When I began teaching woodworking in the early 2000s, I channeled my favorite Russian literature professor. It was a huge mistake.
When teaching students to saw, I barfed out everything about the topic I could muster – the historical and sociological context, the changes in tools and saw-tooth filing over the centuries, the different perspectives on the core techniques, plus a discussion of the cultural differences among the major Western civilizations that used saws.
Two hours and a dry mouth later, we began to cut wood. I knew my teaching approach was wrong, but I didn’t know how to fix it until one day I read about how some Japanese woodworkers teach the craft. First, the student watches the teacher perform the technique, who may or may not explain the task with words.
Then, when the student performs the task, the teacher would lay his or her hands on those of the student as they worked – showing how each tool is pulled, shifted and controlled during the cut.
At that moment, I put the book down and realized how my teaching had to change.
Just like with effective writing, teaching woodworking is about using the fewest words possible to explain something. And most of all, it is about showing – not telling. An example might help.
When I taught about marriage marks in my talkie era, I would explain how the marks worked and then show the students how to mark their work correctly. Inevitably, one or two students would ask about alternative marking-out methods, and they might even insist that a different method (colored dots, for example) was far superior.
This led to a back-and-forth discussion that was better suited to the beer hall than the classroom.
These days I mark all the students’ boards with marriage marks before class begins. I give a brief explanation of how to use them, and then we go to work. Inevitably, at some point during the day, a student will use the marriage marks to catch an error being made by a student at an adjacent bench.
And that’s when I explain their importance: Use the same system so others can help you. As the students are busy working (sawing, planing, whatever), I then expound on the “why” behind the marks. My explanation is available for people who want to know “why,” and it can be ignored by people who just want the “how.”
Here’s the funny thing. There are far fewer students who now question the marks because they find themselves in the middle of using them and relying on them. The genius of the marking system has already been shown to the student. And I didn’t have to tell or convince them.
Teaching has been a lot on my mind because I just spent seven days straight teaching two classes at The School of Woodwork in Florida. Because Lost Art Press has grown so much since 2018, I’ve been away from teaching for a while, even though it helps my writing, research and construction techniques.
So I know I should teach a little – if only to test my ideas against those of much-smarter students. That’s why I agreed to do a chair class for scholarship students in July and the Chair Chat Class in October. And, because you have read this far (thanks!), I’ll let you know that I will teach one more chair class in 2022 (Sept. 19-23 at our storefront), which will be open to all students.
I don’t anticipate teaching on the road anymore. The year after I quit Popular Woodworking Magazine, I did 18 weeks of teaching all over the world. That’s not possible today with what Lost Art Press has become. But two or three classes a year? Sleeping in my own bed? Eating my own food? I think I can handle that.
Thanks to everyone who has been pestering me about this for the last three or four years. You were right.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Don’t worry, I’m not going to touch you during a class. That costs extra.
28 thoughts on “The One Where I Explain I Was Wrong”
Before you ask: Before the end of March I’ll post the dates for a handful of other classes for the second half of the year – and the date they will go on sale. Chris’s will be among them.
Two or three classes a year sounds like a good balance of classes and sanity. For me personally, I love your classes and I’m glad you have come to this realization. Chris, in this scary world, taking a class by you is like a breath of fresh air. Where else would be get your unique blend of snark, wit and experience.
It’s virtually impossible for a single methodology to reach everyone. Auditory vs Visual vs Kinesthetic (KT) learning styles. Task-oriented / how vs Abstract-big-picture / why personality types. Etc.
From my personal experience, I say you do a fantastic job threading that needle. I’m glad you’ll continue to teach a few classes a year.
I always believed that I learned more from teaching a subject than simply studying it.
To teach is to learn twice -Joseph Joubert
One of my favorite quotes ever. And it is true.
Well, the one in September I already know would be an impossibility, because of a commitment to play at a jazz festival in the Netherlands on some of the dates involved, but the Family Council has kindly agreed that I may throw my name in the hat for the CCC (no, not the Belgian CCC; those were a very different ilk of anarchists) in October, so fingers crossed almost to the point of being unable to type this that the LAP Lottery lightning will actually strike twice … and until the drawing results are in nothing else goes in the agenda then!
ElmoreLeonard’s10 rules for good writing. Number ten came to mind: Try to leave out all the parts that the readers tend to skip.
Ha! You violated that one by writing in a comments section. (Don’t feel bad, I did too.)
I enjoyed your teaching, particularly the doughnuts!
Wait, you got doughnuts?!
The old adage still in circulation for learning procedures in medicine is “see one, do one, teach one”
It is amazing how little exposition it takes to teach skill in the real world vs content. And without the immediate feedback of an understanding face I know I say to much in content but never know what part is that to much.
Bummed that your canceled pandemic classes aren’t coming back (e.g., DTC at Roy’s school), but completely understand your reasoning. Glad to hear teaching will continue at the storefront.
I still owe Roy one more class. And I always pay my debts
One day I’ll come by your storefront. I took a couple of your classes at a Woodcraft near Atlanta probably around 2010. I was very inexperienced at the time, and you were a tremendous help. It would be fair to say that you opened the world of hand tools. Specifically sawing. Over the years I planned to see you if you returned as I’m sure I could ask some better questions now. However I understand not wanting to travel as much, and I’m happy at what you accomplished.
I agree entirely with your teaching approach. When I demonstrate woodturning techniques, I keep the talking short and spend most of the time actually turning and explaining…show, describe, answer questions. When teaching a hands-on class, the format is brief demo, and then have participants learn by doing. I will often assist students by helping orient the tool angle and approach with my hand on the back of the tool as they turn. This helps them manually learn the sweet spot for a particular cut through direct experience. It’s easier to show than explain.
My classes are small 4 to 5 students. I have found that student pick up technics easier if they are seeing the work from the same angle as me, as compared to across the bench. I have them get behind or beside side of me. That way they can see what I see. I used to do the same thing with the history and all the same stuff you did till one class my throat was a little raspy, so I didn’t talk so much and did more hands on. the students did better, and the class got more done that day.
We teach best what we most need to learn – Richard Bach
I’ve been an overly wordy horse back riding teacher since about 89′. You don’t touch students, the vast majority are underage! No you don’t touch the adults either. HGordon4 is spot on and so are you for in person learning, but in the showing of how to do things, don’t skimp on details. Teachers have usually attained a skill level so far above the students that the things they do by habit that are the keys to success are frequently skipped and the student has to rediscover them on their own. The teacher must dissect their technique to very small details to teach the new and sometimes accomplished students. You’ve gone over sawing technique, the pointed finger, the soft grip, letting the saw hang at the correct angle in your soft grip, positioning the saw at the extremely precise spot of pinched fingers that can minutely roll for the tiniest adjustment, have the sense that the saw is like a softly landing airplane on the starting cuts. When you wrote those details it opened up so much for my technique I couldn’t believe. Please don’t skimp on the actual technique.
Wait, there are already 11 comments, and I’m the first to ask “How much extra…?”
….just kidding. I’m sure a dozen others have already typed the question, but have yet to click [Post Comment]
I’m sure your family is happier with you teaching 2 or 3 times a year…..at home. Good choice! Working on the road is a young man’s game to be sure.
“Launder my woobie”. ..why does that sound like the name of a 90s grunge band/album to me?
Hey Chris, do I understand it correctly that you will not be teaching in Germany either?
Not in the immediate future, no.
I’m an administrator at my local university, and I teach one or two times per year. Like you said, it’s very important and beneficial for students that I do this – not because I’m such a great teacher, but because when I teach students I improve my work for them and for all the faculty, too. In that part of my life, I don’t get to do much hands-on training with saws and chisels, and touching students is generally frowned upon, so I tell stories and use case studies for practice. Then my students find or make their own real life case study to practice what they learn. A case study is not quite the same as book case, but they do get to hear how I learned and then try it for themselves. I am a big fan of the experiential learning cycle. Or maybe I’m too lazy to read the manual first!
I can’t imagine learning wood turning from a book or without a demo. One of the best things when I took classes was the teacher guiding my hands on the chisel. It’s quicker than turning a load of firewood.
This teaching approach can be summarized as: I do, we do together, you do. Learner goes from can not do, to can do with assistance, to can do without assistance. And if you wanna get technical – Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. And no, it doesn’t matter where Vygotsky was from… its the idea that is important…. so no need to google him… you can’t resist can you…
the real value of this is realizing that 1 time showing and then expecting students to do independently often doesn’t work. The skill/s are often too complex, e.g. effectively using a plane, many things can go wrong that a 1 time demonstration can’t cover. As a teacher you are providing “scaffolding” or as much support (quality is the issue – and quality is grounded in the teacher’s understanding of the skills in question and how students learn the skills. Quantity of support, per se, is not the issue) as is needed and removing the supports as the student shows growing competency. Success is student mastery of the skill i.e. independent performance of the skill/s.
And yes, my planing skills still suck 🙂
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