Crafts as an elective – concealed education

By Rainer Christian Hardorp, April 2021

This text was written to introduce parents and colleagues to the underlying ideas of the Mannheim Waldorf School’s crafts concept. The term “Crafts elective” means that pupils in upper school can choose one of the crafts of wood or metal working or tailoring as a firm subject, provided they have decided to aim for the lower or intermediate secondary school leaving qualification or a qualification to study at a university of applied science.

When people went hunting in ancient times, they carried spears to kill their prey. These had to have certain flight characteristics to be able to hit and kill the animal: the tip and shaft had to keep the same flight line. This requires a certain weight distribution. The spearhead had to be made of stone with great skill and be artfully tied and glued with resins into the shaft. This was already done in the Stone Age tens of thousands of years ago.

The technical thinking acquired in the development of these and other techniques fostered in human beings the capacity for cultural evolution, urban planning and science.

It is typical that these cultural potentials always developed with a use in mind. This means that a question arose from an imperfect situation, causing people to think about it: a way to a solution developed from a problem through thinking and testing.

This is the path of craftsmanship. It leads from the spear to house building, from the plough to grain breeding, from thinking about the community to philosophy. All this is education, and education is meaningful knowledge. Craft thinking and doing in today’s context is also always directed towards solving a meaningful problem. It requires agility of imagination and precision of thought, because wrong thinking cannot be glossed over when the roof has collapsed. Thus craftsmanship promotes reality-based thinking.

When solving a construction task, even of a simple kind, there is a learning effect. Learning takes place during the work process. Nothing has to be learned by heart, as in the case of formulas or historical dates. Knowledge must be acquired about materials and processes! However, this knowledge is almost always integrated into a practical process which is also comprehended through the senses so that additional information – for example about alloys or gluing techniques – can easily be integrated into such knowledge experienced through the senses. That, too, is an educational path.

Concealed educational perspectives

The question arises: in our present time, which is increasingly dominated by the possibilities of digital processing, does it still make sense to deal in depth with materials and their properties? Digitally controlled machining does not override the physical properties of materials. The developer of a machining program must program in a way that is suitable for the material. The user of the programs faces an equal challenge because they must use the control system in a material-specific way. Both must know the materials. This can only be learned with the hand and the senses.

At the centre of the craft concept developed at the Mannheim Waldorf School is the educational goal of acquiring the skills to take action and the ability to make decisions. The conception of this model was based on the intention to discover and further develop the educational aspects hidden in craft activities and to bring them into a coherent form. A thought experiment:

If we inwardly imagine a geometric shape, for example a spiral, we can notice when evoking the memory that we do not have the shape stored in the memory as a finished idea ready to be recalled but rather build it up anew in the imagination with its features – large or small, clockwise or anticlockwise, tightly or loosely wound etc. To do this, we activate our sense of self-movement with the help of which we reproduce the shape almost as if we were doing it by walking or by drawing on a blackboard. If the process of internal imaging does not succeed immediately, we feel the desire to help the imagination along with a suitable body movement. This finally enables me to think the form.

Related to the craft activity, we can see that a much practised movement leads to the internalisation of the formal principle of this movement. Pupils, for example, fully acquire the idea of the plane by anchoring it in their movement organism through planing or filing.

Connected with this is the training of the imagination and spatial thinking. The pupil does not just do something mechanically but has to constantly check whether they are achieving what is required with his movement. To do this, they must be clear about where they want to remove how much or how one part should fit into the other. Without clarity about the three-dimensional relationships of the workpiece to be produced obtained before starting work, the work will fail.

While doing these things, they will often reach their limits. Probably something will not succeed as planned. This is of course a disappointing experience, but when there is subsequently success after all they can also experience how their skills grow which enables them to gain confidence in their will and perseverance.

But why did something not work out? Confronting failures can lead to self-reflection: was my mind not on the job? Did I use the wrong tool or was it the right one but it wasn’t working properly? Did I treat the material wrongly, perhaps not paying attention to the grain? Was I too rough or should I have used more force? Did I pay attention to the noise? That screeching of the drill should have alerted me! A subtle feeling for noises, vibrations, applied force or momentum must be acquired.

Dealing with materials requires the pupil to deepen their perception. If they give themselves over completely to perception, they will reach the point where their gaze falls back on themselves. They must relate the experience to themselves because they themselves are the cause of what is happening. They must realise: I did this, I am responsible, I have to do better. The familiar statement: “It can’t be done” must be transformed into the realisation: “I can’t do it (yet).”

The perception directed outwards turns inward in this process, the pupil learns both to observe their own shortcomings and to recognise success as a result of their skill. This is a process of self-awareness. This in turn brings about a strengthening of self-control.

The opportunities of craft lessons, be they with wood, metal or fabric, can only come to fruition if the responsible teacher provides room for the possibility of “self-directed learning” by the pupil, allows them to test things out. The pupil must therefore be allowed to look for their own ways because under a rigid, old-style system of instruction that does not allow initiative, the effects described above cannot occur. In fact, it even creates training in the wrong direction, namely towards dependence on instruction, towards a way of thinking that shies away from independence and thus falls into the trap of always projecting mistakes onto superiors or “the circumstances” instead of transforming them into better competence to act.

Gaining confidence in one’s own work

The aim of a craft in any area is to let the ability develop in the pupils to deal consciously and competently with the decisions they have to make in life. This also includes an ability in their vocational biography to take action which they can then put to use in any job they later aspire to, be it in a trade, the arts, the social sector or elsewhere.

The experience that we teachers should let the young people have is the certainty: I have completed my projects, be it a wardrobe, a bicycle or a piece of clothing I designed myself – with support – but on my own responsibility and with success. I was able to learn this. If I work in another job later, I will be able to do that as well because I trust myself to learn if I put my mind to it. And I know that I can do it.

About the author: Rainer Christian Hardorp is a crafts teacher at the Mannheim Free Waldorf School.


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