Monday, October 3, 2016

Teaching as Soulcraft

I have so many ideas running around my head. I don't think I could ever synthesize it all into my own "grand unified theory". I say this with tongue partially in cheek. But I don't have a fully consistent philosophy to house all of my all over the place thinking. Among other things, I'm influenced by the spiritual writings of Catholic monk Thomas Merton who has given me a new appreciation of Eastern thought. I have a contructivist pedagogy. I read Kohn and Williamson. I like Dweck and Stevenson. I read Richard Rohr and love his spirituality yet I'm also attracted to Richard Rorty's realist philosophy. (I can't square that circle.) I appreciate the new mindfulness movement. I also have strong opinions about politics. On what is the the liberal to conservative spectrum in the United States, my beliefs are scatterplot. Except for being pro-gay marriage, I'm somewhat conservative on social issues and on economics I'm in Bernie Sanders territory.

At the end of the day I really only want to live a meaningful life. I don't have grand ambitions for myself. I want to be a good husband, dad, and teacher. I used to have much more ambition regarding my career. I've made peace with the fact that I'm not going to be a head of a school, President of the United States or Major League Baseball Player. But I've also come to learn that it isn't outside achievements and getting stuff that make me happy. For my own children, I really wish them a meaningful life beyond anything else. It isn't about money and things. It isn't about power and possessions. It certainly isn't about status. It is about peace of mind, serenity if you will, and helping others. I've also found I'm happy when I'm intellectually engaged. The craft of teaching deeply engages me. I love learning about new ideas- with and without technology- in teaching. 

Almost ten years ago, my brother-in - law gave me Matthew Crawford's, Shop Class as Soulcraft. This book has moved me closer to my "grand unified theory." Crawford is a renaissance man. He grew up on a commune, worked as electrician, went to college and eventually the University of Chicago where he earned a PhD. He left his high earning career to open a motorcycle repair shop after only five months in a high powered executive position. (This article is the genesis of what became his book) 

I gave the book a half-hearted read upon receiving it. I confess to admitting that I just didn't get it yet. Since getting it, two things have changed me and thus have changed how I see the book. One is a deep-seated spiritual awakening that I can only explain by saying that something profound happened to me and that I didn't do it. It was done to me and I can only say that it was by a power greater than me. I choose to call it God, but that's really because I don't have any better words. The other is my interest in the Ed. 2.0, Ed. Tech and the Maker Movement. Reading it again almost ten years later, I'm in a very different place.

Like me and like most of us, Crawford also is searching for a meaningful, purposeful existence. He finds it in his motorcycle shop. Crawford finds purpose in the kind of work that requires mastery of real things. 

This book is engaging and wide ranging. Many ideas jump out on issues ranging from class, work, education, and culture. Crawford argues something essential is missing in our culture. We've lost our ability to do and make. Consumer culture has pushed on in this direction. He points out several times that the newest Mercedes models come without a dipstick and this serves as a metaphor from our disassociation with doing. He writes about the customer service representatives who serve as the interface between the people who do the work and the consumer. We no longer even go into the shop where our cars are fixed. We are that far removed from fixing and making. Yet this work of fixing and making is often more intellectually challenging than much white collar work. His book also presents a full throated challenge to consumer culture and our society's values. 

Marketers realize that something essential has been lost and that we like to "make" things. The mall-based build a bear phenomenon of several years ago was a whisper in that direction even though the "building" consisted only of picking several options on a computer screen before the store built the bear. Yet, this "displaced agency", as Crawford calls it, moves us the right directions as marketers perhaps are realizing that it is, "not the product but the practice that is really attractive." When Betty Crocker Inc. invented the cake mix in the 1950's, it realized that the mix would sell far better if they let the baker feel they had some agency, some control. Thus, the baker still had to crack an egg into the mix. 

Crawford argues convincingly that people like and want agency. We want to be useful. We don't want to feel like cogs in a machine. When Henry Ford introduced the assembly line into his car factory, only 1 in 9 workers brought into his factory to work stayed. This lack of feeling useful and of having a useful skill meant something to men raised in the 19th century. To keep his workers, Ford had to double wages. Then he and other industrialists promoted credit and a consumerist mindset in his workers via the installment plan. It worked and this was a transition moment in our history and in our society's relation to work. Workers eventually became habituated to the assembly line. "Apparently," Crawford writes, " it inspires revulsion only if one is acquainted with more satisfying modes of work."  A century later, we are at an impasse. Schools aren't helping us out of this box we've put ourselves into. For instance, in math problem sets where the chapter is about "systems of two equations with two unknowns", the student knows exactly what methods to use. "In such a constrained situation, the pertinent context in which to view the problem has already been determined." It is the perfect assembly line metaphor. The problem is framed for us. We just have to use the right predetermined "tool" to solve it. 

In response to the assembly line a hundred years ago, the Arts and Crafts movement was born. An aesthetic of craft was a response against the machine age. The Maker Movement shares this response. It promotes constructivist thinking. It wants students actively making. However, I feel that in most schools, the Maker Spaces are peripheral. They are almost dilettantish spaces. We use these spaces a little bit here and there. But that's it. How do we shift the Maker Movement from the margins to the center?

It was this paragraph from the book that jumped out at me and prompted this bumbling attempt at a (excuse my grandiosity) grand unified theory, “...if we follow the traces of our own actions to their source, they intimate some understanding of the good life. This understanding may be hard to articulate; bringing it more fully into view is the task of moral inquiry. Such inquiry may be helped along by practical activities in company with others, a sort of conversation in deed. In this conversation lies the potential of work to bring some measure of coherence to our lives.”  I want to be happy, I want to live in relationship, and I want to be useful. 

The Maker Movement and Design Thinking don't advocate for themselves in this moral sense.  They promote themselves more via a practical sense/ "this is where the jobs will be" rationale. Yet for me, it is this moral sense and its potential for creating un-alienated happy people who aren't trying to fill the void left by soulless jobs through mass-consumption, food, status-seeking, drugs, alcohol and sex that excites me. I wasn't able to articulate that before.

I could never say all of this at school as I'm already seen as loopy enough and I doubt I've said it well here. But Crawford's book really gave me a framework which holds my political, spiritual, and pedagogical views. I highly, highly recommend it. 

Other observations
-Crawford points out the outsourcing of jobs is going to hit white collar workers hard and soon. Blue collar service jobs such as plumbers, electricians and motorcycle repairmen are more likely to keep jobs than a radiologist. 

-Crawford also writes about rewards which reinforces to my longtime opposition to grades. “There is a classic psychology experiment that seems to confirm Brewer's point. Children who enjoy drawing were given marker pens and allowed to go at it. Some were rewarded for drawing (they were given a certificate with a gold seal and a ribbon, and told ahead of time about this arrangement, whereas for others the issue of rewards was never raised. Weeks later, those who had been rewarded took less interest in drawing, and their drawings were judged to be lower in quality, whereas those who had not been rewarded continued to enjoy the activity and produced higher-quality drawings. The hypothesis is that the child begins to attribute his interest, which previously needed no justification, to the external reward, and this has the effect of reducing his intrinsic interest in it. That is, an external reward can affect one's interpretation of one's own motivation, an interpretation that comes to be self-fulfilling.” 

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