Origami manuals are infamously difficult to interpret. Anyone who has ever attempted to translate the series of illustrations and vague instructions like, “inside reverse fold” into a tangible paper figurine will undoubtedly understand just how maddening this process can be. (I am especially fond of symbol 4, shown below: “Enlarge.” How I am supposed to magically grow my small triangle into a larger one while abiding by known physical laws, is anyone’s guess.)

I think the principle issue with origami manuals lies in a zealous commitment to concision (or, more often, to no written instructions whatsoever) to simplify translation from Japanese to English. Unfortunately, this good-intentioned tendency typically leaves the learner staring in bewilderment between an incomprehensible illustration and the twisted mess of paper in his/her hand.

When the steps outlined in the manual seem unfeasible to achieve with the human hand, I have found that the only way to create the paper figurine I seek is to eschew the instructions all together. In these moments, I rely on my past experience folding similar origamis and my embodied sense of what is possible with paper to create the desired shape. To succeed in my task, I must demonstrate mastery of the mental image of the end-product, the practical limitations to the manual’s abstract steps, and the physical characteristics of the medium and craft I am working with. This is a dynamically creative process, moving between theoretical and tangible to create a real thing. And it is joyful and satisfying; I am triumphant in my ability to fruitfully combine intellectual knowing with physical knowing.

This got me thinking about a passage from the book we send all our members, Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew B. Crawford. Do you recall his discussion early on in the book (on pages 23-24) about the Eisenbergs’ origami computer program? In Crawford’s words, these cognitive scientists, “Offer a computer program to facilitate making origami, or rather Archimedean solids, by unfolding these solids into two dimensions… But they then have their students actually make the solids, out of paper cut according to the computer’s instructions.”  The Eisenbergs’ finding is relevant to my struggles in following origami manuals. According to the scientists,

We often ran into situations in which the program provided us with a folding net that was mathematically correct – i.e., a technically correct unfolding of the desired solid— but otherwise disastrous… Here, we are trying to create an approximation of a cone… [the computer program] provides us with a folding net that will, indeed, produce a pyramid; but typically, no paper crafter would come up with a net of this sort, since it is fiendishly hard to join together those eight tall triangles into a single vertex. In fact, this is an illustrative example of a more general idea—the difficulty of formalizing, in purely mathematical terms, what is means to produce a “realistic” (and not merely technically correct) solution to an algorithmic problem derived from human practice.

Crawford reflects, “I take their point to be that a realistic solution must include ad hoc constraints known only through practice, that is, through embodied manipulations.” This experiment shows that what is theoretically possible is not always practically achievable. Translating an intellectual concept into built reality requires an understanding of the relevant physical constraints, built on a history of lived experience and practice with the craft and medium. The crafter combines this experience with imaginative thinking and creative problem solving to arrive at a functional approximation of the intangible concept. While no human can fold the “fiendishly hard” eight-sided pyramid according to the computer program’s instructions, perhaps there is an alternative, feasible method for crafters to approximate the same shape. It requires both theoretical thinking and embodied knowing to find out; the two ways of knowing are interconnected and symbiotic.

Following this logic, an education in only one way of knowing would generally be an impoverished experience. In a TED Talk that has garnered over 11 million views, renowned educationalist Ken Robison argues that, “as children grow up, we start to educate them progressively from the waist up, and then we focus on their heads, and slightly to one side.” Robinson posits that the public education system promotes a type of disembodied living, where the most valued form of being, thinking, and producing is contained in the mind. He goes on to say that human intelligence is diverse, and that the current education system is wasting the talents and creativity of the many students who are not ignited by its limited obsession with developing the right hemisphere of their brains. Robinson is an ardent champion of revitalizing shop class and vocational training more widely, believing that it has the power to engage students of diverse intelligences. I recommend reading his full article, “Why Schools Need to Bring Back Shop Class”; in particular, the following passage resonates with my understanding of what Sawhorse programs are like for students:

Students who’ve been slumbering through school wake up [in “alternative education” programs]. Those who thought they weren’t smart find that they are. Those who feared they couldn’t achieve anything discover they can. In the process, they build a stronger sense of purpose and self-respect. Kids who thought they had no chance of going to college find that they do. Those who don’t want to go to college find there are other routes in life that are just as rewarding.

This is the power of connecting mental with physical, theoretical with practical, uninhibited dreaming with concrete problem solving. As Sawhorse students (and origami crafters) well know, to dream up a design and then successfully bring it to life is an empowering experience. The learner gains a sense of self-efficacy validated in the indisputable reality of her/his final, tangible product. As Crawford puts it,

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on… the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgement of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous ‘self-esteem’ that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.

My experience with origami helps give me insight into the part of Sawhorse’s mission statement about the “power of carpentry and craft.” Transforming the imagined to the built is a powerful experience. Witnessing the thing you’ve created, standing apart from you with all its evidence of your skill and error, engenders humility and pride. Engaging in craft (whether origami, carpentry, or cooking) is an embodied form of learning; it demands mental and physical dedication, imagination and dexterity. Modern life provides few opportunities that require the unification of body and mind in the way that craft does; in most moments in our daily lives, we are asked to exercise one or the other. As Robinson and Crawford suggest, we are not solely mental or physical beings. An education system predicated on the development and valuation of one aspect of being over another will likely fail in producing fulfilled, engaged students.

As for us grownups, we too can learn from the power of craft. If we are not fortunate enough to work daily in something that challenges both our bodies and minds, it would be wise to at least occasionally dedicate time to something that does. I’ve provided a few vague, unhelpful illustrations of an origami project in the next blog post, if you’re interested in trying an activity that asks you to imagine solutions and transform the abstract to the tangible. Good luck! And make sure to hone those inside reverse folds…