Apprenticeship is back in the news. What England needs, Vince Cable the new Business Secretary said on The Today Programme, is many more apprentices… men and women whose studies combine the theoretical with the applied.
What Cable and others struggle to explain is that a person who has spent time as an apprentice has something which is more than simply the sum of time spent in a classroom with time spent out ‘on the job.’ A successful apprenticeship means more than that. Serving time with a real professional craftsman gives an apprentice something which the ancient Greeks called ‘gumption’ – an informed, shrewd, spirited resourcefulness. To an apprentice gumption is critically important because in all things – be it the building of a ship, a company or a national constitution – the ‘devil is always in the detail.’ If balked by a problem in one area, they back off, reassess the situation, and come at it from another way. It is people with gumption that get things done. England is in desperate need of people with gumption.
Recently, the English understanding of apprenticeship has been distorted in two ways. Alan Sugar’s highly acclaimed TV show The Apprentice over-emphasised this as the skill of the entrepreneur, the key to financial success. At the other extreme popular culture dismisses apprenticeship as a low-level form of training for plumbers, carpenters or electricians. Both are simplistic.
In recent years cognitive scientists, synthesising neurobiological and biomedical research so as to understand just how the brain works, see in the processes involved in apprenticeship something which is extraordinarily ancient (‘ancient’ in the sense of a million or so years of genetically transmitted neural adaptations that create a predisposition to work/think in particular ways). These processes are so well engrained in the structure of the brain, that scientists have coined the phrase “Cognitive Apprenticeship.” Very simply, none of us learn something simply by being told to learn it. We learn something because (a) we see somebody do something that we would like to do. We are then helped to do this (b) when that person is able to break the task down into manageable subunits each of which we can take time to practice. Such a sensitive mentor/teacher gives each of us temporary support (c) as we struggle to perfect the subtask. Then as we start putting the bits together (d) the wise mentor slowly withdraws such external support leaving us to do more and more for ourselves. Finally, (e) as with any apprenticeship, youngsters talk a lot as they pool their expertise. Learning is essentially a shared, collaborative activity.
Vince Cable is right to stress the importance of apprenticeship. The Coalition, if it is to achieve the radical transformation of English society for which it strides, has to realise that cognitive apprenticeship has a massive significance in almost all aspects of public life. Mr Gove, for instance, has to put his energies behind pedagogic chance if he is to create children with a sense of spirited resourcefulness, and Mr Cameron has to remember that the best MPs are those who earlier earned their spurs, not in financial services, lobbying, marketing or television, but in the cut-and-thrust of local government. Parliament is at its least effective when it is full of Members who have no personal experience of implementing its prescriptions at a local level for it is on the effectiveness of how individual councillors and members of society deal with the devilishly tricky detail that democracy depends.
In facing the challenges posed by cognitive apprenticeship the Coalition’s attempt to balance free-market principles with community responsibility and resourcefulness, it will face its greatest challenge in its attempt to build a more dynamic civil society.