Shop class: Teaching against the grain
My eyes could barely see over the edge of my father’s workbench. As if the bench height wasn’t enough of a problem, wood shavings were piled to the edge, completely obstructing my view. Though I could not see what he was doing, I will never forget the sound. My dad was running a hand plane over the wood, smoothing it for a piece of furniture. The long, steady scraping sound held my attention as the hand plane rode over the wood, creating shavings so thin you could practically see through them. I loved the wood shop then--and I still do.
My father was a teacher for thirty-six years, with much of his time devoted to teaching shop class (also called industrial arts or vocational education). I was in shop every day after school from the time I could walk. The classes he used to teach no longer exist at my old high school. Love of the crafts is not being passed on like it once was, and schools are neglecting topics that were once considered critical life skills.
Programs like No Child Left Behind and Common Core place such a strong emphasis on college preparation that public schools are cutting their shop programs. Homeschool families may also have a difficult time incorporating shop programs. Tools can be expensive, and the subject matter is so broad that it’s difficult to even know where to begin. There is no doubt that many kids love to work with their hands, so shouldn’t shop class be part of a well-balanced curriculum?
Shop class defined
Before we can dive into the merits of the industrial arts for your homeschool, let us first define what we are talking about. Shop class is not a “thing.” It’s a collection of hands-on life skills that are typically taught together. Common courses include:
- Auto Repair
- Technical Drawing
- Computer-Aided Design (CAD)
- Small Engines
Of these courses, woodworking, metalworking, auto repair, and technical drawing are almost always included in typical programs to varying degrees.
The case for shop class
Forbes reported in 2012 that the Los Angeles Unified School District had eliminated 90% of its shop classes.1 The same story is told in countless news stories across the country. If you are in or near a major city, you have likely seen it for yourself. Money flows to college prep courses, and the typical trade classes do not warrant the significant investment for most school boards to continue supporting them.
This line of thinking is based on four assumptions:
1) Everyone can and should get a four-year college degree.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 27% of jobs required an Associate’s degree or higher to apply. Only 23% required a bachelor’s degree or higher.2 Like any investment, college costs and the time to get a degree must be weighed against the benefits. I am not against college. I’m only saying we shouldn’t assume everyone must go.
2) A college degree is required in order to earn a good wage.
In the April 2014 Wall Street Journal, article entitled “Welders Make $150,000? Bring Back Shop Class”3 the author cited numerous examples of very high wages for skilled tradesmen, with many earning six-digit salaries. I know a number of them myself. While there is no guarantee of this, just ask a recent college graduate whether they were guaranteed a high paying job upon graduation.
3) Kids do not need hands-on skills developed through shop class if they plan to attend college and obtain a degree.
Manual competence is often used to describe the type of skills developed in shop class. Attending college does not mean these life skills are no longer required. Even PhDs need to learn how to swing a hammer and cut a straight line for minor home repairs, or else be left at the mercy of a handyman all the time.
4) Vocational training is unrelated to college prep studies and takes valuable time away from the important subjects.
I would argue that they are actually complementary studies. Visit a construction site and talk with a foreman or architect or stop by a good auto mechanic’s shop and have him talk to you about the most recent car he has been working on. You will see math and physics in action. If you work with wood but do not understand how joints are created or the geometry required to sustain a load, then you will not have a very long career as a woodworker.
Machinists understand how metals work, how heat changes things, and depending on the type of work, they can operate some very advanced computer equipment. If a civil engineer ignores math and physics and designs a curved road without the proper considerations for material, speed, and angle, then cars will fly off of the road. Properly taught, shop classes become applied academics—a hands-on lab of sorts for other classes—helping all other areas of study.
Integrating shop classes into your home education is truly going against the grain, but doing so gives your child a great advantage in the marketplace. The skills they learn will be a large part of who they become, and it will benefit them both personally and professionally.
The homeschool shop class
Lest you think I am only talking about training boys, my wife and I have four kids—three are girls. All of our kids are learning the same shop skills, and I train both girls and boys in our workshops.
I recommend you work with your student(s) side by side. Don’t overthink it, and don’t worry if you aren’t mechanically inclined. Start with something you can complete in a single day, using tools you already have, and ask your student(s) what they would like to do. Kilroy’s Workshop has a free at-home starter lesson available at www.KilroysWorkshop.com/lesson.
Be sure to track your hours for high school. According to HSLDA, one credit is equal to 120 hours of class time. You can count any shop class as an elective.
If you do not have the skill or confidence to train your student in a particular area, find a local trade or enrichment class, talk to a friend who works in that trade, or even stop by local businesses with your student to pick up as much knowledge as you can. Many local hardware stores offer classes. Take this opportunity to learn a new skill together. Craftsmen are in every community. Just seek them out.
If you want to dig into a topic yourself but just need a little confidence boost or instruction, join a forum. Kilroy’s Workshop has a forum that is specifically designed for kids. It requires an account and is moderated. If you locate another woodworking forum where your child is engaging with others, be sure to check the feedback, as most sites are geared toward adults.
The legacy of craft
We all leave a legacy, and part of my dad’s is a love of the industrial arts. When my parents passed away and my siblings and I divided the assets, the first thing I selected was my father’s workbench. It is beat up and would barely fetch $10 at a garage sale, but it is his bench. Keep the crafts alive and make the skills your children learn in your homeschool shop class part of your legacy.
Ron and his wife Susan homeschool their four children in Falcon, CO. Ron founded Kilroy’s Workshop to train teens in shop skills, and equip homeschool parents to do the same. He is a board member of A Daughter’s Heart and 4Gens ministries, both of which encourage parents to focus on the legacy they leave for their kids. Ron is the co-author of five books, has written numerous magazine articles, and speaks at conferences on a regular basis. Follow KilroysWorkshop on Twitter to see some of our current projects. #TrainThem.
Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Summer 2015. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
- http://www.forbes.com/sites/tarabrown/2012/05/30/the-death-of-shop-class-and-americas-high-skilled-workforce. Return to text.
- http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2013/article/pdf/occupational-employment-projections-to-2022.pdf. Return to text.
- http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303663604579501801872226532. Return to text.