Professor Bill Lucas reflects on the findings of City & Guilds research into craftsmanship, and what lessons can be learned across FE.
Craftsmanship is in decline today for a number of reasons.
We live in a throwaway world where being good enough has replaced doing your best, where hands are mainly used only to type on keyboards rather than make things, and where multi-tasking and short-termism are the name of the game.
In colleges and schools these societal forces are further accentuated.
There are pressures on time within some qualifications, lessening opportunities for practical craftsmanship.
And, importantly, there is insufficient understanding about the pedagogies and cultures likely to cultivate craftsmanship.
City & Guilds has published an overview of research I carried out with Dr Ellen Spencer, A practical guide to craftsmanship.
Our research shows that it is indeed possible to acquire the necessary attitudes and skills
Drawing on interviews with expert practitioners and on evidence from many decades it offers practical advice to leaders and teachers.
Unsurprisingly, we found that craftspeople do things differently.
They are passionate. They go the extra mile. They are highly attentive and often self-absorbed.
They notice things more precisely than others, set demanding personal goals are reflective and particularly enjoy giving and receiving feedback.
Three things emerged clearly from our research.
Firstly, you can learn to be a craftsman or craftswoman. Second, it’s about ‘becoming’ as well as doing. Thirdly, the culture of organisations really matters.
Clearly, it is only worth trying to teach students to develop the habits of craftsmanship if it is technically possible! Good news.
Our research shows that it is indeed possible to acquire the necessary attitudes and skills.
Best pedagogies require learners to focus on how they use their efforts, to watch their language (‘I can’t yet do this’ rather than ‘I can’t do it’) and to remain optimistic (seeing setbacks as something over which they have control).
Apprentices and students need to learn to concentrate, focus and practise, all the while tracking the development of their own expertise.
We sometimes forget that part and parcel of vocational education is the sense in which learners are learning to become, to acquire an identity associated with their vocation as they internalise its roles, responsibilities, and tacit knowledge.
Context and culture also matter hugely.
Craftsman-like behaviours are promoted when leaders model their commitment to excellence and when ‘second best’ or ‘good enough’ are never tolerated.
Such leaders value effort. They see making ‘mistakes’ (proto-types, drafts) as at least as valuable as outstanding end-products.
Learners need to be surrounded by positive role models. At every stage they need to see the value of group critique and the benefits of sharing work-in-progress.
There are many promising practices across the FE sector and the UK is proudly world class in several vocational areas.
But in a good-enough culture nothing short of a sea change in attitudes is required.
Institutions need to have policies and practices which actively reward everything which has been touched on here.
A massive development in staff’s professional capabilities is called for if we are to produce a generation of craftsmen and women.
Colleges and training providers will thrive where they work with each other to share and promote their shared expertise in craftsmanship.
Best pedagogical practices need to become second-nature in educational and work-place settings.
As one of our interviewees, Jason Holt from Holts Academy of Jewellery, put it, we are talking about nothing less than “a connection between humanity and pride and integrity and applying that in a tangible way to an object or a process or discipline or an output”.
Such a blend of attributes is already evident in pockets within the sector.
But with a more detailed understanding of the leadership and learning methods which work, the ethics of craftsmanship can be spread far and wide.