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Tuesday November 21, 2017
Posted: Sep 09, 2015

‘Making is knowing’: How true knowledge happens when we’re engaged

College Connection

At the start of each school year I find myself asking, “What is the one thing I want my students to walk away with from my classes if they learn nothing else?”

Certainly, there are learning outcomes each class needs to achieve, but I often wonder what larger context my teaching might offer. This year I hope to teach my students a lesson that I was reminded of over the summer: the lesson of making.

I had the fortune to spend some time this summer making things: baskets, to be specific. I took up basket weaving first on my own and then in a classroom setting. As I embark on each new basket it occurs to me that through the act of making – of doing, of creating – something positive and undeniable occurs, something that I can relate back to each class and each student in a never-ending myriad of ways.

Roundish Basket by Eric Stark
Roundish Basket by Eric Stark

Making fosters exploration. Making a basket is a process, and working through that process one cannot help but make discoveries along the way. Because weaving is a process, it, like other forms of making, engages. In turn, that engagement gives the maker intimate interaction with an exploration of ideas and potential. The process of making will always lead to new considerations, new ways of creating, and new possibilities that would likely go unrealized if not for the very act of making. It is impossible to weave a basket and not explore how that basket is made.

The very process of weaving sparks the imagination as to how the next weaving might be made differently.

Making builds knowledge. Making allows one to err, and subsequently learn from those errors. My worktable at home (which doubles as our family dining table) holds many failed attempts at weaving. These failures come directly from my ignorance of the materials I am working with and the new processes I don’t yet understand. Yet with each failure insight into these materials and processes is gained (as is much laughter from my children who call these failed baskets the “hats” because all they are good for is wearing on one’s head while silly dancing around the house).

Making is practice. As I start a new basket, I don’t expect that I will make something beautiful or even worthy of keeping each time I begin. However, with consistent iteration I will undoubtedly (fingers crossed) improve. And through practice I expect to learn and grow … with each misplaced weave skills are gained, that in turn lead to, after many hours, that one beautiful useful object.

And finally, making connects us. We may understand that in many ways making benefits the maker, but it often extends beyond the individual. When a basket is complete and, in my case, given away, it begins is useful life in service to its user. The act of weaving, coupled with love and care, necessarily leads to something greater than the made object itself. The actions of the maker result in a new creation, one that must stand on its own merits and bring something to the lives of others.

A wonderful example (and an amazing work of art) demonstrating the power of iterative making is a year-long achievement by paper artist Charles Young, who recently completed his commitment to make one paper sculpture every day for a year. Each piece is in itself a work of art, all captured on his website Paperholm. But if you look across the span of the work you can see the progression in his skill over time. You can also see what the exploration of making can produce when in the hands of a committed maker. Young’s 365-day work of art demonstrates the knowledge, exploration, and growth of imagination that can be achieved through the simple act of making.

Paper Sculpture by Charles Young
Paper Sculpture by Charles Young

When I attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design, there was a professor who was known to say, “Making is knowing.” The brevity of this statement made it both mysterious and seemingly beyond our young reach. Over time, I have grown to understand this statement to mean that true knowledge is achieved through a level of engagement that goes beyond simply listening and regurgitating someone else’s ideas.

True knowledge happens when one is engaged as the maker, the practitioner, and the explorer. It is through making that we bring into existence new ideas thereby adding to our own knowledge, while expanding the potential knowledge for all.

My life is better when I am making. When I practice the violin, or weave a basket, or plant a pencil cactus, or even write a new lesson plan, I am learning and exploring and growing. And it’s fun, too.

 

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