Oil Pans and Education

In a previous post, Simon Hauger summed up the first year of the Sustainability Workshop by telling the story of his adventures of changing an oil pan on Michael Clapper’s 2001 Jetta Wagon.  The whole project ended up being anything but straightforward, as Micael and Simon struggled to remove the bolts and then, after learning that there was a special tool for this, ended up making their own tool to put the bolts back in.  The project was frustrating at times, took a lot longer than expected, and teetered on the edge of failure.   Simon ends by mentioning that despite all of this- or most likely because of it- the whole endeavor was extremely satisfying and fun.

Simon then left this gem of a challenge in the post:

“At this point I would like to say something smart about how this parallels teaching and learning but it’s the end of the school year and I’ve got nothing. I’ll count on you to come up with your own inspirational insight – please share it with me when you do.”

So I thought I might take a stab at this, as I think his story speaks volumes about the approach to teaching and learning that goes on at the Workshop.  Let me begin with learning.

First, Simon and Michael ran into problems while doing meaningful work, something they had a vested interest in completing.  I am sure going into it they did not think it would take two days or that they would end up making their own tool to get the bolts back in.  But they did, and they learned far more than they thought they would in the process.  As Matthew Crawford explains so well in Shop Class as Soulcraft, this kind of thoughtful tinkering is how people become good at things, developing an embodied expertise about to make, invent or fix things.  It is also how they get good at solving problems.  It is a process that relies on a peculiar admixture of perspiration, frustration and imagination, that often has its own built in indicators of success.  Either the pan holds oil or it does not, and it is hard not to smile when it does.

Most of us have been in this situation, even if not under the hood of a car.  We venture out into unknown territory, run into problems, and then get to work doing the learning necessary to proceed.   It always takes longer than we might expect, and always involves the frustation of being unsure of how to proceed, of making mistakes, of possibly failing altogether.  But there is something more here than simply changing an oil pan or even writing this blog- it is the immense satisfaction that comes with having figured something out, with having created or learned something new in the process.  So how do you teach this?

You don’t.  You create the situations where students can take up the problems or questions that compel them. Then you create the space for them to make mistakes, and in it a reflective space for them to learn from them.  You create a space for them reach out to others who might know more, to figure out what they might need to learn or do to go forward.  You give them the time to tinker, to try and to fail, and then trust them learn from it.  Perhaps most importantly, you create a space for them to develop a trusting community that can offer perspectives, advice and support, that believes in and values each of its members.   The students and teachers at the Workshop have done just this, and call it their family.

One way to think of the Workshop is as a place where students get the opportunity to learn by doing, by following the questions that compel them into the real world.  Another way to think of the Workshop is as a place where teachers get an opportunity to do the same, to pursue their own ideas about education and to develop them in and through practice.  What I find most compelling about the Workshop is that both the students and teachers have told me more than once that this has been their best year in school.  Imagine that.  It makes sense though because they both got a chance to put their ideas into practice, to build things that matter to them, such as hybrid cars, trusting relationships and yes, a very different kind of school.