On Industrial Arts

This post is in response to a recent tweet (and toot):

I do want to admit that my post on social media and this post can easily be dismissed as an old person ranting about how “things were better in my days.” My tweet should not be misconstrued in any way as disparaging makerspaces. I have worked to support and enhance them since they started arriving in schools later in my k-12 teaching career.

Looking back at the “shop” experience I had as a middle school student, I do think they were valuable. I do think they are needed, but I don’t see them coming back anytime soon. My experiences are limited to the shops that existed in one school.  

In 1977, I entered 7th grade in a Vermont junior high school. Four days each week, I went to “industrial arts” which was in the basement of the school. Mr. K was my teacher. For the first semester, I studied mechanical drawing. We sat at large slanted tables, taped paper to the surface, and drew 3-sided views of blocks the teacher provided.For the spring semester, we worked in the woodshop. A serious woodshop with planers, radial arm saws, table saws, drill presses, and a collection of (very sharp) hand tools. We started with the same project our older brothers and sisters had made: a napkin holder (I have lost track of mine, but I know it was still in use in my parents house well into my adult life). I still use the tool box that was my second project as well.

The next school year, my industrial arts teacher was Mr. C, and for the first semester, we worked in the ceramics studio (I believe most of my projects have since broken, but I remember making pinch pots, a coil pot, bookends, and a piggy bank). In the spring, we worked in the metal shop, making mailboxes, wire sculptures, and other projects. In addition to the anvils and hand tools, we cut and bent sheet metal, connected metal with rivets, spot welds, and solder.

My first year of high school was also in the junior high school, and I was able to take small gas engine repairs and drafting (where I even drew house plans), but those were taught in the high school garage and studio which was connected to the junior high school.

In 1992, I returned to that junior high school to teach. The shops were still there, but activity was curtailed. The three teachers were now one. Mr. K and Mr. C who had been my teachers had retired, and only Mr. M remained. (Mr. M had been my wife’s shop teacher when she was a student there at the same time I was.) The wood shop and drafting studio were largely unused; Mr. M taught in the ceramics studio and in the metal shop. Middle school students rotated into shop for a few weeks each of their two years in the school. Mr. M did allow me to bring math students into the shops for various units and lessons I taught in math class, and I often joined him to teach exploratory classes in the metal shop.

In looking back on the “shop” experience I had I do recognize it was generally a gender-specific course. Almost all of the industrial arts students were boys (the girl who would become the woman I married being one who broke that norm) and the girls enrolled in “home economics” where they learned sewing and cooking. I do appreciate the fact that when I returned to those shops as an adult, all students were in the shops (and they were also in the “home ec” kitchens and sewing studios. 

I suggested in my tweet and toot that maker spaces are a poor substitute for industrial arts. Clearly, I was generalizing, and I have no intention of minimizing the contributions maker spaces can make to children’s education. In fact, Mr. M and I developed a plan to convert the unused mechanical drawing studio and wood shop to a maker space, but the decision was made to convert them into world language classrooms.

For me, industrial arts classes represent one of the most authentic types of courses to which we can expose students. What they are creating is clear in their minds and they can judge the quality themselves. The products are valuable to those outside the classroom. The pragmatic, critical, and creative thinking we saw students develop in shops are difficult to replicate elsewhere. 

The very practical nature of industrial arts classrooms is obvious as well. Hammers, saws, and screwdrivers are all tools students use in industrial arts classrooms. These are tools I see and hear people using everyday. Sure 3-D printing is valuable, and I believe all students should have the chance to design and print devices, but I also believe they should use tools they will encounter in the real world.