We’ve reached that lull in the school year when the excitement of Back to School has worn off and the reality of spending long stretches staring into the laptop and Smart Board has set in. Sitting still, glued to screens, for hours.
Pandemic-era remote learning is well over, but for middle and high school students, school can still seem like an endless Zoom in the dullest sense of the word. Many schools have schedules loaded with classwork, and with early starts and less frequent physical education classes, and have curtailed lunch and recess — seemingly in an effort to improve America’s woeful standing in student performance.
The kind of classes that used to cut into desk time have largely been squeezed out of the schedule. No more woodworking or shop, automotive arts, typing or home economics — classes that taught skills better learned through active doing rather than passive learning.
Instead, after decades of decline, Career Technical Education, as it’s now known, has focused on “upgrading” itself academically. C.T.E. is now likely to consist of digital design, 3-D printing, communications and computer science; in New York State, for example, what was once known as “industrial arts” has evolved into “technology education.” And forget altogether about home economics; student enrollment in the full category of Family and Consumer Sciences courses declined by nearly 40 percent between 2003 and 2012.
But there’s an argument for bringing back home ec and shop, not only for students who may be better served by opting out of college, but also for those students bent on white-collar life. These are the kinds of “adulting” skills many kids no longer learn at home, whether it’s because their working parents are too busy or their extracurriculars too onerous. And the benefits of these classes — using one’s hands, working with real-world materials, collaborating offscreen, taking risks — extend well beyond the classroom.
First, to state the obvious: Kids need a break. The advantages of getting up from one’s desk — standing, walking around, going outside, taking 15-minute breaks — are well known to adults, especially for people who spend much of their days on screens. Yet we don’t extend the same courtesy to schoolchildren. An hour or two each week grappling with wood planks or mixing batter can leaven a long and monotonous school day.
Second, kids learn from physical work just as they do from mental labor, and when the two are interwoven, academic learning can also improve. Moving our bodies and letting our minds wander bring renewed focus. According to popular educational theory, some kids are what educators call tactile learners — they do especially well with a kinesthetic instruction that involves actively doing over passively absorbing. Schools apply these ideas to early childhood education, with its emphasis on sand tables and “hands-on learning.” But older students, particularly boys and kids with attention difficulties, also benefit.
Home ec and shop skills especially make sense in light of current environmental and health challenges. For kids who wear fast fashion but care about climate and overconsumption, it’s worth knowing how to darn a sock or patch a hole. Likewise, in a country with skyrocketing obesity and high consumption of processed foods, learning how to make healthy, inexpensive meals is important.
The more both sexes can handle kitchen and household skills, the better. In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” Matthew Crawford lamented a world without shop class — “the experience of making things and fixing things” — as one that encourages us to be “more passive and more dependent.”
But shop class and home ec also teach a broader range of skills. Educators may extol the value of collaboration and its desirability in today’s workplace, but in school, those lessons rarely extend beyond the confines of a Google Doc. Whereas in home economics, collaboration means taking turns cleaning up and requires social skills to determine who does what and how.
Working with one’s hands also rewards patience. Kids accustomed to immediate results and instant gratification must grapple with the tedium and rewards of slower processes; even the best math and chemistry students don’t automatically bake a bread that rises.
In “Building: A Carpenter’s Notes on Life & the Art of Good Work,” which came out earlier this year, Mark Ellison writes: “I firmly believe that most of life passes us by when we avoid mucking about in dirt, or dough, or dark thoughts. Doing anything from beginning to end brings understanding that no finished product can provide.”
Personally, I found shop class scary. It was unnerving to sink a saw into a block of hardwood, to be surrounded by hormonal youths wielding hammers and hot metal. (Relatedly, these classes can be expensive for schools to fund; whenever sharp objects or power tools are involved, insurance rates go up. My junior high school, which once required shop, has since replaced it with Tech.)
But in a culture that has stripped children of all possible hazards, kids could use a few more risk-taking opportunities, a sense of danger, even.
These are exactly the kind of life skills educators, parents and administrators say current students desperately need and sorely lack. At a time when kids themselves seem just as concerned with “adulting” as grown-ups are, maybe we ought to give them more opportunities to learn what are as much “21st century” skills as any other.
Source photographs by koosen and wabeno/Getty Images
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