What We Can Learn from George

I heard this week of the passing of one more of the teachers who taught in my junior high school. When I was a student, George taught industrial arts. In seventh grade the curriculum was mechanical drawing and woodshop and in 8th grade it was ceramics and metal shop. He was one of three full-time teachers. He was not my teacher, but he was my wife’s teacher. We do still have some of the projects she and I made in the 1970’s.

George became my colleague in the 1990’s when I became a math teacher in the same building where I had been a student. He was the only shop teacher left and his students had short rotations in his shop compared to the year-long experiences my wife and I had. We became very close colleagues working on several projects to bring new practices into our school and to other schools in our region. He was a great colleague and mentor. Soon after he retired, the school stopped offering industrial arts.

George used to laugh when he told the story of discovering that the student which he thought was the child of a former student turned out to the be his former student’s grandchild. I have been reflecting on George’s influence on these generations of students and what they did in his shops and what we lost when they closed the shops to which he dedicated his work.

 Those of us who work in education hear about the changes we need to make in schools. When we pay attention to what those changes entail, we see the desire to return to the type of learning that happened in George’s shops:

  • Authenticity- Much that happens in schools is completed only for those who are in the class, especially the teacher. We know that students are more heavily invested in those tasks that are completed for real audiences; for George’s students the projects they made (the napkin holders, toolboxes, mail boxes, plant hangers) all had purposes outside of the classroom. They were used by the students and their families for years.
  • Executive function- Learners who can focus, plan their work, and manage their work in distracting environments all display executive function. We know that individuals who demonstrate greater executive function are “better” learners both in school and outside of school. The loud and active shops where George taught were excellent places for students to refine their executive function.
  • Individualized instruction- Students in George’s shops all began the semester with the same first project, but then they built projects from the menu George had prepared. There was plenty of space for students to succeed at their own pace and to their own judgement of success.
  • Soft skills- The list of these skills is variable and has been gaining the attention of policy-makers and others for several years. Basically, these are the “things” students need to be able to do to succeed in the “real world.” George’s students went in search of others who could help them, they needed to explain exactly what they needed, and they had to be open to the advice. These are all skills students advocates for soft skills claim to promote.

I could continue to describe the benefits students enjoyed by enrolling in his courses, but that is not the most interesting part of George’s courses and that is not the lesson we should learn from George’s example.

Since they closed the shops where George taught, school leaders have been trying to rebuild programs that provided what shop did. They have been unsuccessful, and they will forever be unsuccessful because they lack the organic nature of learning in George’s shop. He did not need a program. He did not need curriculum. He did not need a coach or a committee or an outside expert to train him. He did not need standards or outcomes or any of the other things that occupy educators’ attention.

He had some great (and dangerous) tools. He cared that students learned how to use them (safely). He believed that students were better off if they learned what he taught. He connected with students. He cared about them; he encouraged them and respected their growth.

When schools decide to value what George did, and when they learn to create what George created, we will all be better for the change.