Nia and Luis are 8th graders in Introduction to Engineering. Contrasting their strengths shines light on the often unrecognized cognitive demands of the manual arts and bolsters the argument in favor of vocational training.
Nia extracts the potential of words—their potential to give life to abstract ideas through well-crafted thinking and precise language. She works inside her own head and wrestles with notions. Her creativity begins when she hears an assertion not of her liking and proceeds systematically to a satisfactory rebuttal.
Nia’s arguments often appear digressive, but she’s not wasting time; she’s learning about ideas and she’s learning about herself.
She’s bound by the classic trivium of logic, rhetoric, and grammar; all human concepts. The failures or successes of Nia’s abstractions are open to debate.
Luis extracts the potential of cardboard, rubber bands, straws, tape, and string—the potential to become a robotic hand. His product features three fingers that flex and extend at his bidding. His unique innovation is to have one of the fingers flex backwards. That means his device can simultaneously hold things in its palm and against the back of its hand. Think about the implications of that.
Luis is bound by the nature of materials, a more demanding authority than human concepts. Yet his creativity begins by not taking things for granted. What kind of mind thinks of things like backwards fingers?
Working with raw materials requires Luis to get outside of his own mind and conform his means to objective material limitations—all while remaining faithful to his intention. In his encounters with things as opposed to thoughts, he has to systematically approach questions like, “What materials have attributes most like my finger?”
As Luis thinks about things—real, tangible things—he, too, is learning about himself.
As in all vocational work, Luis’s failures are manifest, but his final success undeniable: Fingers bend or they don’t. Enough said.
I try to extract the potential in both Nia and Luis—and that means avoiding the bias that Nia’s life of the mind is cognitively superior to Luis’s life of the hand. And it would be unethical for me to discourage either from pursuing college or vocational training.
My obligation is to provide a spectrum of activities so they can learn what they like to do and what they’re good at. When I get it right, they each learn which cognitive tasks enrich and which tax their minds. With that knowledge, they can decide responsibly, and for themselves, which options to pursue after high school.
My thinking on this subject was largely inspired by Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Mathew Crawford.
August (Sandy) Merz III, a National Board-certified teacher, teaches engineering and algebra and sponsors MESA at Safford K-8 International Baccalaureate Candidate School in Tucson, Ariz.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.