Repair, don’t throw away

By Walter Kraus, April 2017

Pupils at the Schwabing Rudolf Steiner School in Munich are learning how to repair things – with support from volunteer instructors – as well as the principles of sustainable management.

“Dad, can you come here?” Frustrated and perplexed, my daughter held up her CD player to show me. “It won’t open anymore!” I then ask her, “What happened?” My daughter answers, “I got caught in the cable. It fell down.” I say to her, “Unplug it and we’ll take a quick look at it.” “The casing has got a crack here and somehow the cover has come out of place,” she explains. Together we try and find a way to open the device. Difficult!

When it becomes clear that we aren’t getting anywhere, we turn to the internet for advice. And would you believe it, there’s a Youtube video that shows exactly how to disassemble the device. I find a specialised slotted square head screwdriver in my bit screwdriver set. Now my daughter wants to continue alone. She goes and fetches the superglue and a few moments later proudly and confidently presents me with a newly working CD player.

Fixing things is fun, especially with young people. They are inquisitive, ask interesting questions and have good ideas. It is a way for them to gain “insight” through opening up a device and trying to discover why it works, or for that matter, why it doesn’t work anymore. They come to grips and become acquainted with the technical aspects of their environment and assume responsibility for it themselves. They gain experience in the careful and proper handling of natural resources and energy.

It is nearly impossible to find workshops in our cities any longer. Working time is too expensive and the materials are too cheap. It used to be exactly the opposite. We have to and can do something to change this situation, mainly through offering classes in our schools on how to repair and fix objects. It is also possible to learn the principles of sustainable management through coming to grips with the nature, function and value of everyday objects. This is how we started: since the last school year, pupils in classes 9 and 10 have been participating in the elective subject of “Repair Workshop for Pupils”.

It takes courage to open broken devices

A pupil writes: “Three times a week we meet in the repair workshop next to the physics classroom. In the repair workshop each group of two has their own work station where they are provided with all the tools they require. They then spend their time working on the broken devices which come into the workshop at a steady rate. Often the customers bring their devices to the repair workshop in person, then we take the time to answer their questions, such as how much a replacement part will cost for example. Seeing as there’s always a lot to do, there are always a couple of parents and acquaintances there on a rotating basis to offer their help. We predominantly repair electrical and electronic devices such as broken cameras, radios, CD players, coffee machines, model boats, bicycles, car keys, and the school’s over-head projectors, but we also repair mechanical things including broken wooden toys from the after-school care centre. In the time between the middle of April and the end of July we successfully repaired 72 devices. We only ended up having to get rid of one device, a hair straightener, because the printed circuit board had been fried. The work is very varied. You learn so many different things, from how to take apart even the most complicated devices, and how to operate a multimeter, through to how to solder. Additionally, we have also gained the courage to first try opening a device and looking for a way to solve the problem instead of simply throwing it away or sending it back.

I think it’s a brilliant idea and in its implementation, incredibly interesting, helpful, and useful, in every conceivable way. It’s a completely different type of class.”

Sophie Kopf

We’re testing an alternative to throwing away

Through our repair workshop we want to break the vicious cycle of buying objects and then throwing them away. A lot of people have lost a fundamental understanding of the objects that they use in their day to day life and the way in which these objects work. In contrast to this, the pupils are gaining the experience that a lot of the time it’s simply due to a loose contact, which after being fixed means that the lamp lights up again, or due to an empty battery, which after being replaced means that the watch starts ticking again. Almost automatically we’re replacing things that no longer work like we want them to. We’ve stopped looking for solutions that we can find through repairing our devices ourselves, which is often a lot easier than most would think.

It is ideal in our school’s workshop is that we don’t have to earn any money through our work. The parents and pupils who comprise our customers can reward us with donations if they want, which we then spend on new tools. The pupils experience meaningful voluntary work which has the aim of helping their fellow human beings. The principle of fraternal economics is experienced in practice by the pupils and satisfies them to the core. They can see that their work meets the needs of others. This experience is also an educational goal of the repair workshop.

It isn’t only young people who are being enticed to greater and faster consumption through constantly new and ever more attractive design. Children are also being ensnared. This is known as psychological obsolescence. A short while ago I brought the new school laptop home with me. My daughter became all excited and insisted we should also buy a device like that. I had to explain to her that when it came to the specifications, the laptop wasn’t any better than ours, it only looked more modern. I experienced technical obsolescence myself when I had to install a new operating system on my computer so that new software would be able to function. After I did this my scanner stopped working. I had to throw it away and replace it with a new one.

This is planned obsolescence, which is when a device is glued together, or held together with such specialised screws that the average consumer isn’t able to open it up or repair it, and as a result has to throw it away.

Learning through discovery as an educational method

Young people are faced with the developmental task in puberty of finding independent access to themselves, others, and the world around. They have to take control of things themselves to get to know themselves in the encounter with the world. This means that they have to find things out for themselves, and not simply be told how to do things. The repair workshop offers them space to try this out. This is why we are opening learning spaces in the school through practical work based on concrete customer orders.

Learning by doing

In the repair workshop, the pupils don’t receive any instructions that are neatly divided into individual steps, but rather they are encouraged to “learn through discovery”. The workshop’s instructor doesn’t immediately jump into action as soon as the pupils require help, but rather stays in the background. The pupils should learn to help themselves. There is no greater sense of security that can be developed in life than the feeling of “I know how to help myself!” or “Even when facing difficulties, I know I won’t lose my courage”. It shouldn’t be some authority figure who tells the pupils if they have done something well or if something hasn’t succeeded, but rather the device and whether it is functioning again or not.

This form of “learning by doing” is an invaluable opportunity for the pupils to face their mistakes without being able to resort to excuses such as having a “bad teacher”, for example. This form of learning has another element to it, namely its emphasis on learning being “experience based”: on the one hand, the pupils make use of already existing experience, on the other they are guided in their actions by the experience they gather in discovery. Through this they end up paying particular attention to the sensory perceptions, associations and vivid ideas that they have when they gather this experience. This is how they not only develop practical know-how, but also develop a feel for and a sense of the subject.

Developing the concept of repair

The pupils work at a work station outfitted with tools, either on their own or in groups of two. There are work stations in the wood workshop for woodwork and in the physics room for the repair of electrical devices and bicycles. Pupils are always on the go with janitor and our mobile tool box in the school building. We are also looking at the possibility of offering clothing repairs in the craftwork room in the future. We would be happy to provide the list of tools with prices for the different work stations, as well as the customer information sheet. We can be contacted at: reparatur(at)waldorfschule-schwabing.de.

The “Repair Workshop for Pupils” project in an innovative approach to the ongoing development of Waldorf Education and is being supported academically. It addresses the following issues:

• What role does the workshop play in the development in pupils undergoing puberty?

• In what way does it contribute to the pupils’ environmental education, as well as their awareness of resources and values?

• In what way can volunteer work be incorporated into the concept of education?

• What educational opportunities are there in the direct contact the pupils have to the customers?

The volunteers should be supervised and advised, especially with regard to the various methods of discovery and experience-based working and learning. Eventually, a summary of the results of the project should be made available as a help for other interested Waldorf Schools. We found Claudia Munz from the Society for Educational Research and Career Development in Munich to undertake the project, who has many years of experience in the field of youth and adult education. Notably, she has supervised the craftwork centre at the Waldorf School in Gröbenzell for many years, utilising the approach of experience-based learning. We are still looking for sponsors to finance the accompanying research and consultation.

About the author: Walter Kraus is a physics and mathematics teacher at the Schwabing Rudolf Steiner School in Munich. He is also in charge of the project “Pupils Help Roma Families in Rosia/Romania”. He has three daughters who have a workbench in their room.

More about the project “Reparatur defekter Geräte – ein sinnvolles Unterrichtsangebot an Schulen” in German at www.ecocrowd.de

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