Practical Arts in Education and Society


  • Education
  • Technology

Jeremy Broun FRSA argues the hidden value of practical art education in our schools.

Mastery of technique is common across the arts. Whether you are a dancer, musician, or furniture maker, technique defines much of what you do. Technique has a magic; it has to be worked at and is admired and is something lasting to hand on. Particularly rooted in technique are the practical arts, traditionally called “craft” and the poor relation to art.

If you design a chair that breaks or is uncomfortable and lacks any kind of aesthetic quality, it fails. The joy of using hands and mind creatively and purposefully and in working within these grounded and honest parameters can lead to a sense of well-being and foster the kind of innovation that the economy could ultimately benefit from.

I am not arguing a case for training up loads of carpenters and glass blowers or suggesting there is any one fix to the hugely complex problems facing us. But we do have an obligation to help young people develop their identity and potential and prepare them for the world. This is a messy task because children’s core values are already entrenched before they walk through the school gates.

School is not just about getting a place at university that will lead to a degree to become a bio-chemist that will lead to working in a video hire shop. The quest to make university education the right of every child is political blindness when seven out of ten parents do not read out aloud to their young and one in ten can’t read properly by the time they get to secondary school.

Children learn by doing and most enjoy making things. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) rarely occurs amongst children playing computer games or engaged in making things. Integrating designing with making is hugely empowering as the child is not just learning dexterous skills by copying crafted objects, but is challenged to make decisions about how things can be put together, what tools and materials to use (involving ethical choices) and how things can look.

The practical arts are an ideal vehicle for fostering a wide variety of life skills such as perseverance, numeracy, a sense of history and accountability. There is no copy, paste and delete button or predictive text and patience is a key feature. The benefits are enormous and include what William Morris meant when he talked about regaining a sense of pride and  ‘being at the scene of the crime’ in having a close rapport with the material and making process.

In the quest to make “craft” respectable, it has evolved into Design and Technology, which covers a range of resistant and non-resistant materials such as food, textiles, pneumatics, electronics and woodwork. This dilutes the purpose of the practical arts being physical (hugely important) whilst engaging the intellect. In overloading pupils (and their teachers) with such a broad curriculum in our panic about where we think the future jobs will lie and what children should know, many really valuable skills are skated over.

‘Craft’ is a confusing and socially divisive term and sociology certainly plays its part. Despite the low status of the practical arts in schools the opposite has happened in society where growing numbers of highly articulate upper middle class professionals change career to become designer makers making expensive one-off pieces (for example, furniture). Interestingly, in the past thirty years an underground movement (well, hardly anybody in Britain knows about it) of furniture designer makers leads the world in both quality and design and surpasses any previous era.

One way forward is to engage a broad spectrum of people (including Fellows?) who predominantly use their hands in their work to develop a low cost strategy for the next decade. Imagine a room full of plumbers, designer jewellers, motor mechanics, brain surgeons, seamstresses and dentists with a bunch of social networking savvy young kids thrown in to get people talking to each other and see what new thinking might emerge!

Jeremy Broun is an internationally known furniture designer maker and author. He also lectures and makes films about the Practical Arts.

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