Monday, January 25, 2010

What Blacksmiths Can Teach Us About Teaching

Spent the weekend pounding on things with hammers.

For 16 hours -- my swollen fingers and aching back are both happy it took place spread across two days -- I attended blacksmith classes at the Carroll County Farm Museum's Academy of Traditional Arts.

Led by master blacksmith Bill Clemens, (whose license-plate reads 'Blxsmith'), my classmates and I -- eight guys, mostly sporting beards -- learned the basics of metallurgy, coal firing, hammer-and-anvil technique, and forge welding.

And when I say 'learned', I mean 'LEARNED'.

There were no PowerPoints. No lectures. There were no required textbooks and there weren't any tests.

Just learning.

Blacksmith Bill would demo a technique slowly, and then once again at full speed. And then it was our turn. We went off to our forges and banged stuff out.

In a way, it reminded me of the Aikido classes I took sometime ago. In both cases, technique is modeled by a teacher and then learned and reinforced through actual practice. The sensei doesn't grade your understanding of Aikido by whether or not you can pass a multiple choice test; she assesses your understanding by judging whether or not you have figured out how to roll safely on a mat after having been thrown over the shoulder of a burly classmate. She assesses whether you've learned how to defend yourself from a sword attack by seeing if you keep getting hit by a sword or not.

Likewise, in blacksmithing, you demonstrate your understanding of pig tail scrolls and tab hooks by banging out pig tail scrolls and tab hooks. You learn which part of a two-and-a-half foot rod of mild steel is safe to touch by burning your fingers. You learn how to bring a shaft of glowing hot steel to a point by messing up over and over and over again until you get it right.

And once you do get it right you feel SO GOOD about yourself. And you want to do it again and you want to show everyone what you did and you want to learn more.

I'm going back in a few weeks to take the intermediate class. And then it's on to knife-making. My wife isn't crazy about the fact that I've got burns on six fingers and the slash of a scar above my elbow where a hot shard of steel knicked me, but she was nonetheless supportive of my wanting to build a brick forge in the backyard.

I learned a lot this weekend, and more than anything I learned about what really motivates folks: it's stuff we "can't" do, but nonetheless figure out how to do. And for eight guys who sweat and labored over anvils for a weekend in January, we figured out that you learn by doing and do by learning.


  1. The new book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, by Collins & Halverson ( talks a lot about the side-by-side learning that used to occur pre-industrialization on the farm and/or in an apprenticeship. Sounds like you got a good dose of that. Fun (and powerful)!

  2. Sounds like you had a great experience with this blacksmithing and sounds like a lot of fun. I like how the blacksmith worked along his students and slowly worked with them. Then put it all in action and then let you as the student actually take charge. As a physical education major working hands on like this is going to be exactly how my class will work.
    Especially when I am teaching a skill to the elementary students to make sure the get the fundamentals first. I really like the Teachpaperless principle not just going back to blacksmithing but also in our classrooms of today as we are technological advancing on a daily basis.
    -Ryan Heaton

  3. As a Tech Ed teacher, I was "trained" in some of the old industrial arts like woodwork and metalsmithing, even though all I wanted to do was teach computers. But what I learned was the power of the demonstration, how to manage a lab, and be OK with organized chaos. I find myself going back to these old industrial arts now more than ever in my free time as well. To ability to create and focus on one thing - leaving everything else aside is the best therapy I could ever wish for.

  4. Great stuff. Just read Ivan Illich, DeSchooling Society. Maybe if every MD in America trained one apprentice we might solve the health care issue. Just a thought!


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