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  • Doug Stowe

Wisdom of the Hands: Eureka Springs

We had a great time on Thursday at the Eureka Springs School of the Arts as members of the staff and I made boxes. Shared experience in a common venture builds a sense of commonality, that we're all in this together, and even though each person in class was working on their own box, the journey through the process required taking turns at the saw and allowing for the needs of each other. At one point I looked a round the room at my students and each was holding their box as though it was a small child to whom they'd just given birth. That's directly a part of the nature of such things.

In selecting woods for lids, the students would take a board and work out with each other which portion would become the lid of their box. If anyone out there needs to find a location for a corporate retreat with built in team building exercise, ESSA might be the place for it, and box making might be an exercise around which various folks might gather.

Friedrich Froebel is remembered most for his invention of instructional materials related to his invention of Kindergarten. He was also intent on the creation of a sense of commonality within children through which they sensed their relationship to others and their place and potentials within community life and beyond.

These days a lot of politicians and policy makers are focusing their attention on devising a sense of common history, by prohibiting teaching about the uglier parts of American history. Slavery for example. That's a strategy that offers no potential for the development of empathy and leaves us divided against one another. But when we seek commonality through the shared process of creating useful beauty, walls come down. We take turns, not only at the saw, but also in listening to each other and building space for each other in each other's lives.

And I again assert that the creation of useful beauty should be a requirement for children in school as it can be instrumental in developing a sense of shared community.


I've been listening to the Path To Learning Podcast when I work doing quiet things in my wood shop. Each episode has content that I've found valuable, and today I listened again to my own episode which was recorded last summer. I think that if you are interested in progressive education you'll find it and other Path To Learning Podcasts useful.

The senses are key. They lure you into learning. If you've wondered about the difference between the concrete and abstract in the principles of Educational Sloyd, the difference is simple. The concrete contains a full range of senses, proving to hand and mind the reality of the educational experience. I'm reminded of a friend in her eighties who had asked to see my work many years ago. And then when presented with it she asked permission to touch it, claiming that what the eye is drawn to, the hands must explore and confirm. And so that's why the wisdom of our hands is so essential. What we see or hear consists of surface senses, but the hands not only sense the surface of things, they determine shape and weight, and provide the means to manipulate and test. Then when they've done their creative work, others can readily see and measure the results... no standardized tests required.

For the sake of efficiency, policy makers during the start of the industrial age, decided that children could be handled in the same manner as the assembly line managed parts. Students were to be arranged and sorted, by age and intellect without regard for the variations of human development and without regard for individual interests, and the expectation was not that we engage student interests and allow for the variations within the human species, but to force conformity to artificial standards.

And so they've made a great mess of things. It's not that their intentions are bad, but that failing to take the hands into consideration, they've made education overly abstract. And so the path forward can be recognized in this quote from Anaxagoras, one of the earliest Greek philosophers who said, "Man is the wisest of all animals because he has hands." But then how do we become wise if our hands are purposefully stilled and sequestered from the development of mind?



We've finished an arched bridge with student help at the Clear Spring School, and with help from my tractor and some straps we'll carry it for installation on the school campus, giving our students a clear path over a creek between buildings.

On projects like this, that are adult in nature, not every child will be involved with the same level of enthusiasm, but each can help and learn, and too few kids these days are drawn in as participants in adult labor. In my home woodshop I'm finishing some boxes that had accumulated unfinished. Each is different, so they'll give me a way to provide boxes to a few galleries that handle my work.

When I have quiet times in the wood shop I've been listening to the Path to Learning Podcast. It is readily available through most podcast streaming services and each episode is one that I feel compelled to recommend. I'm currently listening to one with Nancy Carlson-Paige about the essential nature of play as learning. Every parent and every teacher should make use of this valuable podcast.


A Student box

One of my students, Ray Taylor, sent me this photo of a box made by one of his students, making it obvious that we live on in the things we've taught others. Ray teaches woodworking at the Northwest Arkansas Community College.

The following is from Felix Adler's address to the National Conference of Charities and Correction, Buffalo, July 1888 discussing the value of making a simple wooden box: "By manual training we cultivate the intellect in close connection with action. Manual training consists of a series of actions which are controlled by the mind, and which react on it. Let the task assigned be, for instance, the making of a wooden box.

The first point to be gained is to attract the attention of the pupil to the task. A wooden box is interesting to a child, hence this first point will be gained. Lethargy is overcome, attention is aroused. Next, it is important to keep the attention fixed on the task: thus only can tenacity of purpose be cultivated. Manual training enables us to keep the attention of the child fixed upon the object of study, because the latter is concrete. Furthermore, the variety of occupations which enter into the- making of the box constantly refreshes this interest after it has once been started. The wood must be sawed to line. The boards must be carefully planed and smoothed. The joints must be accurately worked out and fitted. The lid must be attached with hinges. The box must be painted or varnished. Here is a sequence of means leading to an end, a series of operations all pointing to a final object to be gained, to be created. Again, each of these means becomes in turn and for the time being a secondary end; and the pupil thus learns, in an elementary way, the lesson of subordinating minor ends to a major end.

And, when finally the task is done, when the box stands before the boy's eyes a complete whole, a serviceable thing, sightly to the eyes, well adapted to its uses, with what a glow of triumph does he contemplate his work! The pleasure of achievement now comes in to crown his labor; and this sense of achievement, in connection with the work done, leaves in his mind a pleasant after-taste, which will stimulate him to similar work in the future. The child that has once acquired, in connection with the making of a box, the habits just described, has begun to master the secret of a strong will, and will be able to apply the same habits in other directions and on other occasions."


The Ozarks Watch video filmed at ESSSA about hands-on learning can now be viewed online at your convenience. Today in the Clear Spring School wood shop we'll be working on bird houses and bird feeders. Kindergarten students will be making boxes.

-- Doug Stowe


"Make, fix and create. Assist others in learning likewise."

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