Where did it go wrong?

And how do we get back on track?

(originally posted on Fireside Learning)

Not so very long ago, in Victorian England, there was a distinct separation of the gentlemanly classes and the working classes. The former worked in more intellectual pursuits – Law, Theology, Medicine and so on, while the latter performed more manual labour. This is not to say that manual labour does not require brains, and intellectual pursuits never require manual labour, but that there was a real perception of a separation of the two. On the North American side of the pond there remained a vestige of this stratification, but capitalism and industry lead to the rise of a middle class that was capable of becoming wealthy without fear of getting their hands dirty. Since the latter half of the last century, however, there has been a renewed sense in the middle class that getting one’s hands dirty is somehow demeaning, and white collar work was “better” than blue collar work.

Since an education system is the product of society, and is intended to prepare young people to become productive adults, inevitably the focus of a formal education is to prepare students for the desirable jobs of the present (as opposed to the potential jobs of the future). Because of this, there has been a distinct shift away from hands-on education to more “book learning”. Although I recognize that some of this is the result of budget tightening, the first things to go during budget cuts are those things deemed less important. What always struck me as odd was that self-proclaimed “academic” schools produce a significant number of graduates who intend to go into engineering, without ever exposing those students to a single tool such as a drill-press, soldering iron or lathe.

I find it somewhat reassuring that there has been much discussion recently of the importance of experiential, hands-on learning. But trying to implement it is often an up-hill battle. As an educator, I often face the double resistance of hidden prejudice (the above mentioned perception of the superiority of “book learning”) and inexperience (having never built anything in their lives other than LEGO, they have no idea how to begin). These are compounded by teenage pride (they don’t want to have an “epic fail” in front of their peers) and parental interference (Johnny so did not make that himself…).

However, from my own experience, I think that it is worth the struggle. My hope is that as more and more information comes out about the importance of practical, hands-on learning for building creative problem solving skills there will slowly grow a greater acceptance of it, or even a demand for it. The more of it students do in the younger years, and more importantly continue doing it throughout their schooling, the better off they will be as critical thinkers, problem solvers, and trouble-shooters. As an added benefit, it will help wipe away the perception of skilled trades as somehow less important than clean hands.

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