Vocademia: an exploration and a construction

"Why should children be taught that the products of the brain will be valued more highly than the products of the hands?" Weinstock  'I Blame The Teachers.' 1976

Ideas of Vocademia

In this page I intend to build up a model of what Vocademic Learning is by exploring the following:-

1) Richard Sennet's intelligent hands idea taken from his book, 'The Craftsman'.

2) Guy Claxton's learning muscles, taken from his book, 'What's The Point of School?'

3) David Gauntlett's serious play research taken from his book, 'Creative Explorations'.

4) I will reflect on these three theories and ideas.

5) By way of comparison I will also look at a more traditional approach to knowledge and pedagogy, using the recent book, 'The Corruption of the Curriculum'. The hope is that by giving time to such a view, that it will challenge my thinking, and might offer further insight into what Vocademic Learning could be.

Sennet's Intelligent Hands

Richard Sennet’s book, ‘The Craftsman’ opens with a three word attemp at trying to summarize his ideas, "Making is thinking". This largely sums up too what I want to bring to the pedagogical table with the idea of Vocademic Learning.
Sennet admits that he is heavily influenced by American pragmatist philosophy. “I write within a long-standing tradition, that of American Pragmatism..(which has) sought to join philosophy to concrete practices in the arts and sciences... its distinctive character is to search for the philosophic issues embedded in everyday life.” (p14)

Pragmatism is a philosophy that assesses the truth or meaning of theories and beliefs, in terms of the success of their practical application. Philosophical pragmatism originated in the United States in the late 1800s. The thought and works of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead figured most prominently. The pragmatist proceeds from the idea that theorizing is central to intelligent practice. Theory and practice are not separate entities. Theory being taken from direct experience, must eventually return to inform that experience. Therefore, its theories must have an intimate link with, as Sennet states, the “concrete” and “everyday”.

In ‘The Craftsman’, the chapter I find of most use when attempting to construct my vocademic model is the one entitled, ‘The Hand’. This chapter attempts to, “require a fuller, better understanding of the process by which people go about producing things, a more materialistic engagement.” (Sennet p7)

Sennet’s chief argument is that “all skills, even the most abstract, begin as bodily practices...through touch and movement” ( Sennet p10) and because it is the hands that make the most varied movement, in terms of gripping and touching, it has a unique impact on how we think. (Sennet p149) Sennet uses the ideas of devout Christian Charles Bell and famous atheist, Charles Darwin, to argue for the primacy of the hand above other parts of the body, when it comes to supplying the brain with information,
“The brain receives more trustworthy information from the touch of the hand than the images in the eye- the latter so often yielding false, misleading appearances.” (p150)

Darwin showed, according to Sennet, once apes began to use their hands for more than just balance, what followed was greater brain capacity, leading to our ancestors beginning to think about the things they began to hold, then to shape them, “man-apes could make tools, humans make culture.” (Sennet p150) 

Following the work of ethnologist, Mary Marzke, who observed that the hand grips in three unique ways, pinching, cradling and cupping, Sennet grandly argues that “cultural evolution”  (Sennet p151) begins to occur, because with the degrees and combinations of these grips, “Thinking then ensues about the nature of what one holds.”(Sennet p151)

One particular thought inducing hand action interests Sennet and that is, letting go. Using the example of a pianist, Sennet ponders the physical letting go, for the sake of fluidity in playing, with the cognitive release, or letting go in order to better produce, make or create. Releasing one’s fingers in order to glide across the keys or a fingerboard in music, is linked to the mind’s ability to operate a strong level of self-control; letting go by holding on. The opposite is the hand wielding mindless force creating discordant noise in music, and poor cuts under a chef’s knife.
“In chopping food, as in sounding chords, the base line of physical control...is the calculation and application of minimum force.” (Sennet p167)

To return back to Sennet’s hand, the craftsman’s use of self-control equals restrained power, which in turn enables accuracy of action. Accuracy in music, for Sennet, is linked to a truthfulness that lies at the fingertips,
“Truthfulness lies at the fingertips: touch is the arbiter of tone.” (Sennet p 157)

Sennet explores the differences between the Suzuki method of violin playing, whereby tapes aid the learners positioning of their fingers on the fingerboard to find the correct pitch, and what happens when those tapes are taken away.  For Sennet the hand that is guided by the tapes faces the problem of false security. By not training the fingertips blindly, the hand never truly gets to grip, or controls the instrument like one who learnt without the Suzuki method. The unblind hand dependent on a false security, does not have the feel for the thing. What the unblind hand seems to lack for Sennet, is the craftsman’s quest, the “reasoning backward from sensation to procedure.” (Sennet p157) This reasoning only occurs when the blind hand searches for the correct sound through experimentation, repetition and reproduction.

But more than those three, the reasoning is informed by a willingness to dwell in uncertainty and instability, in trial and error, to hit upon the truth with one’s moving hand by “the confidence to recover from error (which) is not a personality trait; it is a learnt skill.” (p160)

Sennet is clear that in music, what helps the dweller of uncertain places, is the objective standard of playing in tune. With such a place of which to aim, then the musician and creator is guided some what, by a confidence that there is a place of truth, or even, beauty. This might not be true of creativity in the visual and other non-musical arts who do not seem to have such a powerful point of reference in their formats. The golden section in painting does not seem to exert quite the recognition that playing in tune certainly does. Sennet does not consider the visual arts process much at all in ‘The Craftsman’ and this is a shame because it would have made interesing allignments with the building of things that Gauntlett is so enamoured of.

For Sennet the fingertip must not be prioritised too much over the rest of the hand, however. Hand co-ordination is the fundamental test of a truly skilled craftsman, and more importantly, this co-ordination is not formed from the build up from individual mastery of small procedures, “as though technical competence resembles industrial production on an assembly line.” (p164) but from both hands working together, to minimise weaknesses and maximise harmony. The digits of the hands, as one hand is from the other, of unequal strength and flexibility, making co-ordination and co-operation vital in the betterment of technique, and hence a place where creativity can occur.

 By concentrating on the hands and their importance in craftsmanship, Sennet builds his argument by making strong connections between their co-ordination and concentration. Following on from the psychologist Daniel Levitin, and more recently by Malcom Gladwell in ‘Outliers’, Sennet agrees with the notion that only prolonged concentration on a skill, sport or activity will yield really quality results,
“Developing skill ... is arduous, but it is not mysterious. we can understand those imaginative processes that enable us to become better at doing things.” (Sennet p10)

These imaginative processes can be better understood when considered in the concrete, every day actions of someone making something with intelligent hands. If that making becomes part of a bedding in procedure over a lengthy period of time, with steps and stages, of exploration and reflection, then that “embedding stands for a process essential to all skills, the conversion of information and practices into tacit knowledge.” (Sennet p50)

Sennet says towards the end of his book, “Intuitive leaps happen, in the reflections people make on the actions of their own hands.” (Sennet p290) This is why I consider Sennet's 'Intelligent Hand' ideas to be a central part of vocademic learning. Learning should happen DURING the making process. In his choice of examples, Sennet does tend to consider highly skilled makers to the detriment of the the layman, making his examples hard to use for young learners. However, he affirms that, "nearly anyone can be a good craftsman." (Sennet, p268)

Finally, Sennet does not advocate that the intelligent hand be for the use of its owner alone. Collaboration is fundamental to how a good craftsman is made. Thus, Sennet proposes the notion of the workshop, in which craft and hand endeavour are taught and learnt side by side,
"Definition of a workspace is: a productive space." (Sennet, p54)

Claxton's Learning Muscles

As opposed to the traditional content based knowledge that academia insists upon, Claxton argues that students must be taught HOW TO learn, rather than what to learn, through the development of learning muscles. This learning how to learn is based upon a structure of capacities and dispositions, each important in providing students with skills needed to learn successfully, but are not being provided for by current education practices.

"Schools must change. The case is overwhelming. It is education's core responsibility to prepare young people for the future, and it is failing in that duty." (Glaxton, p184)

Guy Claxton is adamant that children are unhappy people in todays British society. In 'What's the Point of School' he argues persuasively that much of the disaffection young students have with schooling, is with the schools themselves. In the opening chapters  of his book, he refers to the levels of stress that school institutions create in their students, and how the whole context of a school environment plays a central role in this. As he says, "UK Government concerns with standards and accountability have led to teenagers being tested ...to destruction." (p9) This testing, he argues, has mostly created a culture of failure, and fear of failure; because by the yardstick of achieving the required grades to enrol on the successful A-level courses that education dangles before the hapless student' most will not reach the level demanded. Is it any wonder, if we take Claxton's points carefully, that students feel somewhat disconnected from the work they do, and moreover, why they do it.

The major thrust of Claxton's ideas, as is clear in the quotation from above, is that schools crush the energies and talents out of their own students, and diminishing attributes that are necessary to live and work successfully after school. This is backed up by other criticisms such as Ann Hagen's notion that schools are incapable of  preparing students for the setbacks that many students will face in the future.

Claxton states that schools mistakenly prepare their students not for a "knowledge-making world", which is what they will face, but for the delusion that the world wants them to apply the knowledge they have stored up in their time in classrooms.
Claxton's puts the blame for this approach at Plato's door. He argues that the abstract nature of Plato's theory of nature has meant that the knowledge built up during childrens' schooling, much of which is "lacklusture" and overly reverential, means that the usefulness of knowledge, such as the development of skills, is stripped from the curriculum. Claxton really has no time for learning for learning's sake, in his attacks on the learning of Vikings and Shakespeare highlight.

For the curriculum detail of much schooling, Claxton uses the words, "trundle on" (p. 79) as a way to describe how they stick with the unsuccessful status quo. I think it is this treading water, going through the traditional, Platonic learning of hifalutin, meaningless concepts, that really seems to hit home when I sense the dislocation that many a student has with "his/her" own learning. A learning that the student neither wants, nor needs.

Schools, for Claxton are modelled on two anachronistic, damaging "dead images" (p50): the monastery, and the factory. Within these images is another, the High Priest, the protector of Knowledge ,seen as "eternal Truth", like Plato's eternals, and the production line. Together these notions of the driving force behind how schools operate necessitate a climate under which the student must yield to standardisation and replication. Such a climate is not at all conducive to allowing learners the freedom and opportunity to learn at their own pace, and focus on what particularly interests them. There is no room to really own the bits of data that are conveyored to them but bypasses them.

Similarly to the ideas of Sennet, Claxton offers a different image to counteract the pedagogical dullness of a monastery and a factory, and that is of teaching and learning in a kind of workshop, in which the student is seen as an apprentice,
"The idea of apprenticeship.. (is the)..development of useful skills and qualities." (p55)
and the image of the teacher is no longer, of the High Priest, nor the factory owner, not an explainer, nor a judge, but as a coach and a model. For Sennet it is as a master craftsman, who by making and creating before his apprentices, creates a climate of enthusiasm and engagement, absorption for Claxton.  

Claxton is adamant that there exists, "a yawning gulf between lessons and life." (p190) and that much of what we teachers consider learning, is really a low-order of functioning, such as remembering, repeating, following and mindless working. Our students will only become more closely connected to the work we give them to do in our lessons, when it involves curiosity, uncertainty, play and fun. Activities that most likely involve the hands, and making things,

"Young people learn by doing" (Claxton p194)

Gauntlett's Serious Play

David Gauntlett's book 'Creative Explorations' is, as he states a long build up to explaining his new method at finding social data via the building of lego for the purposes of defining identity,
"All the parts of this book so far have been building up...to the presentation of the social research method...to build metaphors of identity...using Lego." (p128)

In his book he attempts to explain how we can find out about things differently, creatively; particularly things about ourselves, such as our own identity. Unlike the typical knowledge model that presupposes the need to learn a piece of knowledge then one can apply that knowledge, he turns this model around stating that the making of something should come first, then one can reflect upon that.
"Participants spend time applying their playful or creative attention to the act of making something symbolic or metaphorical, and then reflecting on it." (p3)

This reversal is an ideal way of foregrounding the doingness, the crafting that Sennet argues for, and Claxton says we should aim for, and close to what I want Vocademic Learning to be about. Gauntlett alligns this making theory to an observation about how, "Western culture has a tendency to value thinking over emotionalism," (p76) prefering the rational and logical. But, Gauntlett argues, this is detrimental to understanding, especially in the social sciences, as the whole human self is made up of "emotions and complexity". According to Gauntlett, to a large extent, our brains are unfathomable to us, as most of the thinking going on in there is unconscious; but there are ways to understand some aspects of our mind because we indulge in narratives as ways to understand ourselves, and our place in the world. Gauntlett states that through our search for a coherent identity amidst the complexity of the world, certain methods can allow us to "reach down into the 'engine' and pull up a narrative.
Gauntlett goes on to argue for visual and creative methods as legitimate ways of finding out about things, moving towards Sennet and Claxton with,
"Thinking with the hands can have meaning in itself."  (Gauntlett p130)

Sennet/Claxton/Gauntlett - a vocademic triangulation

What I want to take from these 3 theorists for my Vocademic Strategy are the following:-

1) From Gauntlett I am enamoured of his serious play approach and want to use the idea that whilst people make things they can learn complex things too. He seems to emphasise a playfulness and creativity which I want to build into vocademia.
2) From Sennet I think there is a similar thing going on, whereby the idea of crafting something produces thought,  but the emphasis is very much on the skills within the hand, and how they can be improved.
3) From Claxton I particularly want to include his ideas of building learning muscles, such as Absorption. There seems a strong emphasis on engaging and motivating learners in Claxton, and he sees this by producing "knowledge-makers" not knowledge storers. Once again there is a creativity and a making-reflective approach going on in Claxton, as in the other two, which will be at the core of my planning for using Vocademic Learning in the classroom.

I am very aware that knowledge, the academic side of pedagogy, could be seen to  largely absent from this triangulation, so I have decided to compare this triangulation with a traditional and academic view of pedagogy below.

The Corruption of the Curriculum

"Everyone with a fashionable cause wants a piece of the curriculum." Frank Furedi

I have used the quote above from 'The Corruption of the Curriculum' edited by Robert Whelan because it seems to directly challenge what I have been exploring so far. The Diploma is definitely a new addition to the curriculum in many schools so far, and then to be rolled out into all by 2011. As such it is gaining a foot hole into the curriculum which is precisely what Furedi, and the other collection of writers in the book fear. Sounding rather like Margaret Thatcher, in her role as Education Minister between 1970 and 1974, the writers are motivated by larger concerns too,
"The crisis in education is often a symptom of a more fundamental erosion of authority and tradition." (p6)

The writers, particularly Furedi, put this crisis down to three "destructive influences," (p7)
1) Contemporary education has lost faith with the importance of knowledge and the search for truth
2) Anti-intellectual rise in pedagogy
3) The infantilising of children by embracing the cause of emotional education

I will admit that due to the Diplomas implicit and my explicit vocademic aim to raise vocational learning up to the level of that viewed for academic learning, emphasis is shifted away from the sanctity of a fixed body of knowledge. I can see that if I am not careful then, I could take all the less weighty elements of my three theorists, who definitely centre the learner in the learning narrative, and create a very empty and vacuous model, particularly for the academically minded. This would be akin to using Sennet's Intelligent Hands idea and ignoring the Intelligent bit. What I am hoping to do to avoid this, is make sure that I combine the physical making and creating ideas from the 3 theorists, with a challengingly academic activity: Gauntlett's combining the lego bricks construction with the identity metaphors, for example.

I don't see anything wrong with a less intellectual bias in pedagogy, and greater emphasis being put on emotion. As French philosopher,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty rightly states, we are human beings with human bodies, and we live our life through these bodies; so to ignore the emotional aspects to ourselves is offering up an incomplete knowledge of ourselves and how we interact with the world. The argument above from the Corruption worriers seems very Platonic, as though there is some ideal, untouched truth, and is at complete loggerheads with Gauntlett, Sennet, and especially Claxton. It is therefore, not something I personally and morally can take much from. My stated aim is for equality in education and I don't believe it is for the writers of this book.

Below I attempt to put all this exploration into a very early definition of what I think Vocademic means. This will undoubtedly change as I carry on, but its a start.

Vocademic - an early definition

(Adj) In teaching, the incidental learning of ideas, theories and concepts via the creating and manipulation of physical objects, performed in an atmosphere of playfulness.