Lap 3 - Craftsmanship

Craftsmanship, as it turns out, is more about iteration than pure skill. Ok, that might be a bit of an overstatement, but I too think it is fair to say that highly crafted products are more the result perseverance and balancing form, function, and material selection. Craftsmanship requires attention to process AND product.

“Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right.”

Crawford, M. B. (2010). Shop class as soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work. New York: Penguin Books.

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In the previous lesson we talked about FABRICATION. It's where we all want to get to. It’s the cool thing at the end. After all, as I try to address in this blog post, the product is every bit as important as the process. Nobody waits in line at the Apple store because they are so excited about the process. The shiny object at the end, while not the end all - be all, adds value and meaning to the process used to create it. AND a thoughtful design cycle process begets highly crafted products that increase that value and meaning.

Some say that craftsmanship is a lost art. Others argue that access to easy-to-use digital fabrication tools has all but killed craftsmanship for good. I’m somewhere in between. I DO think that craftsmanship is a fundamental skill/mindset to teach in MakerEd. If you are going to make something, make it great! I also happen to think that digital fabrication tools make it easier to achieve higher crafted products with lower barrier to entry. Not all a bad thing! Once again, our friend David Lang adds to our conversation with a commentary on “Craftsmanship Re-imagined” in Chapter 5 of Zero to Maker.

As an introduction to the inspirations section below, check out this video from the President of North Bennet Street School - a school that takes craft very seriously.

The Driving Cog

While the majority of this lesson will focus on the form and function of a well-crafted product, I would be remiss to leave out another really important facet of craftsmanship. When we talk with our kids, craftsmanship is also the context with which we broach the subjects of safety and working in a shared space. With regard to safety, we use a mantra that we call CARECHECK - Gear. Secure. Bubble. Pause.

  • Gear is a reminder to check that the tool you are using is appropriate and in good working order. AND it is a reminder to wear all protective gear.
  • Secure is a reminder to secure your workpiece. Most often with clamps, but if you use your hand(s) then you’ll you have to be especially mindful of the…..
  • Bubble. As in, Blood Bubble. The bubble is anywhere that a tool can hurt you. For instance, the business end of the drill is obviously the dangerous part, but students will often not realize that underneath the workpiece or as far as you can reach with the drill is all within a blood bubble. It is normal and necessary for working students to tell others “get out of my bubble.”
  • Pause is a mindful moment just before turning on and working with a tool. It is a chance to take inventory of the surroundings - Is someone else working nearby? Is someone about to enter the room? Pause - and make sure the operator is feeling good to proceed.

A related bit is that craftsmanship can apply to the space itself. Clean up after yourself, put things back where they belong and let others know to do the same. It is part of working in a shared workspace - after all a well organized space can be a work of art in and of itself.


Places to wander and wonder

When we talk to students about craftsmanship, we talk about doing “laps”. Specifically, we talk about doing lots of little tinkering/practice laps within a larger build. We keep asking the same question: "How might we encourage cycles of foundational practice, fabrication and back again?"

If we really want to get in the weeds of how to teach craftsmanship, I can’t think of a better philosophy than the one promoted by Otto Salomon about 135 years ago (!!!) called educational slöjd (pronounced like "sloyd"). I did a fair amount of research on slöjd in my graduate school work and was absolutely fascinated by just how relevant and applicable Salomon’s philosophy was even today. What intrigued me, even more, was that his philosophy was targeted at primary school students as Salomon believed that manual skills should be taught alongside academics. He is in the same league as the Deweys, Piagets, and Paperts of the world. There are a few components to highlight of Salomon's philosophies as I believe are relevant to craftsmanship:

First - the teacher has a great responsibility to use teaching for the benefit of the pupil, not the piece. It's easy to get distracted and to want to "take over" a project if we feel it isn't of a high enough quality or resolution, but we must remember: it takes time, practice, and repetition to excel and it is our responsibility to facilitate those iterations.

From Otto Salomon's "The Teacher's Handbook on Slöjd:

“The artisan who has great technical skill is too often tempted while teaching to use this skill in a way which may be for the advantage of the work with which the pupil is occupied, but is certainly not for the advantage of the pupil himself.”

Second - the teacher, no matter how much an expert they may be, must understand the difference between working the trade and teaching the trade.

“At the same time, it is by no means intended to convey the idea that the skilled artisan may not be a good teacher of slöjd - provided he understand the difference between slöjd and his trade, and is in possession of the other necessary qualifications - but it is maintained that in such a case it is less because he is an artisan than in spite of it, for the first condition is that he must renounce the traditions of his craft, and become penetrated by the educational ideas.”

And third, Salomon succinctly describes 10 Aims of Slöjd education:

      1. To instill a taste for and an appreciation of work in general.
      2. To create a respect for hard, honest, physical labour.
      3. To develop independence and self-reliance.
      4. To provide training in the habits of order, accuracy, cleanliness, and neatness.
      5. To train the eye to see accurately and to appreciate the sense of beauty in form.
      6. To develop the sense of touch and to give general dexterity to the hands.
      7. To inculcate the habits of attention, industry, perseverance, and patience.
      8. To promote the development of the body's physical powers.
      9. To acquire dexterity in the use of tools.
      10. To execute precise work and to produce useful products.

There, that last one, THAT is what we are getting at with CRAFTSMANSHIP, yet it takes the other 9 aims to get there. You could argue that it is not until you move through the first 9, that you can truly gain an understanding of craftsmanship.


For further reading on Craftsmanship, Salomon and slöjd look to a blog post by Core77, an excellent industrial design blog, synopsis on educational slöjd and Otto Salomon in Dec 2016.

Otto Salomon's "The Teacher's Hand-book of Slöjd" is free to download via Google Books.


Your Turn to Play

REFLECTION PROMPT: Interesting philosophy, right? But you probably want to know what it actually looks like in a modern classroom. Here again, we do not need to go “high tech” to accomplish goals of iterative tinkering and “laps”. Ask yourself, "How much time am I willing to allocate to students to achieve highly crafted products? What is the trade-off? What foundational laps can I build into your projects (while allowing for student choice in the end)?"

Archive.org has published “Paper Slöjd: A Handbook for Primary Grades” for free (although I would argue it is relevant for all ages). Within, you will find dozens of objects to be made using only paper and a knife or scissors. You might look at a few of them and find them appealing. You might even imagine that you could knock a few out in a couple of hours. It is an important context to know, that the intent was students would work through the ~70 objects over the course of three years. When this book was published in 1905, it was implied that craftsmanship takes time.

HELPFUL HINT: Time on task, particularly in service of craftsmanship, is a topic that Erin Riley and I discuss in our podcast conversations quite a bit.

ALTERNATE ROUTES: Expanding on the idea of starting with paper, have we mentioned how much we LOVE foamcore? It is relatively inexpensive and, with the right techniques, can be used to achieve highly crafted prototypes with low barrier-of-entry tools: glue and xacto knives. There is little wonder why foamcore is a favorite medium for industrial designers and architects.

Some resources to help send your students on labs with foamcore as a medium, and explicit intent to practice craftsmanship:

  • Foamcore Construction Basics - a fantastic set of small builds whose form and joinery techniques you will find come up in woodworking projects again and again.
  • Eric Strebel Youtube Channel - I like using Eric’s videos to demo foamcore technique basics, advanced basics, and “pro moves”.
  • MakeDo - A cool set of tools and fasteners designed specifically for working with cardboard. Try using slöjd philosophy with this easily accessible, and slightly more sophisticated, material.
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