Real Tools – Real Life – Real Learning

Don’t Run With Scissors

There is a lot of discussion in the FabLearn community about tools, not only new tools like 3D printers and CNC machines, but also about finding great hand and power tools for children. As I have been pondering tool use in the classroom, I have come to several conclusions:

  • Tools need to be sized appropriately for children
  • Tools need to be of good quality to do the actual work one might expect them to do
  • Children need to have access to tools when they are ready to use them
  • Different children are ready for different tools at different ages
  • Teachers need to recognize children’s needs and skills, and match them to the right tool at the right time with the right safety protocols

We do a disservice to children who say “I’m ready for real tools” when adults feel the need to chide them saying “no you’re not”. This mindset needs to change, to a response that sounds like “Ok. How can we make that happen safely?”

There are of course inherent risks involved with any tool use (“don’t run with scissors” is a common refrain in the classroom after all), but instead of avoiding risk altogether, we should teach children to manage the risks safely, and by doing so allow children to enjoy rich, meaningful making experiences.

Skills Training for Safety

My 3 year old daughter is in a Montessori based program that lives this philosophy. She recently learned how to iron clothes, using a real iron. In the program, learning to iron happens after a child has demonstrated mastery of “how to make toast”. This is a complex and meaningful task for a young child that we adults easily take for granted. This task works as a pre-requisite for ironing since it also has safety considerations. The iron is smaller than a standard iron, so it’s not too heavy for children’s smaller body frame, and the heat setting is restricted to lower temperatures to avoid serious burns. However, it is still an iron – it will make creases in the clothes that the children iron, and it can still cause burns.

Many people would insist this tool be locked away for fear of children hurting themselves. Instead, in my children’s program when the teacher determines that a child is ready, the child is taught how to use it safely and properly, in a matter-of-fact no-nonsense way the same as when learning how to use a pair of scissors. My daughter came home one day and described the process of ironing to me. She noted specifically how one hand went on the iron, and the other hand went behind her back. She explained that this was so you don’t burn yourself. She talked about how you couldn’t leave the iron lying down, and how the cord needed to be out of the way to prevent tripping. I was obviously intensely proud!

Built to last, Built for real work

My sons are both older, and have gone through the same program as my daughter: ironing, cleaning glass cups, cutting fruit for snack with properly sharp knives, etc. This past summer they wanted their backyard playground renewed – so I ordered 2 yards of cedar mulch and we watched excitedly as the dump truck came and deposited a pile on our driveway. I informed the boys they needed to help me do the work, since it was too much for me to do by myself and it was their project, and so they eagerly pitched in. They watched me grab an adult sized rake, shovel, broom and wheelbarrow. They mimicked my preparations, getting out their mini-wheelbarrow, and their child sized tools: rakes, shovels and brooms.

As I watched my sons working, I got to thinking about the tools they were using. So many plastic toys are given to children so they can “imagine” doing the real work of an adult. While imagination is wonderful and important, developing children who will engage in meaningful work is crucial as well. Yet while my boys were doing this real work of moving 2 yards of mulch 50 feet into our backyard, their tools were failing them. The plastic shovel broke in half; the metal shovel blade came off the shaft; the tines on the metal rake started to bend. While these tools were designed to LOOK real, and they were certainly appropriately sized for my children, they apparently weren’t designed to fully handle real work.

Trust Me

I’ve been working to renovate my basement. One day while I was working, I looked over and saw that my then 4 year old had put on his (real) goggles, hard hat, and ear protectors, and was running extra drywall screws into the wall with my impact driver. My easily distractible little guy was completely absorbed with his work screwing them in along the line I had drawn earlier. Although he struggled a bit with the weight of the tool – the impact driver is pretty heavy, not a child appropriate size and weight like the iron mentioned earlier – he worked with diligence and care. With his actions, he was saying “trust me Dad.”

We need to trust our students when they embark on activities that may push us past our own comfort zones. Anyone would express concern to a child about to try something risky, but if the child’s response is “trust me – I can do this” then we should do the right thing and get out of the way. (That is, after we double check their safety equipment.)

Not only do we need to trust children, we need to trust teachers who know their students and who work with each of them individually. I’m reminded of my visit with Gever Tulley at Brightworks school in San Francisco, where I was very impressed to learn that they use the chop saw with children as young as grade 1 – with 1 on 1 supervision. It’s no surprise that this article titled  “The Most Innovative Schools in America” described Brightworks School as “The school that teaches dangerously”.

Here is a brilliant excerpt from the official Brightworks blog on the subject of tool use with young children:

Real, “grown-up” tools empower kids, and expand their boundaries of what’s possible. At the heart of our shop are power drills–an “additive” tool–and our chop saw–a “subtractive” tool. It’s a simple, powerful combination that will allow your kids to build bigger, bolder, better projects. 

There is a 13 year old student at my middle school who knows more about small engines then I do. Yet when he comes to school we give him and all his classmates textbook, pen and paper assignments, and occasionally, projects involving “jinx wood” (1 cm x 1 cm dimension) and a glue gun. He told me that he thinks the challenge projects we typically give are kind of ridiculous. He is looking for meaningful real world experience. Playing with syringes, tubes and bits of wood is not relevant to him; he’d rather dismantle the engine of his riding lawn mower because the gear shifter isn’t working, or build an oil-change stand for his motor bike. Coincidentally, where did he learn to embrace tinkering and hands-on learning? Not from school, but from his father, a tradesperson. Thankfully we have a FabLab in my school that I oversee, so he does get some opportunities for things he finds meaningful. However, the overall school system’s inflexibility and lack of trust in him and his abilities sends an implicit message that we don’t value the things he does. Sadly this is doing more to chase students like him away from school at a time when we should be drawing them in.

It’s Not the Kids… It’s US – Adjusting our Attitudes as Educators

Many activities often considered unsafe are not actually beyond children’s physical or mental capabilities; they are unsafe because we don’t have enough adults and enough time to properly supervise and train children who are ready for them. By extension, it’s actually unsafe because we don’t set our expectations high enough. It comes down to our pre-existing mindset. It’s like I tell my students in my FabLab – “The MOST dangerous tool is actually the one you think is SAFE!” If we start with the premise that children are developmentally unable to work with tools then we limit their opportunities for no reason other than the ease of blanket prohibitions. Instead of facilitating the taking of calculated risks, we don’t trust teachers’ judgement, and we are guided solely by fear of liability.

Unfortunately the other key piece here beyond adjusting attitudes is staffing and funding. In his fascinating book on the history and trajectory of manual work and hands-on education, Matthew Crawford argues in “Shop Class as Soulcraft” that what school boards wanted in the 90’s and 2000’s was FEWER adults in the room. As a result shop classes were closed, since the class sizes were much smaller, and students were put in front of computers in labs that could hold much larger classes.

What results in classrooms more often than not are projects that many students do not find challenging and see no value in doing. Children get very good at reading our implicit messages, and the message we often send around tools is:

  • ”we don’t trust you”
  • ”you’re not here to learn, you are just here to be supervised”

Granted, some amazing and forward thinking teachers in Ontario and all over are getting started with hand tools and real materials in kindergarten and grade 1. The problem is that by the time these students reach the end of middle school they may have been using the same tools for 8 years, and by then many of them are long past ready to move on to greater challenges.

No wonder some of our students are discouraged, disengaged, and acting out.

The solution in my mind is simple (though admittedly the implementation would be complex): get rid of age based “batching” (as Sir Ken Robinson calls it) and move to a more personalized skills based focus. For those students who are ready, bring out the real tools, and let them get to work. For those who are not, provide different, “scaffolded” projects (perhaps using predetermined kits) to allow them to develop skills and learn at their own pace.

To summarize, I’m not saying that any child should use any tool, but that we must remain open to facilitating all kinds of authentic learning experiences using all sorts of real tools in appropriate circumstances. I’m grateful that students in my school have the opportunity to use a variety of real tools, but this option should be open to children at every school, and not just at select schools.