My Favorite Way to Teach and Learn

Post - June 1, 2012

Starting this Monday, I’ll be teaching a class at the William Ng School in Anaheim, CA. We are building one of our past Guild Builds, the Greene & Greene Adirondack Chair: the perfect project to usher in those warm days when you just want to chill in the backyard sipping your favorite beverage.

I typically go to the William Ng School twice a year: once to teach and once to be taught. And if you can believe it, the experiences are not all that different. Even when I’m wearing my teaching hat, I am still interacting with other woodworkers and learning in what I can only describe as a collective/collaborative teaching environment. I’m not there to show anyone the “BEST” way to do something. Instead, I want to show them the way I find most useful. They, in turn, are invited to tell me how they might improve the process or what other ways they might get the job done. This is what I like about taking classes from folks like David Marks, Darrell Peart, and William Ng. These guys really know their stuff but they are always open-minded about new ideas and have a humble presence. This is what I aspire to be as a woodworker and an educator.

I can recall a criticism that was thrown my way a couple of years ago. I think it was a YouTube commenter who said something like, “I don’t like your teaching style. You never seem to know what tools or techniques to use. Every show you try something different. I’d rather watch an old school pro like Frank Klausz who always knows the BEST way to get the job done and the BEST tool to use.” I gave this comment much thought and decided that this person was actually correct, to some extent. I am indeed constantly exploring new tools and methods. This is part of what I find fun and compelling about the craft. In my opinion, there really is no BEST way to do anything! The truth is, if someone tells you that their method is the best, that just means they have stopped looking for something better and this is the best method they know of. That is NOT to say their method isn’t a bowl of awesome soup, but they clearly found a method that works for them and ceased the active search for something better.

Of course, I can’t say which type of instructor is better as they both have merits. I think it really comes down to the personal preference of the student. My personal preference, in case you couldn’t tell, is for the collective/collaborative environment. Now I don’t want you to get the impression that this is education by committee in any way. The class is guided by the knowledgable hand of the instructor, but instead of simply being told what to do and doing it, the student is encouraged to explore all available options and ask the tough questions such as “Why?”. If a problem arises, a discussion ensues about the potential fixes. Essentially, the student is allowed to branch out and explore the craft while bouncing ideas off the instructor and their fellow students. Thinking back on my college days, it reminds me of “topics” courses where you move beyond the standard 101 content and into a very detailed and higher level exploration into the field of study. Instead of a lecture, it’s a conversation.

It is only natural that the more time you spend in this craft, the more likely you are to get comfortable with your favorite tools and techniques. I certainly have the highest respect for those of us who have been in the craft long enough to develop absolute and final preferences. But I hope to push off that chapter of my story off for as long as possible. You know how we frequently say that building a woodworking project is more about the journey than the destination? The same can be said for the craft itself. I plan to stay on my personal journey for as long as possible. If I’m lucky, I’ll never reach the destination.

As students of the craft, what type of learning environment do you prefer? Has this changed as you gained more experience?

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