it allows them to prove something to themselves. They revel in the confidence that comes from participating and completing a project from start to finish. And looking at my husband, I realized that this building project was likeable and enjoyable for him as well. There was a part of him, which was playfully engaged in the task at hand. He was using his mind and skills that took him beyond himself– into a different world almost, that required of him to be fully engaged. To use his mind and hands as he went along; he was figuring out how things worked so that the structure would be lasting and safe for the kids. Besides thinking of safety, he wanted it to be aesthetically beautiful as well. Creating something that can be used again (the reason for the screws, not nails), allowed him to be, not a consumer of stuff, but a creator of something beautiful, meaningful, useful and reusable. I think these opportunities for him to teach skills to our children, give him some joy and light in a corporate world that can be dull at times for the human heart and mind.
As I am gazing at the finished product, I see how the success of the project was more than just a lesson on the skills of building. It also was a lesson on creating something, being involved in finishing a task, and being happy during the challenge of a goal. I start to think of the builders and engineers that we have read about this past year. Their inspiring work of planning towns, inventing concrete, building aqueducts, plumbing bath houses–these Romans gave us many enjoyable afternoons of drawing floor plans and townscapes; building with mud, sticks and stone; using modeling materials or blocks and bricks to simulate what these old Romans built so long ago in the ancient days. This is one of the many reasons why I embraced and dove into the ideas of our mentor Charlotte Mason. This way of living is to “Make it your goal to live a quiet life; minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before” (I Thessalonians 4:11, New Living Translation).
Many educators think that our philosophy of education is just an overabundance of reading. It is quite a bit of reading, yet it is also conversation and opportunities to use of our hands. The readings in history, literature, geography, science, architecture and engineering are invigorating! They touch on and lay the foundation of independent thought. They provide us with daily conversations about duty, citizenship and patriotism. While our reading is wide, generous and varied, we are also allowing our students to use their hands in the afternoons, evenings and weekends.
Many times, especially with the little ones, this type of work is play. It is natural with no preplanning on the teacher’s part to encourage the students. With the older elementary, middle and higher forms, a bit of planning of some choices of projects are offered, only if the student cannot come up with a design on their own. Study in perspective and scale drawing is continued to aid in using their mind for their creations. Different materials are offered to the older students to use for their 2D plan to become a 3D model. Verbal and written narrations and essays are still used; yet we also include renderings of architectural designs from the readings, building with blocks, constructing with branches using pioneering skills with knots, or compass drawings are just a few examples.
During our afternoon session, we are first reading about the architect or engineer, who is the chief builder, the designer. We then choose an idea from the story that inspires each individual student. Whether it be through using wood and hand tools, forming sculptures with plaster of Paris, or materials from nature, using clay for monuments, drawing in our architecture and engineering journals, using leather or other fabrics–we let the student decide what project they will create while using their mind and imagination.
As we read, we are also aware that there are more people in the story besides just one maker. We see that there are a variety of professions of people. There may be apprentices, assistants or journeymen, using their talents and ideas to help with the end result. We are also engaged with learning about people that create things using their own craft. We learn about the professionals in the trades that are becoming lost skills in the modern world. We look at the architect or engineer– yet we also look to the sculptor, the blacksmith, the glassmaker, the wood worker (carpenter), the tinsmith, the potter, and so many more. All these amazing skills that could be the one skill your students use throughout their life to enrich and understand their own humanity.
Recently, we spent the afternoon talking with a print maker as we were experiencing the colonial life in Williamsburg, Virginia. As he shook the ink that was to be applied to the moveable metal letters, he talked about the invention of printing. Showing our small group the metal and how it was cut and prepared to become the moveable type cast. Then he showed us how the metal was pieced and puzzled together to form a mirror, upside down image. Placing the paper, pressing the lever, he showed us the end result of the page that was circulated around the first colonies in this great land. Did you know that the printing press helped start the American Revolution by the passing of ideas on paper, in a fast, more frequent way to mass amounts of people? These ideas and stories, which were exchanged on paper, provided unity among the colonies. This unity was a new idea. These ideas shared in the pamphlets and newspapers connected the people in a meaningful way and were the heart of the Revolution. By listening to one tradesman talk about his craft, we are educating our students to use learning as a way to seize upon this life, just as our forefathers. The world becomes more tangible–and a thing of beauty, when we use our hands and minds.
We need to provide our students with experiences in which they have the opportunities to make, to build, to create. We know that wrestling and struggling with a problem builds the heart and mind muscle needed for character to develop. It is the experience of empowerment over being able to solve a problem that is needed to fulfill the soul. Let us guide our students to a more fulfilled and engaged life. The world is not abstract or distant–it is full of opportunities to learn, stretching our minds and using our hands.
It is the man who has read and thought on many subjects who is, with the necessary training, the most capable whether in handling tools, drawing plans, or keeping books. The more of a person we suceed in making a child, the better will he both fulfill his own life and serve society. (Mason, 1989A, p. 3)
Burkeman, O. (7 May 2010). Working with your hands: The secret to happiness? The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/may/08/working-hands-happiness-burkeman.
Crawford, M. (21 May 2009). The case for working with your hands. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Crawford, M. (2010). Shop class as soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work. NYC: Penguin Group.
Csikscentmihalyi, M. (2013). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. NYC: Harper Perennial.
Korn, P. (2013). How we make things and why it matters: The education of a craftsman. Jaffrey, New Hampshire: David R. Godine, Publisher.
Larsson, G. (1902). Sloyd. Boston: Sloyd Training School.
Mason, C.M. (1989A). An essay towards a philosophy of education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1925)
Mason, C. M. (1989B). Parents and children. Charlotte Mason Research and Supply. (Original work published in 1925)
Rebanks, J. (2015). The shepherds’ life: Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape. NYC: Flatiron Books.
Robins, E.E. (1890). Our Sons: The Profession of Architecture. Parents’ Review, 1, Issue 1, pp 17-21. Retrieved from The Charlotte Mason Digital Collection http://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/ParentsReview/ParentsReviewV1/PDFs/n1/p017-21PRv1n1.pdf
© 2017 Kerstin McClintic