Assemble-it-yourself furniture embodies hand-eye-brain connection we all have

It is an important component of our human intelligence that we ought not to ignore in education.

BY THEODORA KALIKOW

One of the unexpected by-products of moving to Piper Shores and then becoming a grandparent has been furniture assembly.

It started with the under-bed storage drawers. Our cottage has only four rooms, and moving from larger houses has meant an investment in ingenious storage options. So the drawers came on Halloween — all ready for assembly. Who, me?

Turns out, I loved it. It was still warm outside, so I laid out a mat in the garage, studied all the directions, unpacked and checked off the components, and started in. I handled each piece, laid it out in what I hoped was a logical order, assembled my tools, and started talking to myself about what I thought I was doing. The first one was a challenge. The second was confirmation. By the third and fourth, I was riffing on the directions.

And then the grandson arrived. Suddenly we needed a changing table, a crib, a playpen. All these things came in kits that were now my job. (Deb assembles anything with batteries.)

This time I began on the living-room floor. Unpack and lay it all out. Find the directions. Scrutinize them. Match every piece to its picture. Handle every piece and do the same for the hardware.

On this adventure, I met the furniture fastener. This gizmo enables the stable uniting of furniture components at right angles without nails, glue or complicated joinery. There’s the bolt and its offset socket. You screw them together and it makes two pieces of wood form a solid right angle. It’s magic. I’ll bet the invention, or the innovative transfer of these fasteners from some other enterprise, has revolutionized the knockdown furniture industry. Both the under-bed drawers and the crib used these fasteners. I loved them.

But with the changing table came an unexpected challenge: the cam lock.

I had never seen or heard of a cam lock before. I now knew the principle of furniture fasteners, but not how this one worked. The day of the changing table we had no Internet. There was no one to ask and no way to look anything up. What to do?

I handled the cam lock pieces and talked to myself. How can it work? How does this little round piece fit in and grab the bolt piece and tighten it? How does the bolt get attached to the brace? Nope, that doesn’t work. Nope, that doesn’t work. Oooh, there’s a Phillips head thingie in the top, maybe it screws into this little socket in the brace here — it does! And then the two cam lock pieces attach like this! Oh, isn’t that pretty!

My verbal description today is a poor rendition of what I call the problem-solving monkey mind at work. In some way, not accessible to my consciousness, through patient handling, looking, experimenting, trying, failing, jabbering to myself and attentively waiting some more, the insight arrives.

A more sophisticated label might be the hand-eye-brain connection inherent in everyone. Every craftsperson, whether auto mechanic, artist, plumber or quilter, recognizes its value. It is an important component of our human intelligence that we ought not to ignore in education. Maria Montessori, Herbert Spencer and John Dewey are examples of those who knew this a long time ago. Heck, Aristotle did, too.

It’s the part of the human mind whose operation is triggered by new experiences and the need to solve real-world physical problems, grafted in some way to what we already know, feel and can do.

Having these insights and finding the ways forward is also full of pleasure and feelings of accomplishment, even if you don’t know quite how you did it. The results and the mastery are what matter. After you do it a few times, you know to trust yourself to do it again. It’s the interplay of theory and practice. It’s one of the principles behind applied research, internships, undergraduate research and experiential education of all types. We need to leave space for it in schooling.

P.S. to teachers of what they used to call industrial arts and/or English: the Wikipedia entries for cam locks and furniture fasteners in general are highly deficient. (I looked them up later.) Your students could create a wiki about them: history, description and use, with graphics. Maybe Wikipedia would put it up. Let me know.

Theodora J. Kalikow is interim vice chancellor and president emerita of the University of Maine System. She can be reached at kalikow@maine.edu.

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