The Wisdom of the Hands: Teacher Crafts Lessons in Wood

Friday, February 7, 2014
Doug Stowe advises Anna on how to drill the teeth Holes. Photo by Jennifer Jackson

The jawbone's connected to the headbone. The headbone's connected to the body block. The body block's connected to the tail bone, the arm bones and the leg bones.

Making a model T-Rex is the current project that Clear Spring School elementary students are doing in wood shop. But for teacher Doug Stowe, it's about making the connection between knowing how to do something and doing it.

Stowe is a nationally-known woodworker and author who lives in Eureka Springs. In November, he received the 2013 Fiske Award from the Northeast Woodworking Association, delivering the Fiske Memorial Lecture at the ceremony in Saratoga, New York.

His subject: why hands-on learning is important.

"It gives you a different common sense about reality that allows you to interpret things in a more real manner," he said. "In early education, everything should come from the hands."

The Fiske Lecture is presented each year in honor of Milan Fiske, a founder of the Northeast Woodworking Association, one of the largest woodworking clubs in the United States. Stowe's connection: several years ago, he was asked to be a judge at the club's Showcase, where he met member Herman Finkbeiner. Finkbeiner invited Stowe to lunch, and began talking about fingerspitzengefuhl, the German term for knowledge that's at the tips of your fingers. Stowe told Finkbeiner about Wisdom of the Hands, the wood shop program he started at Clear Spring School.

The theory behind the program: education should be a combination of knowledge you learn with your own hands and knowledge imparted by others, Stowe said. And what you learn with your hands is the ultimate reality.

"If you build a steam engine and it doesn't blow up, then there's some truth to it," Stowe said. "Reality has a way of proving or disproving human conjecture."

In Finland, tactile learning is extended from kindergarten through elementary school through woodworking classes in a program called Educational Sloyde, Stowe said, sloyde meaning skilled or handy. He also likes the series of toys that Friedrich Froebel, the originator of kindergarten, designed for free play, and is thinking of writing a book on the subject. Consisting of wooden blocks and balls, the toys, which can be used by children as young as three months, promote math skills (adding and subtracting), building and the pattern creation, which develops aesthetic sense.

"Frank Lloyd Wright got his start building with Froebel blocks," Stowe said.

Artist Paul Klee and designer Charles Eames also played with Frobel's Gifts, said to be Albert Einstein's favorite toy. And Buckminster Fuller's interest in domes started with building with peas and sticks, a proto-version of Tinker Toys, Stowe said.

Stowe started the Wisdom of the Hands classes for Clear Spring high school students in 2001, and has developed a three-year cycle of wood-working projects for first, second and third graders. Once a week, they travel from the school campus in Dairy Hollow to the wood shop, located in the school's former location, a building on the west side of town. There, Stowe and shop assistant Greg Goodman have helped students make models of covered wagons while learning about westward expansion, lizards during a study of Australia, etc.

"It reinforces what they are studying in class," Stowe said.

The students also make pencil boxes and other storage boxes for their classrooms, handmade wooden boxes being Stowe's signature. They also do creative projects of their own design, and every Christmas, make wooden toys that are distributed to children through the food bank.

"This year, they made about 100 cars and trucks," Stowe said.

Being engaged in creating something useful and beautiful develops integrity and character in children, according to Educational Sloyd, Stowe said. It's also a bridge that connects home and school.

"Back in the 19th century, woodworking was a part of every kid's education," Stowe said.

Woodworking also teaches math, spatial visualization and economy --for the dinosaur project, which Stowe designed, the parts are cut from one piece of wood. The students must also learn to identify 42 types of tools, including four kinds of hammers, four types of drills and five saws.

"They have to tell me what they need or I can't help them with their creative project," Stowe said. "Understanding the nomenclature is important in everything you do."

Stowe said that learning is the most natural of human functions, and that a child's natural inclination is to be engaged in learning and building. Making things with your hands also covers a range of learning styles.

"Give kids the creative opportunity and the tools, and they will learn," he said.

Stowe is the author of seven books on woodworking and offers box-making classes through Eureka Springs School of the Arts. For more information, go to www.ESSA-ART.org.

For more information about Wisdom of the Hands, go to http://wisdomofhands.blogspot.com. Stowe's website is dougstowe.com.

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