Want to Trade?

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Who would have thought that accepting the opportunity six years ago to blog about the trades for Traditional Building would have led to so many intriguing conversations with readers with such varied perspectives on where we are, how we got here and where we should go from here? More than anyone else, those conversations have been with my long time friend, fellow tradesperson and writer Ken Follett, although some may not call our interchanges as much conversations as conflictations.

My respect for Ken’s view of many things, in particular the place of, or even need for, trades education in our society, has motivated me to let those conversations be viewed and reacted to by you. Ken has agreed to be a guest blogger in “A Place for Trades” and you are about to have the pleasure of reading his first post. I will follow his post with another of my own and we will alternate posts as we move forward in our blogging match. Enjoy. - Rudy Christian

Ken (second from right) doing what he does best - reminding us that we are the stories we tell. As you can see, everyone is listening.

Ken (second from right) doing what he does best - reminding us that we are the stories we tell. As you can see, everyone is listening.

I have been invited, or challenged, to contribute here as either a sounding board, a counter-measure or a punching bag to my friend Rudy Christian’s blog comments. Though by habit I am inclined to hustle rocks into a pile, this may be a case where I assist Rudy when he needs persuasion to throw his more warped and knotty timbers onto an active bonfire. Hopefully there will be no dynamite in the mix, but there may be some firecrackers.

Rudy often says that there is a need to change our culture. I am not quite sure what he means by that and I suspect that I may disagree. If we turn off the television, don’t listen to the radio, forget to go online to check the news, and go read a book about the eleventh century, then our personal culture is very quickly changed. So, culture has changed, in particular my culture has changed, but whatever problem you started the day with, I expect you still have to deal with it.

Rudy in his last blog pointed out that public education as it is currently structured is not the solution to the need for a maintenance of the knowledge of practice in traditional building trades, but that the practitioners of traditional trades themselves provide a solution. I want to step back from what Rudy has said and look at the kinds of education that are actually available.

Public education over the last 50 years has leaned toward the elimination of shop, home economics, arts and music. Though we could go into expressing our views on why this has occurred, for the most part we need to acknowledge that our political and academic society has taken this direction, in many respects, out of a lack of understanding of the various ways in which people learn. For this position I would draw from the work of a high-level academic, Professor Richard Elmore, the Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (ed, Harvard: GSE2, Leaders of Learning, 2014.)

What Professor Elmore puts forward is a model of four distinct modes of learning. For this conversation between Rudy and myself, this distinction is important to understand. One of the modes is specific to an educational model predominant in public education and tends to exclude the other three modes of learning. The four modes are Hierarchical Individual, Hierarchical Collective, Distributed Individual, and Distributed Collective.

Hierarchical Individual: Within the structure of a set of learning objectives, in general provided by an external source (such as the government) there is a well-defined framework of teacher to student in a superior-subordinate relationship. The orientation is toward performance targets, as in individual testing. This is the mode of education that those who can’t quite make it, those of a tactile and experiential hands-on relationship to the physical world, find themselves experiencing as a really lousy time in their lives.

Hierarchical Collective: A bit less restrictive, learning objectives established externally, but the learning process is more accommodating to a group of students in a learning community to work together in a guided relationship with an instructor. This is somewhat the model of a workshop in which an experienced timber framer leads a group of students in fabrication of cannon carriages required for a specific historic fort. The goal of the workshop is from an external source – the need of the museum fort for cannon carriages – but the instructor works with the students in guiding them as a working group. There is a clear objective and it may not allow within the context or the time involved for an individual student to carve out of oak a happy mermaid.

Distributed Individual: In this mode the individual follows his/her own self-generated learning objectives, gaining the knowledge that they require from the world around them.The students are often involved in a mentoring relationship with an instructor, or several instructors, who possess and are willing to share the experience and knowledge that the student seeks. An example would be a young mason who desires to learn to build traditional fireplaces. He would seek out a mason who builds fireplaces to work with, and also has the initiative and self-directed interest to read up in a library as much as possible. In addition, he would take an occasional class to broaden his/her skill set.

This is a learning mode close to what Rudy expresses as forming a bond between the mentor and the student. The mentor is not necessarily degreed in formal educational practice but has a knowledge that they wish to impart to others.

Where I do disagree with Rudy is that I do not believe that there is a universal mandate that anyone who knows anything has a responsibility to share. I consider this an important distinction. For one thing, there may not be anyone looking for that particular bit of knowledge, and for another, the one-on-one educational model is not particularly efficient when it comes to learning objectives established by an external authority.

For instance, if the external learning objective is to increase public literacy and the basic math skills required of a consumer society, then a hierarchical mode of learning has a more efficient, a broader reach than one-on-one. Or, if the objective is to increase the resource pool of traditional trades practitioners able to work on historic sites, then it makes sense that one not rely on a learning mode whereby the mentor selects the student as well as the student seeks out and selects the mentor.

My own education after public school was to seek out working mentors and prove to them that I was worthy to be their student. One aspect that needs to be kept in mind is that those a bit more on the radical edge who learn in this manner likely did so contrary to the tracking the hierarchical education modes may have enforced onto them, and often are not particularly adapted to “playing with others.”

Distributed Collective: This mode involves a community of learning in which a group of people with a common interest gain knowledge from each other and from their interaction with the world at large. There are leaders and instructors, but the tendency is for a collective sharing of the learning experience, and the leadership takes on less of an instructor-student relationship and more of a role of cultivating the interests of a community of people and sustaining them within an environment that enhances the educational experience.

An example of this mode would be a local writers workshop in which the leader sets the calendar of gatherings but leaves it to the writers to bring their own material to read and discuss. It is a highly organic mode of communal learning, and those comfortable in the mode tend to have a great capacity to play together. Another example is the occasional free-form of a PTN IPTW, in which between demonstration sessions of hands-on trades practitioners (giving those with knowledge experience of teaching to a group), people stand in the cold and rain and talk about whatever. The learning is within a structured environment without structured objectives other than the desire of the individual seeking to be informed.

Though in practice the distinction between each mode of learning is clouded and mixed, it is valuable to have models from which to make distinctions between what we see as currently existing, to be able to discern what we like and what we do not like, where we find ourselves between the selection of modes, and what we would like to imagine as possible for the future.

These modes of learning, though not directly relevant to heritage conservation or maintenance of the built environment, are the perspectives being explored at a high academic level as well as being pushed out into the educational environment. If there is to be a change in our culture, which Rudy often says we need, then one element is that there needs to be a wider public and political perspective on the potentials of public education.

The call to reinvest public education with shop class, home economics, art and music is not solely that there is a need for people in the world proficient in use of a hammer, paint brush or spatula, but that there is a whole wider world of people who need education to serve their best mode of learning and to cultivate their individual and community potential. In public education, to ignore three-fourths of alternative modes of education, to isolate and nurture one mode of learners from the majority of others, is to erode the foundation of a democratic citizenship. Nevertheless, to abandon public education as a viable cultural resource and give preference to alternative educational resources would also be a problem.

As things are, the more individually directed learning modes remain viable as traditional educational pathways for those who have the opportunity and capital resources to pursue their individual dreams. This leaves these pathways unavailable to many who are in serious need of them.