Learning from the master…

There are a couple of ways to learn. One manner is to learn by watching. Like this movie about the way Montreal based luthier Michael Greenfield makes his guitars.

It’s a nice insight in contemporary guitar making, using present-day methods and techniques. Seeing movies like this always gives me new ideas and lets me question my own methods. As an instrument maker you remain a student all your life, never done learning. Once you are open to it, education and inspiration canbe found anywhere.

Traditional education

We often see theoretical instruction (written or oral) as the traditional way to transfer information. To sit still in a classroom and consume what the teacher is saying. Preferable without comments from the audience. Or suck up the info from a school book like a sponge… That’s the way education management likes to see their students. Like silent sheep following their shepherd. A safe and risk-free way to learn…


UmbridgeDolores Umbridge: Your previous instruction in this subject has been disturbingly uneven. But you will be pleased to know from now on, you will be following a carefully structured, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic. Yes?
Hermione Granger: There’s nothing in here about using defensive spells.
Dolores Umbridge: Using spells? Ha ha! Well I can’t imagine why you would need to use spells in my classroom.
Ron Weasley: We’re not gonna use magic?
Dolores Umbridge: You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way.
Harry Potter: Well, what use is that? If we’re gonna be attacked it won’t be risk-free.
Dolores Umbridge: Students will raise their hands when they speak in my class.
Dolores Umbridge: It is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be sufficient to get you through your examinations, which after all, is what school is all about.
Harry Potter: And how is theory supposed to prepare us for what’s out there?
Dolores Umbridge: There is nothing out there, dear! Who do you imagine would want to attack children like yourself?
Harry Potter: I don’t know, maybe – Lord Voldemort!

– Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – 2007


Well, it might be safe and risk-free ms. Umbridge, but it is hardly efficient, nor traditional. The best way to learn is still by taking a hands-on approach. Before we got to the school benches, most people learned their craft at the workbench. The guild systems, learning by doing, a master showing how it’s done and the pupil trying to get the same results. That way you will pay attention, because the next moment you have got to do it yourself. Seeing someone work, getting a chance to ask questions and trying for yourself is more efficient than reading any instruction manual.

You learn the most by what you experience yourself.

Practice and tinkering beats learning by rote. The latter is quite efficient, but it’s creating Pavlov reactions. You can teach a parrot to say the pledge or Lord’s prayer. He learns the lines, but never gains insight or understanding. But it’s safe and quantifiable.

Applied knowledge is harder to gain. It calls for courage, both on behalf of the student and the teacher. To trust inexperienced people with tools and make them responsible for their own education; it has a potential for disaster. That’s why it has become more and more fenced in by regulations, or simply stopped…

But the results are far more valuable, gaining real knowledge instead of simply reproducing what others have written before. The first time I really encountered this way of teaching was at lutherie school (ILSA) in Belgium. Our teachers showed us how to work, but also granted us trust and space to find our own ways. Sometimes this lead to failure, and even huge differences of opinion between the student and teacher. But often it gave new insights and even new methods of working. They encouraged us to look further and find our own style.

Another extreme is the current competention based education. Pretending students learn by gathering experiences. But in reality it is just a guided blanks exercise. Only putting check marks. But completing an assignment doesn’t automatically mean you have insight in the matter at hand.

Working in practice

One of the things I often advise people is to get working in practice. It gives so much insight in the matter at hand. A manager needs work floor experience to know what he’s managing. Writing becomes a lot easier when you have some hours experience in the jobs of your personages.

We can’t overestimate the value of hands-on experience. It builds knowledge and confidence. True craftsmanship can’t be grasped only by our minds. By making or shaping something our hands you built a physical “muscle memory”. Your body knows how to do something, but you will have a hard time when you’ve got to explain it to others in another mode of communication, like written or spoken words. Believe me, I know, writing “Making Masonite Guitars” took almost two years. And I am currently wrapped up in an even larger project about my methods to make historical guitars. Many things you ‘just do’ are quite hard to explain in words.

A while ago I quoted this fragment from Dutch “Philosopher Laureate” René Gude’s book “Ik blijf nog even kletsen” (I’ll stay and talk for a short while):

“Since 500 B.C. “Sophia” is
the collective noun for all knowledge:
I name artisanal craftsmanship
but also the insight in day-to-day issues,
especially when they involve politics.

When you put ‘philo’ in front of that,
it shows that you value that knowledge.

Whether it involves a slight interest
or being entirely submerged in the subject.

Only people who really despise expertise, political insight or other intelligent skills are no philosophers.”

– René Gude –

I think it’s a lovely thing to end with. Working with your hands isn’t higher or lower or than other work, it’s just another mode of working. It is the love and attention that makes the difference.

It all begins in school. With teachers who help their students to gain knowledge, rather than just reeling off the text in their books. To work with their students and grant them trust in order to built confidence in their own work. And you know what? In return the students also learn the teacher something about his or her own work. Sudden strokes of insight, one of the biggest rewards of them all…

This week I will post some movies about the ways we educate and changes to be made…

This entry was posted in Courses, Documentary, Movies, Think different, Thoughts, Tools, Uncategorized, Woodworking and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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