American Education Must Restore the Marriage of Hand and Mind

Jul 23, 2011 by

American Education Must Restore the Marriage of Hand and Mind

Barry E. Stern, Ph.D.

Every once in a while a film comes along that reminds Americans about what we can do to improve our Nation, including our educational system. Such a film is Something the Lord Made, which recounts the true story about a relationship between an ambitious white surgeon, Dr. Alfred Blaylock, and an African-American carpenter, Vivien Thomas, who became his lab assistant and eventual partner in developing an operation that saved “blue babies” from chronic circulatory failure. Their shunt procedure, and the surgical instruments created by Thomas that made it possible, revolutionized cardiovascular surgery and brought great glory to Johns Hopkins University.

In addition to lessons regarding race relations, teamwork, professional dedication and reward for effort, there is also an important lesson regarding the reintegration of experiential, hands-on learning into our school curriculum. First, “the rest of the story:

While at Vanderbilt University’s Medical School during the Great Depression, Blaylock hires Thomas to clean up his lab. Thomas originally intended to go to medical school but lost his savings in the crash. Blalock recognized his natural gifts right away — his extraordinary mind and skilled hands. In addition, Thomas, like most natural surgeons, had the ability to visualize anatomy and physiological processes in three-dimensions. With his passion for medicine he throws himself into reading through Dr. Blaylock’s medical library and learns to perform surgery on animals by assisting Blaylock. Thomas soon becomes a more-than-competent dog surgeon, but he never earns more than a high school degree. Over a dozen years together, the two develop innovative surgical procedures that put Vanderbilt’sMedical School on the map and provide Blaylock with the opportunity to become Chief of Surgery at John Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. At Hopkins the two developed and led one of the world’s first successful heart surgeries, a fact that puts Blaylock on the cover of Life Magazine and adds to Hopkins’ reputation as the world’s finest medical school.

Thousands of people owe their lives to heart by-pass techniques first developed by this driven white surgeon and this persistent, humble black carpenter. Perhaps the most interesting lesson is that this breakthrough could not have occurred without the complementary skills and backgrounds of both men. Blaylock was a physician; Thomas in effect his apprentice. Yet unlike most instructor-apprentice relationships, the apprentice contributed as much to the enterprise, in this case, surgical innovation, as his mentor.

The pair continually learned from one another, perfecting stitching and other surgical techniques for which the unique talents of both were absolutely necessary. Blaylock was the visionary who knew where the field of surgery had to go; while Thomas learned not only how to implement, but also create, the vision through hands-on application. Their surgical concepts continually evolved to more workable ones because the two chose to push one another intellectually, emotionally and morally, to say nothing of their continual communication around the operating table.

Barry E. Stern, Ph.D

The great injustice of the Blaylock-Thomas story is that while fame and fortune were heaped upon Blaylock for his achievements, racism denied just due to his African-American understudy. While Johns Hopkins eventually honored Thomas, and American is doing better in overcoming racism, it remains for our educational system to overcome yet another injustice. Specifically, our public schools are gradually eliminating the kinds of experiential hands-on education that is necessary for individuals like Vivien Thomas to realize their potential and contribute their genius to the world.

As suggested earlier, Vivien Thomas was blessed to an unusual degree with spatial-mechanical intelligence that enabled him to become a very able craftsman and then outstanding surgeon. Perhaps it was destiny that brought him and Blaylock together (a possible reason for the movie title, Something the Lord Made). While we should not be so presumptuous to rule out destiny in the order of things, why depend on destiny for tomorrow’s breakthroughs? Instead, why not increase the odds of great inventions and breakthroughs by organizing our school and college environments in such a way as to enable future artisans like Vivien Thomas to discover their talents and find their place in our scientific, engineering and bio-medical professions.

In America we value spatial-mechanical intelligence and applied forms of learning for our carpenters and plumbers, realizing that these jobs are important and pay well. But for most parents these professions are for somebody else’s kids, while our own should study medicine, engineering, and science. The lesson of the Blalock-Thomas story is that the Nation’s ability to innovate and build the best bridges, skyscrapers, airplanes, software and heart valves will require that at least some of our professionals learn through an applied approach that nurtures and honors students with spatial-mechanical-kinesthetic intelligence and learn best by doing. It also means that the nation’s educational system should develop career “lattices” that encourage our skilled technical workers to transition into the professions if they so desire and can qualify.

We Americans intuitively know this, as the vast majority of our great inventors have been “tinkerers”, that is, they learned by doing, and doing over until they got it right. How’s this for a partial list?: Franklin, Edison, Ford, Bell, Wright brothers, Jobs, Gates! America’s ability to maintain its technological edge will depend in part on its supply of such “tinkerers” – smart people who learn experientially through their hands. Unfortunately, advancing technology is making it more difficult for young people to get the kinds of hands-on experiences that will lead them to choose careers in science and technology in the first place. And should they enter such careers, too many tend not to acquire sufficient amounts of practical, hands-on training to ensure their professional competence.

Dr. Frank Wilson, Neurologist and author of “The Hand–how its use shapes the brain, language and human culture,” shares this sentiment. In his 1998 interview with David Gergen, Editor at Large with US News and World Report and former White House spokesperson, Wilson said,

The very first message I got after the book was published was from a car mechanic who owns a shop in Southern California. He observed that high school students working as apprentices in his shop were not “getting it”. He couldn’t teach them–there was something they just didn’t seem to be able to understand. He had another phone call from the vice president of an engineering firm who said, We’re having trouble with our younger engineers. They’re brilliant and very well educated. But when you give them a problem that has to do with spatial relations and designing an object—let’s say a piece that goes into a space capsule, a module of some kind, and there’s something that’s three-dimensional about it that has to be fixed; they just don’t seem to understand it. So we don’t hire any engineers any more, no matter where they come from, unless they’ve had routine experience as mechanics.”

Wilson continues,

So we’re coming to the edge of a discovery, I think, about education, which is that you can’t really skip this experience. It’s important for children to have hands-on experience when they’re young. Music lessons, or playing with animals, there are any number of experiences that kids ought to have. But you can’t rush that. Biology took a long time to get us this gift that we have, this marriage of hand and mind, and it’s a mistake to ignore this (Gergen, 1998).

The famous heart surgeon, Michael Debakey M.D., gives yet another example of mind-hand learning at an early age that contributed significantly to his surgical skills. He recounts how his mother taught him to embroiderand sew:

Not yet of school age, I was alone with my mother during the day. Her instruction was so distinctive and her beautiful work so inspiring that I learned easily. She would teach me a technique, for example, by gingerly placing my small fingers in the proper position around needles and yarn rather than telling me I was doing anything wrong.”

Another surgeon who along with Blaylock helped to launch the field of cardiovascular surgery in the 30’s and 40’s, Debakey further recounts:

My mother’s teachings inspired me again in the early 1950s, when I designed a graft for replacing a diseased aorta and arteries. I chose the then new synthetic cloth Dacron by touch, just as I had done as a boy. I drew the design on paper next, cut the fabric and finally put the prototype together at home on my wife’s Singer sewing machine” (Debakey, 2004).

The above examples suggest that ignoring the importance of manual dexterity and experiential learning, as American schools have become more prone to do, is harming the growth and development of our Nation’s youngsters. The more we wring our hands at how poorly our youngsters do in mastering basic skills and knowledge, the more we drill them in the paper and pencil basics of math and reading. Though repetition certainly has a place in developing a youngster’s brain, it should not come at the expense of learning in applied, hands-on formats.

Yet this is precisely what is happening. To accommodate perceived budget shortfalls, elementary schools have been cutting back on art, music, sport, games, and dance—never understanding that lack of exposure to the expressive arts ultimately will undermine a child’s ability to acquire academic skills, including the ability to conceptualize and solve problems.

At the high school level, there are fewer opportunities for experiential, hands-on learning. The most noticeable example is the decline in the number of credits earned in the technical trades, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s (National Assessment of Vocational Education, 1999 and 2004). Traditional academic subjects–English, math, science, and social studies–still dominate the high school curriculum, as they have for the last 80 years. Indeed, standards-based reform has persuaded most school districts to add even more academics to the curriculum. However, this approach hasn’t improved student achievement all that much, as suggested by flat ACT and SAT scores and evidence that the academic performance of American teenagers is poor relative to their peers in other advanced countries. Thus, a few progressive high schools have become open to teaching applied, integrated courses that engage and sufficiently motivate students to make the effort necessary to meet high standards. This fusion of academic and technical preparation comes in many forms, for example, project-based, service- and work-based learning.

This nascent trend notwithstanding, most students throughout the U.S. have few opportunities in school for applied learning. Some youngsters get these hands-on opportunities outside of school, such as in 4-H and other vocational clubs, or in after-school science and technology competitions such as the FIRST robotics or the Skills USA competitions. For most students, however, opportunities for hands-on learning are disappearing from their lives. There are a number of reasons

Technology. Changing technology due to advanced electronics has reduced opportunities for youngsters to productively tinker. Not so ago, our budding engineers and mechanics could understand how a car worked by tinkering under the hood. Today, computer chips control most of this. Whereas at one time they could begin learning electronics by assembling and fixing radios and TVs, today’s micro-electronics simply requires them to replace damaged parts with new ones, the make-up of which they will only understand with serious academic study.

Improper use of technology to teach basic reading and math. Subtle changes in using technology to accelerate the learning of reading and math skills might actually impede learning rates. Ignoring Frank Wilson’s advice about hand-mind connections forged over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, schools typically encourage students to use the Internet to look up words they don’t know to complete a reading assignment, or they prematurely encourage use of calculators to do basic arithmetic.

To increase vocabulary while reading, students through the early years of high school might be better off using hard copy dictionaries rather than the Internet (or dictionary on a disk) to look up words. The physical process of finding words in the dictionary, seeing the words that precede and follow the word being sought, and struggling to determine which meaning of the word best fits what the author was trying to convey will more likely put the word into long-term memory. Conversely, skipping this physical process by using the Internet or computer disk would more than likely put the word into short-term memory but not help establish the neurological connections in the brain necessary for future recall.

Similarly, to increase student proficiency in basic arithmetic (add, subtract, multiply, divide) students should endeavor first to calculate or estimate the answer in their head, then perform the calculation on paper, then use the hand calculator to check their work, and then perhaps use a spreadsheet program like Excel to perform these same basic functions as well as some algebraic equations later on. Again, using the hand calculator prematurely and thus skipping the physical process of thinking it through and writing it down oftentimes results in punching numbers without understanding the concept.

Values. Our culture values a 4-year college education over sub-baccalaureate preparation, white-collar over blue-collar jobs; and a liberal education for citizenship over practical education for employment. Thus, what people learn with their hands is not as highly valued as what people learn byreading and observing.

School “reforms”. Since the U.S. Department of Education’s Nation at Risk study in 1983, all levels of government have added standards, courses and tests to improve student achievement. In other words, to “reform” the system we simply did more of what we already knew how to do. Indeed, most of today’s teenagers attend schools with courses and schedules that are much like those of their grandparents or even great grandparents. Students take required courses in English, math, science, and social studies, electives in career-technical education and the arts. They change what they do every 50 minutes in response to a bell, and work with 5-6 different supervisors and work groups a day. Thus, although our students have changed (more ethnically diverse, more with limited English, more from single parent homes, more foreign born, etc.) and educational technologies have changed, our curricula really haven’t. Is it any wonder why academic achievement has stagnated?

School funding. School funding per student has easily outpaced inflation over the last 25 years. However, since the recent economic downturn the rate of growth of school spending has notably slowed. While state tax revenues are beginning to climb back to pre-downturn levels, school costs have risen, also–health insurance, energy and retirement costs and the number of more costly to educate students in special education. Schools looking for places to cut all too often select the more expensive career-technical or applied courses.

The latest school reform, of course, is the federal No Child Left Behind Act, that emphasizes accountability for academic achievement. Unfortunately, too many schools interpret this as simply giving more students more academics taught the same old way. What the educational establishment hasn’t yet gotten—and to be fair neither has the public—is that one of the best ways to miss excellence in academic subjects is to teach them to the exclusion of applied subjects (e.g. health careers, engineering and technology, business, etc.), and for that matter, to the exclusion of art, music, physical education and dance. Our schools need to replace such mindless, linear thinking with whole child thinking that integrates minds and bodies, academic disciplines, multiple types of intelligence – in other words, our beings–with the way the world really is.

Getting “whole” means school re-organization and the re-education of our teachers. Re-organization means smaller schools or schools within schools, usually around a theme (career theme, expressive arts, etc.), and where the children would become involved in more work-related and community-oriented projects. High schools somehow will have to develop more systemic relations with employers. Regardless of the grade level, school days may well have to become longer to accommodate the desired integration of disciplines and opportunities for applied, practical, “mind-hand” learning.

Assuming they know their subjects, teacher re-education starts with learning how to team with other teachers to integrate disciplines or subjects and to develop practical, hands-on activities that enable students to apply what they are discovering.

American education has long known how to do this. But the public has to give our schools the push to update this holistic approach to accommodate today’s students, technology and management methods. The answer is not simply to add back more applied subjects, but to integrate applied, hands-on learning with academic learning and to ensure that students have opportunities to learn with all their senses and faculties. The result will be a renewed supply of “tinkerers” or “scholar-doers” like Vivien Thomas who will help invent the future for us all.

Dr. Barry Stern is an educational and workforce development consultant in Round Hill.VA. He formerly directed policy and planning for the Michigan Department of Career Development and Macomb Community College. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.


David Gergen Interview With Frank Wilson, Unedited transcript as recorded on the air from KQED, San Francisco, An Excerpt From The News Hour With Jim Lehrer, Thursday, December 31, 1998.

Debakey, Michael M.D. “Heart and Soul,” Time Bonus Section, As told to Michelle Lodge, August 2004.

National Assessment of Vocational Education, U.S. Department of Education, 1999 and 2004.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.