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Another Wright Brothers Anecdote
Another Wright Brothers Anecdote

Another Wright Brothers Anecdote

Again, from The Wright Brothers: Pioneers of American Aviation by Quentin Reynolds, published by Random House, New York, (c) 1950, renewed in 1978. In the winter of 1878 the Wright Brothers wanted a sled. Most children of the time did not have a sled purchased at a store; they had a sled built by their fathers. On pp. 6 – 10 Mr. Reynolds writes:
“Why doesn’t Father build us a sled?” Wilbur blurted out. “But Father is away, Will,” his mother said gently. “And you know how busy he is when he is at home. He has to write stories for the church paper and he has to write sermons. Now suppose we build a sled together.” Wilber laughed. “Whoever heard of anyone’s mother building a sled?” “You just wait,” his mother said. “We’ll build a better sled than Ed Sines has. Now get me a pencil and a piece of paper.” “You goin’ to build a sled out of paper?” Orville asked in amazement. “Just wait,” she repeated.
Will and Orv brought their mother a pencil and paper, and she went to the minister’s desk and found a ruler. Then she sat down at the kitchen table. “First we’ll draw a picture of the sled,” she said. “What good is a picture of a sled?” Orville asked. “Now Orville, watch Mother.” She picked up the ruler in one hand and the pencil in the other. “We want one like Ed Sines has,” Orville said. … “We’ll make this one big enough to hold three,” she said. … “Now, Ed’s sled is about a foot off the ground, isn’t it?” Orville nodded, his eyes never leaving the drawing that was taking shape. It was beginning to look like a sled now, but not like the sleds the other boys had. “You’ve made it too low,” Will said. “You want a sled that’s faster than Ed’s sled, don’t you?” His mother smiled. “Well, Ed’s sled is at least a foot high. Our sled will be lower — closer to the ground. It won’t meet so much wind resistance.” “Wind resistance?” It was the first time Wilbur had ever heard the expression. He looked blankly at his mother. “Remember the blizzard last week?” she asked. “Remember when you went out to the woodshed and the wind was so strong you could hardly walk to the shed? I told you to lean over, and on the next trip to the woodshed you did. When you came back with an armful of wood you laughed and said, ‘Mother, I leaned ‘way forward and got under the wind.’ You were closer to the ground and you were able to lessen the wind resistance. Now, the closer to the ground our sled is, the less wind resistance there will be, and the faster it will go.” “Wind resistance…wind resistance,” Wilbur repeated, and maybe the airplane was born in that moment. Certainly neither Will nor Orville Wright ever forgot that first lesson in speed. “How do you know about these things, Mother?” Wilbur asked. “You’d be suprised how much mothers know, Will.” She laughed. She didn’t tell the boys that when she was a ilttle girl at school her best subject had been arithmetic. It just came naturally to her. It was the same when she went to high school. And when she went to college, algebra and geometry were her best subjects. That was why she knew all about things like wind resistance. Finally she finished the drawing. The boys leaned over the table to look at it. This sled was going to be longer than Ed’s sled and much narrower. Ed’s sled was about three feet wide. This one looked as if it would be only half that wide. “You made it narrower,” Wilbur said shrewdly, “to make it faster. The narrower it is, the less wind resistance.” “That’s right.” His mother nodded. “Now let’s put down the exact length of the runners and the exact width of the sled.” “But that’s only a paper sled,” Orville protested. “If you get it right on paper,” she said calmly, “it’ll be right when you build it. Always remember that.”
A perfect integration of theory and practice. If you are wrong in theory, it will show by a failure in practice; if you are right in theory, it will show by success in practice — keeping in mind that you are not omniscient, but that you can be contextually certain. And this anecdote shows how to properly use “hands on activities” in education: they should be used in a conceptual context. And the way this parent talks to and teaches her children is a model for us all. Read it over and over and milk it for all you can get.

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