Making subject matter relevant
to students is a challenge teachers
face on a daily basis. One school
with a unique approach to meeting
this challenge is Clear Spring School,
located in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I
first learned about this independent
school and its unusual curriculum
while talking with Doug Stowe,
founder of the school’s woodworking
program, “Wisdom of the Hands. “
Clear Spring School is dedicated
to the idea that hands-on learning
helps students learn how to think. Its
small enrollment, about 80 students
at all grade levels, from pre-school to
high school, may make Clear Spring
School seem irrelevant. But its mission,
“to promote a lifelong love of
learning through a hands-on and
hearts-engaged educational environment”
“My involvement with the school
first started back in 1976, when students
from Clear Spring School
would come to my pottery studio
for art classes,” says Doug, reflecting
about how the woodworking program
started. “Then, over the years,
as my focus turned from pottery to
woodworking, I built bookshelves
for the school’s first library and got
further involved when my daughter
became a student. In 2001, we
began the Wisdom of the Hands in
response to the drastic decline in
woodworking programs all across
America. Almost immediately, we
saw the potential of the woodshop
to create hands-on learning opportunities
in all subject areas.“
The Wisdom of the Hands program
at Clear Spring School has the
• To make woodshop participation
relevant to the lives of all students
and meaningful in their education.
• To use the woodshop to reinforce
and support each student’s
interests in other areas of study.
• To serve as a model to demonstrate
the relevance of woodworking
in modern education.
Progressive educators have long
recognized the relationship between
the hands and learning; so the philosophy
of incorporating hands-on
learning as an integral part of the
educational process is not new. The
Wisdom of the Hands program at
Clear Spring School has been heavily
influenced by Educational Sloyd, a
movement that originated in Finland
and Sweden during the latter part of
the 19th century. The Sloyd system espoused teaching woodworking
skills gradually throughout
a child’s education, with the skills
becoming increasingly complex in
accordance with the child’s intellectual
development. This method was
said to educate the child’s character,
encourage moral behavior, greater
intelligence and industriousness.
Teachers at Clear Spring School
have designed a curriculum that recognizes
the benefits of Educational
Sloyd’s hands-on learning. The
Wisdom of the Hands program has
the flexibility to be tailored to benefit
individual students according to their
interests, as well as adapting to the
changing world in which they live.
While the Clear Spring curriculum
would be difficult to reproduce elsewhere,
Doug believes it can be used
as a model for reintroducing woodworking
and other industrial arts
classes to schools across the country.
Wisdom of the Hands
At Clear Spring School, students start
having fun with wood as pre-schoolers,
where they create sculptures by
assembling and gluing wood pieces.
The goal is to make woodworking an
activity that students enjoy and look
forward to as their skills grow and their
education progresses. The school’s
excellent student-to-teacher ratio—
about eight to one—ensures that
every student develops safe and
sound woodworking skills.
Starting with elementary grade
classes, woodworking is woven into
other subjects. For example, the
third and fourth grade class (grade
levels are combined at Clear Spring)
recently studied America’s westward
expansion during the last half of the
To personalize the pioneer experience
and understand the technologies
of the time, the students
researched and then built wooden
models of covered wagons.
Encouraged to think about what it
must have been like to leave home
and head west to start a new life, the
students outfitted the wagons with
scale-sized boxes and containers representing
the provisions they would
need. Seeing their provisions dwindle
while talking about the trip west gave
the students a better understanding
of the times and challenges these
early settlers faced. After following the
settlers to their California destination,
the students made quill pens from
wood and used them to write letters
to relatives “back home,” explaining
their adventures on the journey.
Another middle school class uses
woodworking to reinforce the study
of solid geometry. Students make
wooden geometric forms (spheres,
cones, cubes etc.), which they then
can use as study aides. This hands-on
activity helps students understand
concepts behind mathematical formulas
such as those for volume and
surface area. The high school trigonometry
class recently built wooden trebuchets
and other object launchers
to study trajectory paths and the
forces acting on the object and
launchers. For those high school students
with extra interest in woodworking,
a woodworking club provides
extra time in the woodshop.
Clear Spring School students are
actively involved in community service
and as a result, the school enjoys
avid community support.
Students have built toys for
needy children and presented seminars
to educate community members
about woodturning and other
aspects of woodworking. Students
have also developed and sold
woodworking projects to help fund
field trips and camping trips that
are part of Clear Spring School’s
Hope for Change in
It’s no secret that woodshop and
other industrial arts education classes
have been disappearing from public
schools, labeled outdated or irrelevant.
But as Clear Spring School
attests, hands-on learning can be an
important educational tool.
A growing number of educators
and scholars agree that industrial
arts programs benefit students’ intellectual,
social and career development.
For example, in the article
“Industrial Arts: Call It What You Want,
the Need Still Exists,” author James Howlett
argues that teaching technological
literacy at the expense of hands-on
skills training is wrong for students.
Howlett further states that “from
middle school to high school, students
need not only the opportunity
to explore a variety of trade skills
but also the opportunity to learn
the skill as well.”
In Doug Stowe’s view, by focusing
on theoretical learning at the
expense of hands-on experience, traditional
public schools are producing
graduates that are intimidated by
tools and have a lack of appreciation
for handmade objects and the artisans
who produce them. Through
Clear Spring School and Wisdom of
the Hands, Doug hopes to reverse
this trend one student at a time.
Tell us about a dynamic woodworking
school or vibrant teaching program.
What makes it work? Point out notable teaching strategies and student accomplishments. Explain how the program excites students about woodworking and tell us how it helps them develop woodworking skills. Whether the program operates in a public school, community center or a private workshop, we want to hear about its success. E-mail your story to email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker December/January 2009, issue #139.
December/January 2009, issue #139
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Click any image to view a larger version.
Clear Spring School is dedicated to the idea that hands-on learning helps students
learn how to think. These social studies students built covered wagons to better understand
the challenges America’s 19th-century pioneers faced as they headed west.
When students discover that
woodworking is fun, it
becomes an effective tool for
teaching other subjects. All
students learn to use woodworking
tools properly and
safely. The skills and tools
they master become more
complex at each grade level.
Third and fourth grade scientists study
the solar system.
First and second graders learn about
Music students make their own instruments
and perform at community folk
Trigonometry students study trajectory paths and launcher design.
Ninth and tenth grade earth science students build mineral-collection boxes.