My itchy boys worried about the pigeons to be fed and chased in the Piazza San Marco, but I clung to my tiger-mom agenda and drug them into the Uffizi. I explained that the Doni Tondo was proof that while Michelangelo’s genius is best known through his sculpture, his painting was equally brilliant. Unimpressed by my Wikipedia expertise, six-year old James critiqued, “Humph…I’ll tell you what he was really good at– Making frames.”
Bam! Schooled by a first-grader. The extravagantly carved wood surrounding the painted canvas was impossibly beautiful, demanding incomprehensible skill and imagination. I slowly walked through the museum again, stunned by everything I had not seen.
The nature of art has been a hot topic for ages. Most agree that art is something created with imagination and skill that expresses important ideas or feelings. Many contend that art’s purpose is to create an emotional response in the person that is exposed to that art.
My time in Finland has invited me once again to consider craft, not only as an art form, but also as a useful educational discipline. When looking at craft as an art form, many consider the utility of the work as well as the skill and technique required to create it. The imagination, intuition and expression used in creating useful objects invites their consideration as works of art and many of these “frames” have earned places in museums. St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum and the Hermitage display stunning works in wood, textile, metal, ceramic media.
Craft can be appreciated not only as an art form, but also as an important teaching tool. In the mid-nineteenth century, Uno Cygnaeus, the father of Finnish education, paved the way for compulsory craft education. He argued that education should help students acquire work and life skills. Education should be useful and stimulate the economy. He believed that pupils should be able to apply theoretical knowledge in practice. Cygnaeus further believed that craft education had aesthetic aims, and that the ability to innovate and create would develop. This vision is explored by Kantola and Rasinen’s thorough study of craft education development in Finland.
Finland’s craft teachers have master’s degrees in their art. They select a textile or technology specialty and are prepared to lead classes in knitting, sewing, embroidery, cooking, jewelry, woodworking, metalworking, and drafting. I’ve had the joy of getting to know craft teachers Saara, Pessi, Kelli, and Satu. I’ve come to appreciate these teachers as makers/educators/artists/engineers. They have all been wonderfully open and friendly and justly proud of their expertise. Although all are young, tech savvy educators, they firmly believe in the power of working with your hands, of trying and maybe failing and trying again. 99% perspiration. I was reminded that a metaphor for understanding something is “grasping it.”
Finnish students begin mandatory craft classes in the third grade and continue with compulsory textile or technology instruction for several years. During their last few years of compulsory education, they may take more craft courses as electives. I’ve enjoyed watching the special relationship between students and craft teachers. Students are given a lot of independence. Typically, the craft teachers give instructions, and then the students do the work. In this relaxed landscape where teachers are called by their first names, students feel free to go to the teacher with problems or concerns. But the kids are in charge of their own work.
These craft classes are typically large and lively. It’s been great fun watching them. I’ve seen third graders using sewing machines, middle school boys and girls casually and capably manipulating power tools, and enjoyed watching preteens figure out how to organize a meal of spinach soup and pancakes in the allotted time while finishing laundry. I’ve participated in lively discussions about trajectory and force with eleven-year old builders and have overheard young chefs dispute the practical implications of thermodynamics. In craft classes I’ve seen kids multi task, hand wash socks, solve problems, cook eggs, organize and prioritize work, sew sweatshirts, delegate responsibilities, measure, take care of tools, use materials efficiently, collaborate and work through problems with minimal supervision. I’ve watched kids struggle, then ask for guidance or advice- sometimes. I’ve seen them undercook eggs and break their constructions and drop stitches. Then- discuss how to fix it.
As noted, everybody takes these classes- the budding math and computer nerds and the future pro hockey players cook pancakes just as the Finnish version of baby girl/princess drill and saw. And the counselors assure me that these classes are popular- no fear of budget cuts in this department. Making and crafting is also enjoyed outside of the classroom in Finland. Vimma is a craft studio in the city center where the young can go to make things. It’s a wonderful, energetic place with lots going on six days a week.
When compulsory education is finished at grade 9, students who want to continue their education have a choice between a more traditional, college prep upper secondary path or a vocational path. Typically, about half of continuing students choose traditional upper secondary. The other half opt for the vocational path, where they focus on woodworking, survey, metalworking, automotive service, print services, computer/IT, electrical installation, tailoring services, childcare services, cosmetology, and restaurant services while preparing for the matriculation exam. I’ve enjoyed coffee and delicious soups at Cafe Dominic, the restaurant run by students and look forward to visiting the woodworking shop soon.
Initially, my interest in craft education was sparked by my own school, where Mr. Martin and Mr. Veazy run a solid shop department. However, home economics was axed a few years ago. In populations filled with hands-on learners, the benefits of craft teaching have been overlooked. A respected and popular subject in Finland, craft education is more that making. It is another avenue for kinesthetic learners to understand principles of science and math. It is a place where students have to work in collaborative groups to do the assignments. It is a place where creative and critical thinking flourish. And it is and always has been project based learning- even before experts and their workshops packaged and hawked it.
The Maker Movement is a fast growing and important one. We now have a maker space in our newly refurbished local library in Lafayette and Carencro High is including a similar space in our library. Patrick, a fellow Fulbrighter, shared that his prestigious high school in the Northwest, one of the most demanded courses, taught by a chemistry teacher, is titled the Science of Cooking. So it looks like we are making our way back to understanding the importance of making. The Finns – they have understood this for over a hundred years.
This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog and the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.