The Thinner It Gets, The Thinner It Gets

by Peter D on October 18, 2014

We had the Cohort of Educators in the woodshop this morning.  That’s 8 educators (Sean, Karen, Julie, Christy, Morgan, Jeremy, Tom, Vicki), each working on their own furniture-build.  Two other woodshop members were in the shop and had periodic questions.  Jim was coming in from Chicago and wasn’t going to be there right at 9am.  So, it was just me.

I think most teachers would be happy with a 1-8 teacher-student ratio.  But when its woodworking and each student has their own unique project, it’s borderline chaos.  For every student I’m working with, I see and feel at least 5 other sets of eye-balls staring at me, waiting for help.  What do you do? 

Many woodshops that offer classes manage that many students and more.  No big deal.  But they’re not attempting to do what we do.  They offer a class in how to do woodworking, so the project they’re building is secondary.  It’s a predesigned coffee table or chair.  Students take turns performing the same tasks which the instructor just taught the group as a group.

But this. This, is not that.  It is 8 unique projects with a group that had little to no prior knowledge of the tasks at hand.  Its unnerving.  Especially when you’re a fellow who revels in in-depth personalized interactions.  But that’s where I was.  Fortunately, it was with a group of teachers who passed the down-time exchanging stories of how well they know the classic dilemma of “too many kids, one teacher.”

So, what do you do?  In quick flashes of internal debate, you make choices.  It is so utterly tempting to triage.  To be a fire-putter-outer.  Convey just enough to get them working on some part of the next step – enough for them to do so you don’t feel guilty walking away – but knowing full well that they don’t quite get it yet and there’s not enough for them to do before you can make it back there. The thinner-spread the teacher gets, the thinner the student’s experience and understanding gets.

You are putting out fires.

On the other side of the internal debate was the thought that drives Soulcraft:  spend the time necessary for them to be vicerally engaged, to understand their design/construction problems, and the tools necessary to tinker with solutions.  Its decidedly more time up front, but it is far less time between the vacant eyes staring at you for help.

Of course, the purpose of doing this isn’t just a time-management issue.  It’s an issue of agency

The extra time spent with each student – to enable them to understand the process itself, to talk through the pit-falls and decisions they will face, and to illumine the tools at their disposal for when they face those pitfalls – puts the work in their hands.  They have to own it.  When their questions inevitably arise, will I say “Here’s the next step,” or will I say “Which method that you already know will you use to solve it?”

That breeds self-ownership, agency.  That’s education.

Unfortunately, when you are spread thin as a teacher, you can’t do this.  You can intend to, and attempt to do as much of it as you can.  But you cannot.  And so, you just put out fires.

That was me in the first part of this morning. 

The biggest problem with doing this is the culture of reliance this creates.  Each step of the process requires not just checking in to “double-check,” but rather a near-blank-slate questioning.  You have to dictate next steps.  This “gets the job done,” but requires them coming back over and again for the next and next steps.

I’m happy to say that once Jim arrived, after spending time with each student, he and I found ourselves at one point looking at eachother, “No one needs us right now….” Everyone was neck deep in their work, on their own.  We could then saunter over to each student as they worked, ask questions of them, contemplate their thought processes as they navigated their own way through the shop and discuss their choices.

The thing is, we could run a class – the success of which is based on the fine furniture that gets produced – in which we dictate each next step.  The audience would “oooo” and “ahhhh” at the product.  Yet the students would still be prisoners to our instruction and design decisions.  It would be “manageable” and more “efficient.” Yet our students would leave just another piece of furniture and a talking-point at their next dinner party.

We’re not there yet, but we for enabling agency.  What about the other “classrooms” in our culture?  How thin are they? How thin does that make the students? How do we do it different?

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