I love learning, and I hated school. Sitting in a classroom while a teacher drones on and on is my idea of torture. It's unnatural and it's boring. But if there's a physical problem to solve—let's say I'm making something in the shop, and it keeps breaking, and I have to find things to read/listen to/watch in order to figure out why it keeps breaking, and then I make it and it doesn't break, I love that.
Otto Salomon, a revolutionary Swedish educator in 19th-Century Sweden, also realized that classrooms were boring. He also found that children misbehaved as a result. According to an International Bureau of Education document published by UNESCO,
Salomon looked upon the contemporary elementary school as being too theoretical—and even that in a most insubstantial way since factual knowledge was learned by heart and repeated. This rote learning of pure facts led to the children adopting negative attitudes towards the school and towards each another: vanity, arrogance and bullying behaviour were commonplace. The children also suffered from being seated for long periods without any physical activity.
A child has a desire for both knowledge and activity. These needs are met when manual work is introduced into the conventional school curriculum.
With this in mind, Salomon formed a training school for teachers in 1875 with a unique mission: The teachers themselves were taught handcrafts—slöjd in Swedish, "sloyd," Anglicized—so that they could in turn teach these to their pupils. Salomon's concept was that there was a connection between creating things with your hands and cognitive development, that each would help improve the other.
Salomon was intrigued by the idea of making physical work an element in general education. He considered any person who did not have a sound training in general dexterity as only half-educated. We learn most effectively by activity—by doing things with our hands—and this knowledge should be acquired through self-education. Manual labour at school should provide an all-round education to everybody.
This will be difficult for present-day NYC parents to understand, as schools here have metal detectors; but the first thing children in a slöjd curriculum were given was knives. This was not a big deal in 19th-century Sweden, which was still largely agrarian. "We begin with the knife because we consider it the easiest tool for children to employ, since they have already been in the habit of using it," Salomon said. Children raised on farms had already handled knives for domestic chores and helping the family put food on the table. And after learning to competently whittle wood with a knife, the children could then graduate to more advanced tools.
There was also a fantastically functional element in this education. The items Salomon's curriculum called for pupils to make were not birdhouses and toys, but practical items: "Rakes, hammer handles, benches, tables, spoons, etc.—appliances needed in everyday household and farm activities."
Which is not to say that children were meant to be turned into hardware stores; it was their development that was the goal, with functional objects produced during this development a mere fringe benefit. "The teacher must pay attention to the child's reactions, behaviour and development. The child must be the focus of attention, and not the tools, the techniques or the products. What is happening to the child during the work process should be the principal interest."
Also interesting about the slöjd system was that it was intended to cultivate something sorely lacking in, say, American education today: An appreciation for the actual aesthetics of physical objects. "In elementary schools, children should receive the elements of an aesthetic education," Salomon wrote. "Objects badly made or badly proportioned, and yet nicely ornamented, are really exceedingly ugly. It is far more important that children should be able to judge when models are well-designed than to be able to decorate them."
His entire ten-point list of aims of a slöjd education is impressive:
1. To instill a taste for and an appreciation of work in general.
2. To create a respect for hard, honest, physical labour.
3. To develop independence and self-reliance.
4. To provide training in the habits of order, accuracy, cleanliness and neatness.
5. To train the eye to see accurately and to appreciate the sense of beauty in form.
6. To develop the sense of touch and to give general dexterity to the hands.
7. To inculcate the habits of attention, industry, perseverance and patience.
8. To promote the development of the body's physical powers.
9. To acquire dexterity in the use of tools.
10. To execute precise work and to produce useful products.
In the late 1800s slöjd caught on and spread, and Salomon hosted educators from some 40 countries at his school in Sweden. He also traveled the world and lectured. But as manual training spread around the globe, it was inevitable that industrialized countries—the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Japan among them—would of course conflate it with training folks for factory jobs rather than using it for personal cultivation.
Today a variant of slöjd is still taught in Scandinavia, though craft education has long since fallen out of favor in the U.S. Proponents like Mike Rowe still make a case for it to be reinstated, but it is often with the priority being on vocational training.
Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez is the President of the North Bennet Street School, a vocational school in Boston, which adopted the slöjd philosophy way back in 1885. Here he discusses the philosophy:
If you're interested in learning more about slöjd, the UNESCO document is here [PDF]. Additionally, Google Books is offering Salomon's "The Teacher's Hand-book of Slöjd" as a free download.