Editor’s note: Sawhorse Revolution Program Director, Sarah Smith, wrote this piece in 2013 for FRAME, our one-off literary magazine. Sarah’s thoughtful essay remains relevant in today’s educational landscape, where “experiments” in education (for better or worse) continue to abound.
Education today brims with experiments. There are schools like KIPP and programs like No Child Left Behind that emphasize performance and results, and others that emphasize the learner and the learning process, more like Waldorf, Montessori, and many small “student-led” and “experiential” programs. There are skills-based educational programs like YouthBuild that help students who have dropped out of high school with carpentry training. In short, different programs emphasize performance, process, or perhaps skills. What would it look like if there was an education program that synthesized all of them?
In an infrequently examined corner of education history sits “Educational Slojd” a woodworking program for elementary students in Sweden in the 1880s and 1890s. Its developer, Otto Salomon, was a philosopher, educator, and leader in education of the time. His thoughts and particular spin on Slojd are worth elucidating for their precise mix of performance, process, and skills-based education.
Slojd was a large movement in its day. Salomon wrote a number of highly-regarded books on the Slojd Woodworking Method, and opened the famous Teaching School at Naas. Over the next 20 years, the school would see 4,000 Swedish instructors come through, another 1,500 teachers trained from 40 other countries, and expansion into the US, Canada, Denmark, Finland, and South America (Thorbjornsson 473). Salomon kept up correspondence with hundreds of his former pupils. This author’s survey of bibliographies concerning Slojd and Otto Salomon shows a sudden boom between the years of 1890 and 1911, with articles published across the world, asking “What is Sloyd?” in 10 different languages. Today, a version of Slojd survives in public schools in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway (Stowe 67).
Slojd began as a government-mandated program, but it looked very different before Salomon came onto the scene 16 years later. In 1866, the Swedish government had sent out a mandate requiring crafts education in elementary schools: paper-cutting and folding, sewing, and woodworking were options (Thorbjornsson 474). Slojd literally translates as “handicraft,” deriving from the same root as “sleight of hand.” Though ostensibly about craft, government-mandated Slojd was loosely based on the “Russian System” and the “French System,” which trained children in skills that would later be useful in the workplace. This early version of Slojd was industrial, with a focus on producing products, producing skills, and producing workers (Stowe 68).
Then, in the early 1880s, Otto Salomon was hired by his uncle (the admirably named August Anderson) to run a Slojd school (Thorbjornsson 474; The Teacher’s Hand-Book of Slojd xxi). Well-read in philosophy, and particularly philosophy of education, Salomon changed the system. His version of Slojd fulfilled the government requirement, but with two distinct shifts in its focus. First, he cut out all skills other than woodworking. Second, what he called “Educational Slojd” focused more on the process – the learner, the teaching, and the curriculum – than the product. His idea was that an altered program would be better for the students as human beings, while still maintaining the integrity of the craft.
The most curious move on his end was to teach only woodworking. He argued that wood was the foremost teaching subject, the best for truly educating young people. Salomon believed that working with wood developed aspects of a young person that ordinary subjects did not: attention to detail, perseverance, work ethic, self-reliance, care for finishing a job, and, “the habit of doing things well.” But why?
First, Salomon contended that woodworking gives tangible feedback that supports the development of critical thinking and problem solving. He called this kind of feedback “patent facts,” and these were embedded into a full process. To begin, Salomon gave extremely precise directions for the students for making their “models” (Figure 1). Theoretically, with attention, care, and skill, a student could perfectly replicate the design. Yet practically, in learning to carve, measure and saw, students would make inevitable mistakes in the process. Faced with a real challenge, the student would then need to reason her way through the process, diagnosing the problem and working toward a solution. Patent facts like these kept minds alive and the challenges fresh; Salomon argued that the moment that a project became feasible by rote, habit, or memory, it would lose its use for the student.
This brings us to the second adjustment that Salomon makes in the education process, when compared to government-mandated Slojd. Along with a great appreciation of the product, his curriculum also gave great importance to the learning process. First, he presents a remarkably simple and sensitive arrangement of the curriculum: flexible for the teacher and accommodating to different types of students. Over the course of the program, students would start with something simple, say a spoon, and move to very complex objects, like tables or wheelbarrows. The exact progression of models was decided by teachers specially trained in the Slojd method. In establishing the order of the models for their individual classes, Salomon taught the following principles of learning:
– Work from concrete ideas to abstract ones.
– Start with simple activities and move to more complex ones.
– Start with easy processes and move to more difficult ones.
– Move from the known to the unknown.
Salomon offered several other recommendations in his curriculum for the development of the young person: one of the most important for him was the use of the body. Though Slojd was ultimately for developing the mind, it was also of great interest for him that his pupils learn to use their bodies without strain. Hence, he left several drawings of people standing at the work bench, labeled with particular suggestions for stances, arm placements, etc. (Figure 2). The specific positions he gave were part of the discipline of Slojd – developing strong habits that would serve a young person throughout his or her life.
As for the teacher, his explicit job was to facilitate the learning, and to do so in a considered, individualized manner. The teachers’ goals were to create an atmosphere of concentration, rigor, and problem-solving. Teachers kept the expectations about quality and accuracy very high, but exercise their judgment when working with individual students as to what the student actually needs. The teachers should not give more help than is absolutely necessary, and must, above all things, and against their temptation, never touch the work. Since the student needs to solve her own puzzles, the teacher should limit unnecessary explanations. Salmon states that a “teacher’s art in Educational Slojd consists essentially in being as passive and unobtrusive as possible, while the pupil is actively exercising both head and hand.” Educators’ job was to facilitate students’ engagement in creating beautiful, precise, and useful objects.
This shift was indicative of the balance Salomon consistently hit in his curriculum – between sensitivity to learners and the rigor of the skill learned. Salomon did not compromise on either end, it seems. John Dewey, in his final and masterful book, Experience and Education, writes a sharp critique of most progressive education that seeks to foster youth development. Dewey felt that most progressive education programs had a hard time being precise. Dewey writes, “When external authority is rejected, it does not follow that all authority should be rejected, but rather that there is need to search for a more effective source of authority… Basing education on personal experience may mean more multiplied and intimate contacts between the mature and the immature than ever existed in the traditional school… The problem, then, is: how these contacts can be established without violating the principle of learning through personal experience.”
Dewey sought a system of education that directed its students toward continually more vibrant lives and experience. This does not mean formless education, but meaningful education within unique forms. Salomon’s Slojd brought the discipline, precision, and beauty of traditional skills into the world of a child and a learner. The promise is intriguing. Like Salomon’s precise and ideal designs, Slojd raises the possibility of a truly holistic education, rigorous, complex, and simple all at a time. It asks of us how any education program might strike its balance between process and form.
Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education. New York: Touchstone.
Lasson, Gustaf. 1897. Elementary Sloyd and Whittling. Boston: Silver, Burdett & Company.
Russell, C. 1893. “On Some Aspects of Slojd.” The Parents Review: A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture. 4, 321-333. http://www.amblesideonline.org/PR/PR04p321Slojd.shtml
Salomon, Otto. 1891. The Teacher’s Hand-Book of Slojd, As Practised and Taught at Naas: Containing Explanations and Details of Each Exercise. London: George Philip & Son.
——-. 1911. The Theory of Educational Slojd. Boston: Silver, Burdett & Co.
Stowe, Doug. 2004. “Educational Sloyd: The Early Roots of Manual Training.” Woodwork. August 2004, 66-71. http://dougstowe.com/educator_resources/w88sloyd.pdf
Thorbjornsson, Hans. 1994. Otto Salomon. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education, 24(3), 471–485.