Hello. My name is Tom Cole. I am a retired mechanical engineer technician and high school shop teacher. I am a full-time, interdisciplinary graduate student at Iowa State University (ISU). I should finish my Masters effort in spring 2015. I am pursuing two lines of questioning:
Question 1 - Why do the very valuable experiences of progressive education (Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and some homeschooling) remain marginalized in our society? [I believe it is because there is no place for those experiences to play out in the adult work world. In my graduate work, I am forming a focus group of parents, educators and industrialists to address this issue. [I will be proposing the Burl Project (described below) as one solution.]
Question 2 - can children build their way to a healthier engagement with their world? Children construct a view of the world using materials and processes made available to them. Their success in constructing a workable model of the world directly affects their ability to function in that world. For eons, that model would have included lifelong exposure to the building of shelters and artifacts necessary for survival. The materials used by adults in the actual construction of the shelters and artifacts (stone, wood, mud, clay, river reeds) were the same materials used by children to model those activities. (The children had limited options to cut and shape these materials). Weather permitting; children conducted their modeling activities outdoors - in plain view of the adult activities themselves.
For centuries, in industrialized countries we have increasingly divorced ourselves from this once quite functional model. Our children no longer model adult activities by directly observing them and re-creating them using similar materials. Instead,( in an increasingly indoor setting) they model their perceptions of adult activities as presented abstractly in media - and using materials that only abstractly represent the materials actually used by adults.
In this scenario children are confronted with two paradoxes. Acknowledging that children like to puzzle out the actual construction of things, we give them (relatively) raw materials (paper, cardboard, string, tape, pla-doh) that have no structural integrity. Although their common sense tells them that a failure (in the real world) of structures and tools can be calamitous, they are told it's okay if their own hoc models fail (as they usually do). The second paradox is that they are asked to model complex human activities using components that arrive without preamble or suitable explanation- doll houses, Legos, Lincoln logs, chemistry sets, erector sets and most of all the ubiquitous computer. All of these entities represent complex human thinking that is not made available to the child. In using these artifacts, the child is asked to make enormous abstract leaps.
So children today are not invited to model (in a stimulating environment) adult activities using durable raw materials or pre-engineered components that they really understand.
The solution may lie in a progression. First we need to move these activities outside as much as possible. There is an implicit panoramic element to human activities performed outside. Secondly we need to introduce children at an early age to the safe use of durable raw materials. (In this way, we satisfy their intrinsic need to know that their activities are contributing toward survival). Third we need to introduce children at a slightly older age to the safe manufacturing of simple assemblies. Children need to understand the basic steps behind the creation of dollhouses, erector sets etc. These steps include brainstorming and some elementary organization. But mostly (and here we fail abjectly) they involve the shaping of durable materials. We fail children in this respect because we don't want them to get hurt. They will get hurt because durable materials are shaped and rendered by a combination of force and sharp tools. (No right minded parent will allow a four-year-old to operate a table saw). Yet, until we provide a child with the opportunity to shape durable materials we are asking her to make an abstract leap that will cripple her ability to use certain toys and games for the construction of a good worldview.]
We have the technology to help very young children work safely with durable raw materials.
We have the technology to help slightly older children safely shape and modify durable raw materials into simple assemblies.
Smart tools and materials - (smart - sensor equipped) toys are being developed today that give parents and behavior analysts insight into the developmental status of the toy user (the child). In their maturity, they will be very useful. Yet, to the child, these toys are not any more intuitive than other pre-engineered toys (legos, doll houses, etc). So, we will look into applying this technology to materials and tools that are intuitive.
I will work with developmental psychologists and engineers to address these challenges.
Final note – we are beginning to find evidence that amount of time spent outdoors may be an important factor in prevention of attention deficit. What if the time spent outdoors includes some of the activities addressed above? Can this proved to be a potent combination in helping to rescue children from what amounts to an epidemic?
The Burl Project – I am an engineer, parent and teacher. This website is about children and their potential. Yet, my explanation of the Burl Project seems grounded in manufacturing - not a logical segue from discussion of children. The segue is this: we shape our children to meet the expectations of the adult work world; which is increasingly dismissive of real creativity. An industrial Burl is simply one way to reverse this trend – to offer a really creative workplace that will need really creative people. (That's the short answer – for the longer answer, please read on.)