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Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Teaching Tools

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Students are required to consider each possibility in turn: a plumber's diagnosis, so to speak. Could it be a bad washer? How about rust or grit caught in the valve?



I am sitting on a large toolbox, steadying myself with a hard grip on a pole as this old school bus rattles its way around another turn, over another pitted side street. Seventeen-year-old Terry sits across from me with two days' beard, green eyes, slight nose, watching, listening as a boy to my left catalogs for me his history of injury: broken leg, broken hand, a full scar, another scar, a chipped bone. The boy has a cane at his side that he tries not to use. Recent knee surgery. Terry shifts his gaze to me, elbows on knees, not quite matter-of-fact, but not as animated as I would see him once I got to know him. He tells me of a foot torn so badly in a basketball game that he was in a cast for months. Then another broken bone. Then a scar on his hand, which he shows me, spreading his fingers. "How'd you get that?" I ask. "Punched out a headlight," he says. Several rows back, three or four boys are talking about drug testing, trading tales on how to confound the test. "Use garlic," one says. "Nah, cranberry juice," says another. Rumored successes and failures fly back and forth. "Garlic, garlic, garlic," concludes the most insistent of the boys. Terry, it turns out, failed his drug test a month ago.

Terry and most of the others on this bus are in a program for young people who have a history of drug abuse and, therefore, a history with the juvenile justice system. The program enables them, as part of their probation, to finish high school in a curriculum designed to furnish them with entry-level competence in one or more of the skilled trades. Though most of the boys have mediocre to poor school records, a number of them take to the program, seeing it as a way out of a bad situation and, yes, an opportunity. Some of the boys-and Terry is one of them-throw their considerable energy into the work, running back and forth to collect supplies in the rear of the bus, taking stairs two at a time, curling themselves around and under sink cabinets, toilets, the underbellies of old houses, a little crazed at times, adolescent and eager, probably psychochemical at times, at times existential. "You feel that sense of urgency in them," observes Jon Guthier, their teacher. "Because even as things go well, something could fall apart right at the end."

There is certainly a powerful sociological story to be told about these young men-and many insightful works of fiction and nonfiction trace lives like theirs-but what interests me is the intellectual skill involved in the work they're learning to do. The thought involved in plumbing, the trouble-shooting and problem-solving Terry and his classmates are undertaking, the way their minds engage tools and materials, water and pipe and surrounding structures.

I met Guthier and his students-I am using pseudonyms for the boys-during my visits to MetroTech High School, a Phoenix vocational school making the transition to an integrated academic-vocational curriculum. These visits are part of ongoing research of mine, a study of the thinking involved in skilled work, the array of intellectual activity involved in carpentry, auto mechanics, electrical wiring, plumbing. As part of my research, I've been observing young people-high school boys and girls-as they learn the fundamentals of these trades, and I have been interviewing their teachers and other experts. People learn such skills in a number of ways, of course-within their families, in apprenticeships and training programs, in school, and informally on the job-and the skills build on and enhance each person's sensory, kinesthetic, and cognitive abilities. Schools and school- structured settings are surely not the only place I could have explored these matters. But because of their instructional focus, schools make learning particularly evident.

There are a number of efforts these days to develop school-to-work programs, and much of what is said and written about them emphasizes, understandably, economic and social outcomes. What is often lost, though-and what is understated in the vocational education literature-is consideration of the cognitive dimension of the work, the thought that goes into it, the brains of it. This is a kind of tale we tell less frequently. There are many reasons for the neglect. We tend to think about physical skill, intelligence, and character and identity development in separate terms (and even segregate them to separate disciplines). Social class and occupational status blur our vision. We are dazzled by newer technologies. And the very everydayness of so much work done by tradespeople-the degree to which it is woven into and enables our lives-dulls us to much beyond its immediate physical manifestation. We need to shift the way we see the work that surrounds us.

So along with the story of Terry and his peers learning a trade and rehabilitating themselves, there is a story about mind here. An interplay of intelligence, identity formation, and the emergence of a sense of the future. The development and display of intelligence is central to Terry's attempt to change the direction of his life.


We are crowded into the kitchen of a small apartment. Guthier, Terry, and two other boys are squatting, looking under the sink. The base of the sink is enclosed within a cabinet, so access is restricted. There is an old pan under the curve of the P-trap; it catches water from a leak Guthier and company will fix. A section of the pipe has been replaced, and dried glue covers the seam in uneven globs. About three-quarters of the pipe, from the sink to the P-trap, is wound in black tape.

Guthier considers field experience essential to his teaching, so he arranges with the city for his students to do free repairs on low-income housing.

Repair work, especially on older or less expensive homes and apartments, offers important challenges for young plumbers, ones they won't get doing new construction. Materials are not always standard; there are unusual structures, nooks, crannies, surprises within the wall, and the boys often encounter series of past repairs, one over the other, often makeshift.

"What do you make of this, boys?" Guthier asks.

"Looks like a mess," says Terry.

"Yep," says the teacher. "What do you think we should do with it?"

"We gotta replace it," says one boy.

"Well, sure," says Guthier, "but how, where do we start?"

Jon Guthier is a slight man, about five feet seven inches, 135 pounds, thin muscled arms, long brown hair, glasses. At 47, he's been a journeyman plumber and gas fitter for a long time. He's also worked a lot of construction-related jobs and taught for the last 12 years. A photograph of him might suggest severity of manner-his features are sharp, angular, and weathered-but he has a laid-back way about him, a how's-it-going loquaciousness. The kids call him "Mr. G" or just "G." And they respect him, his concern for them, and his expertise. So they consult him frequently-he's on the run at a job site from one kid to another-and they take his comments seriously. He poses questions often. When returning to a job site, he'll often begin by asking the students to recap the problems of the previous day and, as a consequence, to list what's to be done today. When they confront a new job-replacing a toilet, fixing a leak-he asks what they'd do and why.

Terry takes his question about that taped pipe under the sink and suggests they strip the tape to get to the nut attaching the drain pipe to the P-trap. That's reasonable, says Guthier, and with his right hand guiding their gaze over the entire structure, asks the boys to consider what might happen as you take a wrench to that nut, given that other sections of the pipe, P-trap, and wall fixture are glued and, most likely, rusted. Terry gets it: "You've gotta be careful. If that nut won't turn, you might tear something else loose."

There's an important concept here: the interconnection of component parts of a structure. It's a seemingly obvious notion, but to grasp how a single turn of a wrench can ripple through walls and across different kinds of materials, affecting things close by and far away-all this moves one toward the comprehension of a house as a complex system of materials, processes, and forces. The importance of such an understanding to a skilled tradesperson becomes obvious later in the day, when two boys begin to replace an old faucet-called a hose bib-outside one apartment. A routine job. They secure a crescent wrench on the nut that attaches the faucet to a copper adapter that, in turn, is soldered to the water-service pipe going into the wall. The boys are about to turn the wrench when Guthier checks in and suggests they use a second wrench to secure the part of the assembly right behind the faucet. "You want to isolate your force here," he says. "Why?"

Guthier's question, like those he's asked before, prod the boys to think about structure and system. But it serves a broader purpose as well: to help students approach repair systematically. The good plumber has a diagnostic frame of mind. That's evident in Guthier's classroom instruction, in which he uses a manual organized by problems-for example, "a valve or faucet does not completely stop water flow"-followed by lists of possible causes. Students are required to consider and test each possibility in turn: a kind of plumber's differential diagnosis. Could it be a bad washer? How about foreign matter-rust, grit-caught in the valve?

To think this way, Guthier explains to me, you need "to know how a thing is put together," how a device, or a category of devices, works. You may not be familiar with a particular brand of a valve, but if you can determine whether it's a cartridge valve or a compression valve, you'll know something generally about its components and how they function. Then you're able "to go through these steps in your mind." Given the huge variety of devices and structures you'll encounter in old houses, you need to operate systematically. In the mind of the expert, much of this process gets abbreviated-the hunch, the intuitive leap, the sense of the whole, the zeroing in on a key feature of the problem rather than ticking off each item on a checklist. But for now, Jon Guthier is teaching the boys the fundamentals, encouraging a blend of knowledge about the way things are constructed as well as a systematic process of inquiry.

Several days after we pondered the taped drain pipe, Terry and a big kid named Ken are replacing a toilet in an old house. Terry has more experience at this task than Ken, so Guthier tells Ken to do most of the installation and asks Terry to help out and observe.

Installing a toilet is a pretty straightforward procedure, but replacing one, especially in an old house, can have its moments: negotiating tight space, removing the original toilet, fitting a new model into the existing confines, and so on. One tricky decision concerns the flange, the collar that fits over the drain pipe in the floor and onto which the toilet itself is attached. If the flange is badly corroded, it won't hold new bolts. But determining the condition of the flange is a judgment call that is by no means clear-cut.

As soon as the boys remove the old toilet, Guthier asks them to assess the flange. There's a quick exchange, but Guthier is called away. "I'm not sure," he says as he leaves, "but I think you might want to replace it. You don't want to take a chance on a call-back."

Ken and Terry settle in, Ken getting down close to the flange, inspecting it. Terry asks, "How's it lookin'?"

Ken scrapes at the edge of the flange with a screwdriver. "It looks OK," he answers and cocks his head to get a better take on the edges. Then he slips in two new bolts. "The bolts are going in nice and strong." Pause. "I think we can keep it. Go get 'G.' " Terry retrieves Guthier; the boys explain what they've done and their conclusion. "Well," he says, "you might be right."

Not everything Terry and Ken say during this installation-God knows, surely not everything-is so dialogical and problem-focused. But the installation proceeds efficiently and, at several junctures, is characterized by this kind of thoughtful activity. It's difficult, even with carefully designed studies and assessments, to determine whether someone truly learns or just mimics an intellectual process, but I think that the independence of thought and outcome here-the boys do not take the easy path of agreeing with their teacher-suggests that they're appropriating the diagnostic frame of mind modeled by Jon Guthier. They don't simply follow a routine, but vary it purposively in response to their testing of the materials and their own judgment.


Dwayne sits amid a group of boys on the bus, headphones on, singing along loudly to a Twista cassette. We can't hear the music, of course, and are left, instead, with Dwayne's assured but not very skillful falsetto. Several of the boys around him, Denzell particularly, complain, questioning his talents, but Dwayne, displaying a mix of nonchalance and confrontation, throws it right back, praising the quality of his voice, adding occasional commentary: "Before I heard Twista, my pimpology was hurtin', but now it's bad." Then back to song and complaint. Finally, Guthier, looking up into a rearview mirror, asks if everyone could please cool it, and they do, at least for a few blocks.

Dwayne will not let you miss him for long. He's boastful, funny, quick-witted, after you for a response or a cigarette, handsome and charming in a boyish, street-smart kind of way. With older men, his demeanor shifts. He's still working

you, but the quality of the interaction changes-there's more accommodation, and more need and request. Dwayne generates so much activity in the immediate space surrounding him-a flurry of word and gesture-that it's easy to miss his considerable promise as a tradesman. Guthier calls him "a quick study" and thinks he's the most competent in the class.

If you hang around Dwayne at a job site, you'll witness, more than a few times, an event like this: Dwayne and another boy are finishing the installation of a toilet, hooking up the braided hose that brings water from the wall outlet-called an angle stop-to the tank. As they tighten the nuts, Dwayne cradles the hose to keep it from twisting and kinking. A few minutes later, Guthier comes in to remind the boys not to let the hose kink up-only to discover that Dwayne has anticipated the problem.

Here's another: Dwayne is assisting Denzell as he replaces a shower head. Denzell tightens the head and turns on

the water. It leaks. He tightens it further. The head still leaks. "I bet you don't have the washer in right," suggests Dwayne. Upon disassembly, Dwayne turns out to be correct.

Dwayne's advice to Denzell came amid a narrative about going to some girl's house where so-and-so called Dwayne down, whereupon Dwayne conducted himself mightily, deftly, letting the one guy know that he, Dwayne, knew his cousin, who ain't shit after all. And so on. Then, bip-tune out and you'll miss it-comes the hunch about the washer.

More. Dwayne and another boy have just removed a toilet and Dwayne, donning rubber gloves, sits down on the edge of the bathtub, leaning in to inspect the flange. The left edge looks raised, he tells me, then he feels it with his index finger to confirm what he sees. Yes. This is like it was at Manny's house, he says, where they pulled a toilet last week. And that flange, Mr. G had explained, needed to be replaced. So Dwayne, recalling and applying his teacher's on-the-spot lesson, removes this flange and goes out to the bus to get a new one.

In each case, Dwayne demonstrates that he is building what Jon Guthier calls "a kind of a library" of mechanical knowledge: knowledge of types of devices, how they're put together, how to work with them, processes to follow, and so on. A blend of learned facts, experiences, and procedures now makes Dwayne capable of working without close supervision. The relation of learning and independent action.

Knowledge alone does not make a top-notch plumber, however. To continue with Jon Guthier's metaphor, the tradesperson's library contains more than books; there's a feel and mood to the place, a history, traditions, practices. And skillful workers are defined, of course, by what they know, but, as well, by the quality of their work. That's something Dwayne seems to grasp. He and two other boys are replacing a toilet. They have removed the old unit, and while one is replacing the angle stop on the wall, another is quickly scraping the residue of the old assembly from the floor. Then they put in a new flange, tap it into place, insert the bolts onto which the new toilet will rest, measure the distance of each bolt from the wall (thirteen-and-a-half inches) to check alignment, place a doughnut of bowl wax over the flange (this protects against leaking), settle the new toilet onto the bolts, and measure again. These three boys work well together, dividing tasks yet assisting each other, efficient, assured. While they finish the installation, they talk about employment, jobs they might get. "Hey, this ain't that hard," Dwayne says at one point. "I could do this for a living."

The final step is to apply caulk along the base of the toilet. Dwayne cleans up and dries off the floor, then reaches for the caulking gun and begins laying a neat strip around the porcelain. The caulk smells like pungent bananas-chemical and fruity-and another boy follows Dwayne's trail with a gloved forefinger, narrowing the line. Finished, Dwayne takes a small sponge and further trims the caulking, a thin line now at the base of the toilet. He stands up: "A few good flushes, and we're done." It does look good. Clean and tidy. As the other boys pick up tools and retreat to the bus, I compliment Dwayne, who has fallen quiet. He breaks into a full smile. "Why, thank you very much," he says.


This moment clarifies in my notes like a snapshot. How much comes together to account for it. The increasing dexterity with tools. Knowledge of plumbing devices and materials. A range of understandings about repair. Tricks of the trade. A systematic approach to problems. And there is the less measurable-but readily evident-sense of workmanship, the complex value or set of values that, one assumes, leads Dwayne both to measure the distance of the toilet to the wall-an action with functional consequences for repair- and to take one more pass at the caulking to reduce it to a visually pleasing line, an aesthetic outcome.

And what might happen, I wonder, if we began to experiment with our own thinking about the possible connections between work like plumbing and young people like Terry and Dwayne?

A sense of workmanship is something that Guthier hopes for. "I know these boys don't like to handle dirty toilets," he observes one day after we've returned to school, "so there's got to be something there that gives them pride in what they've been able to do." Some of the boys, he continues, "had very rarely been successful at things. Probably it's the first thing they've finished in a long time."

If this is true, then one can only imagine the twinge of possibility they feel as they see something they made work, as they gain respect from men whom they respect, as they begin to imagine-tentatively, anxiously-a different kind of life for themselves, fashioned through hand and brain.

And what might happen, I wonder, if we began to experiment with our own thinking about the possible connections between work like plumbing and young people like Terry and Dwayne? Jon Guthier's unexpected metaphor of the library can help us here. It prompts us to view Terry and Dwayne's work in terms of aesthetics, of differential diagnosis, of conceptualizing and problem-solving-a perspective that might unsettle our thinking about social class and education. My hope is that such shifts in perception and language would have consequences for the way we teach Terry and Dwayne, what we expect of them, and how we talk to them . . . and about them.

Vol. 11, Issue 6, Pages 41-44

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