Friday, March 07, 2014

Teens as Students - Expanded

I am seeing a trend in messages coming in related to my ongoing series of weekend training courses.
This is parents, acting as agents for their basically 'young adult' children. 
Combined with a trend for people not to bother reading the (extensive!) information already detailed on the web site.
An increasing element is parents attempting to find alternatives to standard education for individuals with some element of a learning disability. Not realizing (perhaps through lack of their own knowledge) how difficult a task blacksmithing can be, and how complex the working environment actually is.

'For the Record...'

Blacksmithing - Teens as Students

"... My 14 year old son / daughter is keen to learn how to do blacksmithing.  Are your classes or private lessons open to teens?..."

I am getting an increasing number of e-mail messages like this one. Often enough that I feel I need to create a 'standard reply' to the question. My concerns in accepting students younger than 16  is based on my own (considerable) experience - both working and teaching.

I now require all parents indicate they have read this commentary.

My response question is : 'How physically robust and developed and how mentally mature is the young person.'

I normally set 16 as the lower limit for a potential student in blacksmithing. This is primarily since below that age - with boys especially, the possible range of size, strength and co-ordination is so wide.

The tools required to undertake any effective work at the forge are a minimum of 800 gms / about 1 1/2 lbs. The student MUST be able to not only move this weight - but more importantly be able to CONTROL the tool in motion. Now consider the amount of repetition required - the course extends over a 8 hour day. About 50 - 60% of that time is applied to direct forge work.
As a comparison, the basic forging hammer is somewhat heavier than a standard nail driving hammer. The degree of control required is considerably greater.
For several of the basic forging exercises, use of an even heavier 1000 gm hammer is required (making tongs).

I am quite concerned about the effect of the kind of high impact physical activities that blacksmithing requires on the body. For that reason, I devote considerable attention not only to related safety concerns, but also to physical dynamics. Using a forging hammer correctly and effectively is not like driving nails. Individual body size, strength and proportions will effect what determines the most effective - and safe - working pattern for each student.

A number of concerns apply most specifically to teen aged students.

The truth is that teen agers are by definition still growing and maturing. This effects raw strength, physical coordination, bone and joint solidity, attention span, potential frustration level.

As a blacksmith works, all these factors combine to produce physical strain.  As someone who is light framed (ie - not that strong) myself, I know that joints and tendons are cushioned by  the muscles. Younger joints and bones are not as strong to begin with, and when there is less muscle mass supporting the underlying structure simple fatigue can result in potential injuries.

What happens is that someone attempting to use a hammer too heavy for their effective control will instinctively hold the handle with a tighter grip. This in turn tightens the tendons. As fatigue mounts, the likely hood of the hammer head striking slightly off angle increases. If this happens, the hammer suddenly will rotate, the firm grip transferring the rotation into the arm and rigid tendons. The potential exists to physically damage these tendons at the elbow. Tendon damage is basically forever.

There is  often a problem with  less mature students with simple frustration. Without ability to manage the hammer weight - effectively - it will just take too long to finish the various forming tasks during the day. Also, there is a noticeable tendency to keep working well past the point where the student is obviously too tired to continue. The very control required for effective work, and more importantly to prevent physical injury, has long been lost. I obviously watch for this with all students, but it can be very difficult to convince even an adult student that they stop working during a paid program. As you might expect, I try to keep the instruction paced to the group average. Any given course may not get through the entire outline as posted - it all depends on the work speed of the group.

I have had boys as young as 14 as students before who have been successful with the work in the course. Mind you - these have been the 'built like a football player' type of early developed young men. (In some cases notably larger and stronger than I am!) I should also point out that teen aged GIRLS physically and mentally mature at a younger age, although raw strength may be more of a consideration.
One other possibility is to accept a parent and student working as a team. I will not charge extra for this - only one work station will be provided, which will be shared between the two. Ideally this allows the younger student to do as much work as they are able, with the parent assisting on heavier physical tasks. Work will be limited to the use of a gas forge only (due to space constraints around the coal forge).

So I am willing to accept a younger student - with the clear understanding that the PARENT is knowingly accepting the greater possibility of a less successful completion of the course outline. An important consideration must be the legal liability concerns in involving any individual under the 'legal adult' age of 18 in what is a potentially risky undertaking. Most importantly the parent must clearly understand the risks related to the activities and take * full responsibility * for any possible injuries that may occur.

Increasingly, I am being asked to accept younger students who are having trouble with normal academic studies. Individuals with learning disabilities may not be suited to the complexities involved within the working environment of the blacksmith shop. There is usually lack of understanding how technically demanding effective blacksmithing work actually is. New students will need to undertake at least FIVE new physical elements SIMILATANIOUSLY to work effectively. Ideally the individual must also be able to visualize often complex shapes and sequences.

My normal teaching technique involves the flowling steps : • A quick verbal description of the forging step, illustrated with a completed sample
• A slow physical demonstration of exercise, providing details of position, motion, expected results.
• A second repeat demonstration, undertaken at 'normal working speed', indicating primary elements
• A quick verbal review of the exercise, indicating possible problems
• A project card is available for individuals to refer to, with both illustrations and point form list of the main elements
• The individual student will then undertake the indicated forming task. Every attempt is made to provide direct supervision, both in terms of of reminders, suggestions, corrections as required.

Although this may seem harsh, I am not able to provide specialized training or extensive personal instruction much beyond that sequence, within the framework of a regularly scheduled training program. Please remember that these courses are *group* situations, and the pace and delivery methods utilized must balance the needs of the group as a whole, not a single individual. As each course progresses, each builds new skills on those previously undertaken, and students must increasingly be able to work independently.

Blacksmithing does require full physical abilities. Although it might prove possible to design speciallized equipment to allow those with certain physical disabilities to participate, I personally am not willing to undertake this kind of extensive (and expensive) modifications to the Wareham Forge or its facilities. Note that the workshop is most definately *not* 'wheelchair friendly' (dirt floors, uneven floor surfaces).

I am willing to discuss the possibility of designing a 'Private Session' program for individual students who have specialized teaching needs.


Diane Harper said...

I think those are generally fair rules, but you might want to allow some space for a discussion around learning disabilities. Parents may be turning to you because they know that their child is a kinesthetic learner who would thrive if given the five step learning opportunity you lay out, though they struggle in academic classes.

the Wareham Forge said...

Diane - and all:

Diane makes an important - and difficult point. What does anyone mean when they say 'learning disability'?
I had a situation last year which was one of several which prompted this addition to the course information. This was a young male, about 18, who could not remember two individual parts of a multi-step forming process. 'Hold the bar here on the anvil' / Move the hammer in this position / ... / er, how did I need to hold my body? / um, how was I holding the bar? / ... um, what was it that was the intended effect? / ... dah, what colour was that metal supposed to be?
This is NOT as simple as kinesthetic over academic. Something that simple, the long sequence of demonstration, expaination, and repetition I always use, plus the individual observation and guidance, all should certainly provide for.
There is an edge here beyond which I am not willing to provide.
I know that some parents will find my details and requirements almost insulting. I'd be *very* happy on any advise on how effectively to communicate my limits as an instructor - especially when working in a group setting primarily comprised by adults. (One suggestion I got was to run a 'Teens Only' course??)

Denton said...

On the age thing and repetitive motions, my wife is a pediatrician and we have had the discussion about drills used in martial arts. She said the medical literature suggests that repetitive motions need to wait until the joints are fully formed if we don't want to cause deformation and damage. Her comment was 16 at a minimum to be sure everything is grown. Even today, work people do life long shows up as changed in the bones.


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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