In Praise of Shop Classes: Why Vocational Training is Necessary for Academic Growth

September 15, 2019

My wood shop teacher in high school was missing his pinky finger. He held it up whenever he thought a student was not showing proper respect to the power tools we used in class. “This is what happens when you don’t pay attention,” he would say.

Besides making unnecessary ashtrays and unusable tie racks, that was one of the greatest lessons I ever learned in school. I think about that missing pinky whenever I start any project, whether planning a lesson, writing a book, cooking a meal, fixing the plumbing or electricity in my house, driving to a new location, even giving the dog a bath. I know what happens when you don’t pay attention.

That we’ve lost a lot of vocational training in middle and high schools seems a great tragedy. Learning to work with their hands, to actually accomplish something tangible, gives students a sense of purpose that transfers to every aspect of life, such as always paying attention, and gives people practical skill sets that will be increasingly important throughout their lives.

Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that vocational training is less important than academic education. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only two thirds of high school students go on to college, and, even if they do, careers as plumbers, electricians, and mechanics often pay much more than so-called “white collar” jobs. Even if sidled with a career as a banker or lawyer or teacher, the skill of unclogging a drain or repairing a carburetor or cooking an egg soufflé saves money and, to be honest, boosts the ego a bit.

The ancillary benefit of vocational classes is that they help students master study skills that apply to all courses. A colleague of mine, a history teacher, also offers an auto shop elective, and he reports that students in both classes do much better than those just taking history. “Over time” he says, “I realized that auto shop was the ideal place for students to learn how to plan, prioritize, and improve their executive functioning skills. Projects like [restoring a 1956 Chevy truck] provide a combination of both instant and delayed gratification — parts can quickly take shape, but the whole lingers at a distance and requires patience.”

What I liked most about my wood shop teacher’s gruesome lesson was that his missing finger didn’t stop him from working with his hands, it only made him better at it and better about teaching us how to do it right.

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