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Zen and the Art of Chainsaw Maintenance.pdf

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  • Just as Pirsig’s (Pirsig, R.M. 1974. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. William Morrow and Company, New York. 412pp.) account of his motorcycle adventure explores the dichotomy of holistic and reductionistic philosophies, so too does a short course in chainsaw safety and tree felling incorporate these seemingly disparate viewpoints into a critical thinking exercise. Students entering college often lack critical thinking skills (National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A nation at risk : the imperative for educational reform : a report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education. 65pp.). The chainsaw course described here addresses this disparity via the transmission of two types of information: subject matter and how to process that subject matter (Schafersman, S.D. 1991. An introduction to critical thinking. A web site,, accessed October 29, 2007.). The latter is the essence of critical thinking. The course has three modules taught over two days. Module one covers safety equipment and chainsaw techniques. Module two covers the disassembly and maintenance of the chainsaw. Module three allows the student to assess field conditions and integrate learned theories to safely fell trees. Over twelve hours, the student experiences authority-centered lecture, reductionistic discovery-based learning, and critical thinking. The objective is to formulate a holistic solution (felling a tree into a desired space) from integrated reductionist principles (forces and techniques). The expected outcomes for this course are a better understanding of safety and a knowledge of one’s technical limitations. I have found however, that students also develop a renewed interest in their chosen curricula, a more mature interaction with faculty, and an attitude of inquiry that permeates their continuing academic pursuits. I believe the noted changes in philosophical direction result from the combination of a uniquely interesting subject, an informal student/teacher relationship (student/teacher ratio of 3/1), and a rapid application of knowledge to confirm cause and effect. This philosophy lesson, disguised as a chainsaw safety course can be replicated under many pretexts. The keys to implementation are to find a subject of passionate interest to students, share one’s expertise, and challenge the students to find tangible solutions to real questions.
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