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Hands-On and Minds-On Activities


Dear Diane,

I'm sitting here in the hotel lounge in Winnipeg with my third try at this blog, plus one I tried hurriedly before I left. So far I've lost them all somewhere. But, as in schooling, there's nothing more important than persistence. Well, maybe not. My colleague, Jane Andrias, who is up here with me in Winnipeg, reminds me that persistence—doing the same thing over and over—can also be sheer foolishness.

It's interesting how we use the same words sometimes to suggest rather different ideas. My view of tinkering, and "hands-and-minds" on—like play and imagination—don't separate the traditional crafts from the traditional "disciplines" of academia. We honor them both when we respect their particular forms of knowledge, and the particular ways in which we need to "play" with the materials we use. There is a knowledge base—a form of study—that is applicable across all trades. And I include the trade of historian and furniture-maker.

Tonight I'm talking about Democracy and the Playful Imagination. Of the five habits of mind that we invented as the underpinnings for CPESS many years ago, the one I often like best is one we called, "Suppose that...? What if...."? (The other four involve the nature of the evidence, alternate viewpoints, patterns, and 'who cares?')

So, to continue.

What's special about a democracy is that all its members have joined the once-all-powerful leisured classes. In Athenian and Roman times voters were limited to those who had leisure. Even at the start of the good old USA, only about 6 percent of the total population had the vote—excluded were not merely women and slaves, but unpropertied people—whose income depended solely on their labor not their property. But that means both having the leisure and also having the training for using that leisure on behalf of making not only personal decisions, or craft decisions, but larger decisions affecting one's fellow citizens. That, in short, was the promise of American public universal education.

We've forgotten it. Unlike you, Diane, I think there's a weak case for this broader education in terms of our economic strength. But there's absolutely one for our continued existence as a democracy. And, at its heart, is to be able to "imagine" not only one but many futures, and to see the patterns and connections between them, and to wonder "what if" we did x instead of y, and what kind of knowledge would help me sort through my decisions? And on and on through our habits of mind. To do so requires also having had "hands-on" experiences with the dilemmas of democracy, with its balances and trade-offs, with its peculiar rules (which are different for Canada and the U.S., for example), and more. It also assumes training in certain rules of evidence, as well as tolerance for difference, above all for imagining the possibility of being wrong.

These are both hands-on and minds-on activities that demand a craftsman's respect for materials, tools, ends, and study.

If I keep on with this much longer, this computer will no doubt start acting up again, so I better end this while I can. Besides, I have to come up with some questions for my audience tomorrow—when I'm talking about schooling and democracy to 300 Manitoba secondary school teachers.


P.S. My libertarian reader and I come to that noble word with different liberties in mind! He rests his on the liberty of the "marketplace." Alas, that liberty destroys too many others I value more highly. Even libertarians have to make choices and set priorities.


Pure democracy as a governing mechanism is at odds with the basic rights of life, liberty and property. It is absurd to think that an individual should be forced to rely on vote winning just to be able to eat. Democracy vitiates all that is associated with property rights- like free speech, market relations and individual conscience. It is one of the great tragedies of public schooling that it enshrines democracy as the civic religion. Stripped down to its bare essentials democracy is ‘two wolves and one sheep voting on what to have for dinner’.


You reminded me of something that continues to blow my mind. When I was a kid we were told that leisure time would grow and the workweek would shrink, and education was necessary so we could have a fulfilling life.

What happened?

As I see it, with the energy crisis of 1973 we made some horrible decisions. Rather than tightening our own belts, continuing to practice deyed gratification, and reinventing the auto and our energy-intensiver economy, we just worked harder but stupider. In order to maintain lifestyles, people took two jobs. They invested less time with their kids.

The bell rang and I've got to go. My computer is down so i'll finish tommorrow.

A side effect of the deindustrialization of America, and other cultural changes, is that hands-on learning has been lost, except in schools and then it mostly survives in more affluent schools. Far fewer fathers and mothers actively teach craftmenship, and hands-on learning. when I was a kid, we all heard the mantra, "pay close attention. I'm only going to show you once." Back then, that phrase was so common that its the punch line of my favorite dirty joke ...

This cultural change finally was articulated by the Bush administration which said that "reality" is just the "old paradigm."

Just today, Allen Greenspan apologized for his mistakes. He said that he overestimated the rationality of banking interests. When will we get the same apology from the remaining NCLB supporters, saying that they over emphasized the role of rationality in schooling?

Education is not just an affair of the Head. The Heart and the Hands are just as important.

But I shouldn't go too far down that path. Education is just a part of a broader cultural change, and as long as the rest of society gets more alienated from physical reality, the same will apply to our schools, so the blame game isn't appropriate.

On the other hand, if we can have a contemplative discussion, maybe we will realize that our schools need to be in touch with the full spectrum of the human condition. Maybe we will both celebrate the accomplishments of our post-industrial and post-modern culture, and mourn our losses, and build schools that will fill in the gaps.

Indeed, what happened to leisure? Why have we neglected it or pushed it into banal forms of expression?

Deborah, I am thinking about the concept of "less is more" in the context of a work day. There is no harm in working hard and accomplishing much, but when one has too many different things to do and checklists that boggle the best part of the mind, then one loses the joy of doing any one thing well. To work and think well, one needs a degree of leisure. That leisure can be found within the work itself, if the focus, simplicity, and quiet are there. Not many can afford a life made entirely of leisure; most of us need to work. Yet the work requires rest and thought.

Leisure seems to get more important for me as I get older. I had more leisure when younger; I value it more now. I recognize that I will not have another chance at a slow and dreamy day. Each one that passes leaves me for good.

Do I want to die one day with the knowledge that I checked off all the items on all the lists that came my way? Or, instead, that I took time with books and music I loved, that provoked me, that sent my thoughts flying? Do I want to prove that I was productive every moment of my life, or do I want to prove nothing, and instead hold something close?

The answer is obvious to me, but it is not obvious to our schools. They (like many workplaces) have bought into the checklist mentality. In such an environment, how can we lead our lives to honor what matters?

Of course in all occupations there are compromises, and one does not have as much time as one wants for anything. Teaching involves many tasks no matter what you do. But schools have become strangers to the leisure and simplicity essential to good thinking. To improve the schools profoundly, we need to sort out the important from the trivial, and make room for repose.

Diana Senechal

Diane, I get mixed up--I see I should have responded here instead of directly to you. Yes indeed, there is no way to study "a problem" as through there could be a generic one. We learn from experience, but only if we've explored it deeply enough. So at CPESS we tried to go deeply. We spent a year focused on a "humanities" subject--e.g. "who's an American anyhow? The Peopling of the Americas." Or "Are justice and fairness the same?" and more on that--We always had a particular history and time and place in mind that we could try and become sufficient experts about that we could exercise those five habits of mind! Ditto for science. Even in the teaching of reading one can't teach without reading "something" in particular. What we read is not an afterthought.

Thanks. Such a good point!!

And JP. Yes, I too remember our brief love-affair with the idea that progress would bring leisure. We were extrapolating from the history of ordinary people. But we're living through an intensification of labor, and compromising far too much with the "needs" of "productivity". We need to reexamine who ses such "needs'.


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