Our next generation needs practical skills as well as smarts

I recently read in the BBC news that Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London is struggling to teach surgery to a class of super-smart medical students. The difficulty, a decline in manual dexterity. Students come to his class ill prepared for the practicalities of surgery; cutting, stitching, manipulating materials, managing tools. As he says “An obvious example is of a surgeon needing some dexterity and skill in sewing and stitching”. He adds “It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do practical things….that is no longer the case”. 

Our smart phone, screen focused age means we learn early to operate two-dimensionally. We are happy for the ease of swiping and clicking, but as Professor Kneebone and his students have discovered there is another dimension where we have to learn comfort and ease and it is easier to learn this when we are young; in the first few years of school. 

I have been teaching hand embroidery to more than 70 eight and nine year olds every year for ten years. Every year we start a weekly program of counted thread embroidery in October. Students stitch three projects through the school year. By the end of that year they have all the skills that Professor Kneebone’s super-smart students so woefully lack. They can think in three dimensions and manage their tools and materials. They can be the boss of the process. They can follow a complicated chart. They can plan ahead. They can deal with an error. They learn accuracy and understand its importance. They are thrilled with their competency and confident enough with their skills to sign up for after school classes where they can increase their knowledge and skill level with new materials, tools and techniques. Their enthusiasm means there is a waiting list for the 40 student places in the after school class. 

This is not hard. Year after year the students grasp what is taught, develop the needed skills and let their hands teach their brains things that cannot be learned with a screen. And they love it. The hard part is persuading those in charge of education policy to recognize that these essential skills are missing from many students’ education. 

So. What to do? We need a groundswell of enthusiasm for teaching our young students hand skills and crafts early in their educational careers. But what about all the technological advances which demand our attention? Yes. They are part of our students’ future but there will be time to learn those skills later. Hand skills of the kind Professor Kneebone bemoans the lack of are best learned early in life.

My experience has taught me that students aged seven thru ten are primed by nature to embrace practical skills like hand embroidery. Their brains are at the perfect developmental stage to learn those skills and keep them throughout their working life. If they want to be a surgeon and they have the grades and learned hand embroidery in third grade (year 4) Professor Kneebone will be thrilled to have them in his classroom. There are many professions which need competent dexterity: designer, engineer, electrician, mechanic, carpenter, plumber, veterinarian, and of course, surgeon. We need these creative people to have the skills that come from an early acquaintance with crafts requiring fine motor dexterity. 

A simple way to introduce this to early education is to adopt embroidery as an inclusion before middle school. It is an easy inclusion into the early years in school. Students love it. It is very inexpensive, requiring only needles, fabric and thread. Aside from the hand skills and dexterity, learning associated with hand embroidery is broad and deep. This class brings so many threads of a good education together in the same class. It is social studies, mathematics, geometry, art and design. Concern that time devoted to hand skills is time lost to other important curriculum requirements need not worry education policy makers. The learning taking place in the 45 minute hand embroidery class stretches right across their curriculum. And when the students reach middle school they will have the skills for other creative endeavors like woodwork and metalwork. 

An Edge Foundation report states that there has been a 57% drop since 2010 in students choosing Design and Technology GCSE. This is probably in part due to the emphasis on academic subjects which education policy favors. Perhaps, though, if students do not acquire confident hand skills early in their education they are unlikely to choose a subject requiring such skills later in their academic careers. 

How frustrating for Professor Kneebone to have a class of the smartest students in the country all anxious to learn and to find that his task is so much harder because in their early school years his students missed out on a vital component of their education and, moreover, one which they will struggle to make up. Let’s teach practical skills to our surgeons before they know they want to be surgeons. 

Article by Anna Davidson - Teacher & Embroiderer 

Contact Anna on annaxwise@msn.com

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