Mud, Meaning, the Mouse… and a Migrane

I’ve been doing most of my writing lately trying to prep for an upcoming presentation at NCECA.  Lots of spinning thoughts on a subject about which I’m passionate.  I’d welcome feedback on this part, and will present the rest of it when it all comes together.

When weighing the use of technology in classroom teaching, my school’s leadership suggests three questions for consideration:

  1. What are my curricular goals?
  2. How will I know if students are accomplishing them?
  3. Can technology enhance the ways that those goals are accomplished?

The answer to the third question is not always “yes.”  Ceramics is unique in its hands-on problem solving, and already models many of the best aspects of 21st century education.  Some of the “buzzwords” of education today have been important to how humans have learned for a very, very long time.  The tools might be new, but the methods and values are the same.  (Image below from SAMR model of educational technology.)

An aspect that has connected these modes of learning for a very long time has been the object.  We are object-makers, and we have a responsibility to keep the consideration of objects central to our teaching.  Three rationale – Sensory Learning; Solitude, Disconnection, and Flow; and Grog and Grit – can help us maintain these considerations in the dialogues of 21st century education.

Sensory Learning

Making objects involves all of our senses.  In his 2004 essay, The Hegemonic Eye, Chris Staley notes:

I am concerned that we underestimate the extent to which our senses are used, how they influence our well-being…. It is my belief that our lives are becoming increasingly ocular-centric. In other words there are circumstances in our lives that increasingly call upon us to use our eyes at the expense of our other senses. As vision becomes more dominant our interaction with the world becomes flatter and the joy and fullness of our lives is diminished.

Staley presents two paradoxes to the increasing emphasis of technology in our world:

First, one of the supposed benefits of the new technology is its efficiency and the free time that it allows. Yet this urgency to do more in less time has only fueled our desire to be more productive by working harder. The second paradox of technology is the more connected we become through the Internet the more disconnected we become with each other.

Are these things important?  Do we need to consider the impact of focusing learning to the flat screen?  Is touching a tablet enough emphasis on using the hand?

I present that many of the challenges awaiting our students in the world are tactile, hands-on challenges.  Whether the challenge is making educated consumer decisions about what to purchase, or making sure that children in South Africa have access to shelter and clean water, we want our students to be able to engage with – and affect – the world using all of their senses.  As connected as our world has become, the computer screen can also be a lens of disconnect from the physicality of real challenge.

One does not fully engage with a handmade cup until one uses it, and it is far less engaging an experience to view that cup on screen than to hold it and touch it to one’s lips.  Similarly, one does not fully engage with the world until all senses are engaged.  If we want our students to have empathy and understanding for what it takes to create something – be it a building, a city, an artificial limb, a road, or a school – we, as makers, are uniquely positioned to help them develop sensitivity, work ethic, craftsmanship, and empathy for process.

There is a practical reason, too, to keep our students engaged with the senses in a way that the computer alone cannot facilitate.  This, from Matthew Crawford’s essay “The Case for Working With Your Hands” – which led to the epic Shop Class as Soulcraft, a must-read:

The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. Blinder puts it, ‘You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.’ Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India.

And our students are oddly objective about all this, still, even when our classrooms are becoming increasingly dependent on technology.  More from Crawford:

In schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.

I don’t think there are many advocates of transformations 21st century learning who would argue this point.  But without makers who are advocating for learning that engages all of the senses – like learning with clay – technology is making our learning environments ocular-centric faster than we understand the consequences of this change.  It’s up to us to keep the metaphors and significance of our field central to the discussion.

Solitude, Disconnection, and Flow

A colleague who recently observed my class noted that the students were engaged with process and disconnected from their devices.  In his 2009 essay, “The End of Solitude,” William Deresiewicz notices:

I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That’s 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she’s never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone.

That was in 2009.  The best statistics I could find for this currently were released by Pew in 2012, for 2011, when the median teen text user sent 60 texts a day, up from 50 texts a day in 2009.  This cultural change in how we communicate has happened incredibly fast – in less than a generation.  Back to Chris Staley’s essay for a moment:

For over 100,000 years our ancestors gathered around the flickering flames of campfires yet it is only in the past 50 years that we have instead gathered around the glow of a television…The different sensory experiences of watching a campfire and watching TV are worth noting. While the campfire can evoke silent contemplation, the TV creates a sense of anticipation according to its prescribed narrative. The big difference is that when we stare into the campfire the story that is created is our own.

Clay – and artmaking in general – demands a personal and contemplative approach that can keep us connected to who we are as human beings.  All of the distractions of technology are a relatively new mode for us as human beings.  We are innately more used to engaging processes and creating our own stories.

Focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process – complete absorption in what one does – is a desirable state of being that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow.”  Flow is the state of being when we lose track of time because we are so immersed in what we are doing.  It’s a difficult state to achieve when one is connected to multi-tasking communications, but we set up optimal conditions for flow in the making studio.  Finding a state of immersion in process, and learning to disconnect from distractions, are transferable and valuable skills.  We owe it to our craft and to our students to articulate this value when we are in the dialogue of 21st century education.

Grog and Grit

In a recent book that has captured a lot of attention in education, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success.  Tough notes that psychologists and neuroscientists have learned a lot in the past few decades about where essential skills for learning come from and how they are developed.  What they’ve discovered can be summed up in a sentence: Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure.

In ceramics, we address failure with incredible authenticism.  When our students are learning to throw on the wheel, they learn that they have to fail in order to improve.  Pots have to flop, clay has to be recycled, one has to try again, and again, and again.  There is no undo key that fixes a wobbly pot, and the consequences of one’s slightest actions can cause big changes.  Everything is a process, and every step of that process demands careful attention.  Products reflect persistence.  We do not just build pots – we build character.


The authenticity of sensory learning, flow, and grit may be what keeps waiting lists for our classes.  It is also what can dissolve quickly if we spend too much precious time dedicated to process working on the digital.  My classes last one semester, for 45-minutes a day.  In today’s schools, our subject may be one of the only areas of the school day that involves material-based creative learning.  With increased emphasis on digital technology in just about every other area of school, hands-on processes may be what keeps our craft unique and essential in the spectrum of contemporary education.

When I experiment with technology in my classes, I pay attention to my students’ reactions.  They will tell me – sometimes forcefully – when we are spending too much time in the computer lab, and too much time away from hands-on processes.  I pay attention, and I learn from them.

The best advocates for technology integration in education acknowledge that so much in the field remains experimental.  Our roles as teachers demand that we remain open to the experiments, investigating ways that improve our students’ learning.  Our roles as artists and makers demand that we stay true to materials and processes that have kept learning authentic for centuries.  Finding a balance between these roles is the central question of 21st century education for the ceramics teacher.


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