I need your voice. Both comments and new posts are most welcomed. For a prolific blog on the same subject check out Wisdom of the Hands written by teacher, author and woodworker Doug Stowe

Touching Young LIVES

November 26th, 2016 by Richard Burman

Over the last few years I have had the privilege to visit a few Montessori pre-schools. What interests me about this method of teaching is the philosophy of Maria Montessori that children learn best through the five senses. While Montessori teaching methods could in itself be a topic for several documentaries I wanted to focus on the role of hands in a child’s development.

Along the way I met Karolyn Lamarre who had studied this method and was teaching at Inspiration Montessori . My first couple of visits was to observe and plan what I wanted to shoot. What struck me right away were the children who when you looked at them engaged in some activity you could almost see their brain working. Often they were the children who had been there for awhile and were very uninhibited using Montessori materials. The children are completely free to decide what they are going to play with at a given moment.  This encourages them to become self-motivated and consequently develop a desire to discover. I was especially interested in the really young ones as they were just starting to learn what their hands and their bodies are capable of doing. The short film I made focuses on these children. Using your hands to help learn more abstract concepts like math or language could be the subject for a future documentary.

Ode to an Industrial Designer Genius

May 15th, 2016 by Richard Burman

I’ve been kinda busy lately. I have been doing some major renovations in our house. Doing most of the work myself has meant going through a large learning curve. I have always done little projects but this is the first time taking on the complete renovations of a whole room. It has been exhilarating as I just love learning how to do things.
We also bought a cottage which doesn’t really need much renovation, fortunately or unfortunately. One very nice feature included on the property is a construction shed which was used as a shop by the previous owner. Of course I want to continue that tradition. Since I still have my small shop in the city I’ve been going to garage sales to properly equipped this new space. An industrial vacuum cleaner is one of the essentials and since I already owned one I decided to look for another of the same brand. I found a really nice one that Is a little more powerful than what I have now which is good since I plan to make quite a bit of sawdust. When I had the two vacuums opened in front of me I realized a part was missing from the unit I just bought. After a call to a very helpful employee at the company I found out what I was missing is called an “Inlet Deflector”.

When I started to research on how I could get this part I noticed that the design was different from what I had in my existing unit. When I phoned back I again got Dave and he explained to me that the new design was so you would not need to switch the direction of the deflector when you went from dry pick up to wet. With the previous design you placed the deflector pointing down for dry and in order to prevent splashing you placed it pointing up for wet. In the new design the deflector pushes the debris off to the side which works perfectly for either dry or wet. INGENIOUS!
What intrigues me about this story is how did they come up with this new design. Was it a eureka moment where someone in the middle of the night thought “We could save our customers the nuisance of changing the deflector direction by redesigning it to deflect sideways”. Or did they sit down with this objective in mind and experimented until they found the answer. I can happily say that in my history of fixing and making things I have experienced a bit of both.
I don’t know if I’ll ever find the answer but it’s been a delight imagining. It is a good reminder that using our hands and eyes teaches us things. And even better, that knowledge can come back to us as a GOOD IDEA.

Two Hands to Health

July 16th, 2015 by Richard Burman

I would like to introduce a short documentary I just completed. Tammy the Tumour was originally intended as a story about Maureen Steenhill and how playing the piano helped in her recovery from two major brain operations. It turns out other important factors also played a role in her healing.

There is something special about playing the piano in terms of the effect on the brain. Making music is in itself a healing activity. What piano has in addition is that very complex use of two hands acting independent of each other. The only other activity like that I can think of is juggling. There were two complementary studies; one in 2003 from University of Regensburg and another from Oxford University in 2009 that showed an increase in the size of the brain after learning to juggle. There are definite parallels to piano playing from what I have been reading.

Dr. Tara Gaertner is both a neuroscientist and a piano teacher. She writes a blog called Training the Musical Brain. I found in one of her postings called Hands Together some good points about whether the tradition of practicing new piano pieces using hands-separately is as effective as practicing with both hands at the same time. Apparently when we play with our left hand, our right motor cortex not only sends motor commands to our left hand, but it also sends commands to the left motor cortex, telling it not to move the right hand. And vice versa when we play with our right hand. Interhemispheric inhibition is an important mechanism to maximize the independent functioning of each hemisphere. But if we don’t practice with both hands those inhibiting signals will simply inhibit us a little too much.

Maureen has a brain that’s experienced 20 years of a growing tumour pressing on it, a second tumour, two operations and treatments of radiation. She is convinced that all this interhemispheric communication going on at the piano is helping her short term memory. I believe her and for myself who neither juggles or plays piano I have at least my french horn and DIY projects. I don’t need an MRI to tell me how these activities are keeping me healthy. If you have any personal experience or expertise on this subject please feel free to add your comments or insights below.

Maureen was treated at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. Her first operation to remove a meningioma brain tumour was July 2013. In April 2014 she had a second operation when a smaller tumour was removed. Following that she received radiation treatments. Maureen is grateful to the team at The Neuro especially her doctor and surgeon Dr. Jeffery Hall.

Let them tumble . . . they’ll learn.

May 8th, 2015 by Richard Burman

I believe that life long values like; self-confidence, creativity, curiosity, collaboration and persistence can come out of a childhood where you had opportunities to build and fix things. Reflecting on a recent story coming out of Alberta I want to add ‘judgement’ as one of those values. If you are building a large structure with Legos, for example, there is a point where you have to make a judgement of whether your structure will hold up and not fall over or collapse in the middle. The conditions for collapse can be explained by some rule of physics but it comes down to you, the builder, making a judgement of how to proceed with your design based on observation, trial and error (and of course how many bricks you have left).

A couple of weeks ago an 11-year-old boy in Calgary hopped onto his bike for a 4.8 kilometre ride to his favourite Lego store. He had $200 of his own money and was going to buy some Lego. He wanted to get more bricks for his new monster project — an eight-wheeled off-road vehicle. He had been shopping there by himself for two years. Despite the clear evidence he could safely carry-out his mission, from the store’s point of view he was under-age and needed to be detained until his father showed up.

There are a number of disturbing aspects to this story (see this CBC report for more details). Security guards and a store manager have no right to detain a person who has not committed a crime. It was not up to them to bring the father’s parenting skills into question. If the mall needed to be evacuated the boy would have just bicycled the 4.8 kilometre back home. Responsible parents are the best people to be evaluating the capabilities of their children. But what is most baffling is that the boy had been in the store on his own before and they knew him and there had never been a problem. They went for the rule book and not common sense.

Makers know quite well that you can’t totally depend on the instruction book. If you have experience building and fixing things you know that judgement is extremely important. There are very few projects where you don’t have to scratch your head deciding on how the next step should be carried out. How to balance the two boards so you can put in the second screw or else the whole thing will collapse and your first screw will snap right off. How to remedy a sewing project if your machine starts to skip stitches. If you are a maker you have to observe, experiment, adapt. I believe these are the same qualities needed to run a store.

This store policy was written by lawyers. It was to protect the company not the children. Children don’t need restrictive store policies they need opportunities. Children don’t need fearmongering, they need competences. Playing with Lego is one way they can develop skills. I think these lawyers need to get down on the floor with a big box of Legos and build something elaborate. Who knows, maybe they will learn something.

You’re AMAZING, in an AWESOME sort of way

November 10th, 2014 by Richard Burman

Don’t get me wrong, I love to receive compliments. I even fish for them sometimes; “Did you enjoy our concert?” “Did you like the stew I made?” But it really struck a chord when I read Salman Khan’s blog from the Khan Academy website. The point of the blog is to explain why he will never tell his son he is smart. He decided to praise his son not when he succeeded at things he was already good at, but when he persevered with things that he found difficult. The approach Khan Academy takes towards learning is that of the ‘growth mindset’ based on the idea that capability and intelligence can be grown through effort, struggle and failure.

Around the same time that I read this blog I was on an interesting shoot at a private school. We were filming a first grade class doing math problems. Up front, on a Smart Board, there were two groups of circles displayed. They had to replicate this layout at their desks with tokens. It was great to see hands being engaged as part of the solving process. The objective was to decide if the tokens/circles on the left side were less, equal or greater than those on the right side. One student was chosen to go up to the Smart Board and insert the appropriate mathematical symbol between the two groups. More often than not the teacher would say when the student got it right “You are AMAZING”.

I shivered a bit when I heard this. I do believe you can cause great damage when you criticize a person to the point that they see themselves as dumb and unable to do anything right. At the same time to call someone AMAZING for doing something that is quite unextraordinary can in the long run inhibit the striving to do something more difficult, something slightly beyond our reach.

How does this relate to the subject of MAKING. I firmly believe when you use your hands to make and fix things you get instant feedback. First you measure carefully, scribe a line that is perpendicular to the edge, keep your tool vertical and then saw away. When the scrap end falls and you take your final piece into what you are building and it fits, you don’t need anybody to say you’re amazing. The very tactile experience of what you just did is all the feedback you need.

The very direct feedback that comes with MAKING can also communicate that you screwed up. I had this experience recently making a device that turns an electric hand sander into an ultrasonic parts cleaner. I measured where holes should have been and then made my marks and drilled. My holes were off as I had not paid enough attention and marked them at 10.5″ instead of 10.125″. I thought I could solve my first problem by altering other measurements to compensate, but that would be more problematic. This seemingly smart decision would have left the tub sitting on top (with cleaning solution in it) very loosely secured. In the end I just bent the threaded rods and everything worked.

I would love to hear your stories of when a MAKING experience communicated something to you. Was it “Good Job!” or was it “Sorry that doesn’t work, find another way.”