Communities have done young people—and themselves—a grave disservice by separating the world of learning from the world of work and its immediate concerns.


Time was, not so long ago, when young people learned about work by working, and about the community by direct participation within it. The Industrial Age, by mechanizing production and reorganizing the workplace into large factory units, effectively destroyed this pattern of life that had evolved over millennia, and that saw living, working, and learning as a single interconnected entity.

Adolescence was not then a period of confusion between childhood and adulthood; it was, in those preindustrial days, a time when the apprentice learned to become an essential part of the community. Young people were needed on a day-to-day basis, and as they worked, they learned from their elders skills part theoretical, part practical, and part intuitive. In today’s society, which habitually confuses schooling with learning, this earlier world is hard to imagine. Yet its achievements were immense.

Before Britain led the world into the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, only a minority of young people had more than two years of schooling. No hung-up youngsters these; they were not preoccupied with whether they should pursue vocational or academic careers—they were imbued with the importance of understanding the traditional skills and trusting their own judgment. They were involved and, as they worked, they sought to make themselves ever more effective and their products ever better. There was an essential interconnectedness in their activity and an underlying philosophy that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

Reaching Back to Move Forward

Having moved beyond the Industrial Age into an age of modern science and technology, we have come full circle. With the skills of modern science at our disposal, we are now able to investigate the nature of the brain as a learning mechanism, and discover how it is that human beings have emerged as the planet’s preeminent learning species. It is our intellect that gives us superiority over the higher primates, not our muscles. The human brain has evolved slowly and steadily over millions of years. The individual brain selects what it deems to be of immediate significance to itself, then acts in ways that are related to earlier experiences, enabling humankind to progress.

Our brains are at their most efficient when all the senses are stimulated and they are absorbing many new ideas. When engaged in challenging activity, the brain tolerates uncertainty and ambiguity, and delights in searching for new and novel solutions. We are, it seems, biologically designed to deal with complexity.

In preindustrial society, those who could not constructively reflect on what they were doing so that they could do things better in the future, simply went out of business. The Industrial Age changed all that and, for 100 or more years, required most people to work as complements to the machine—only basic skills were needed to ensure order and uniformity.

All this has now changed dramatically, and it continues to evolve. Few young people now anticipate a lifetime of working, as many of their parents did, as small cogs in large machines; increasing numbers expect, and welcome, the chance to work as relatively large cogs in smaller organizations that are themselves constantly changing. The skills needed for this are very different.

The need now is for people who can combine their natural, instinctive strategies for learning on the job and in collaboration with other people with a host of technical resources (Abbott 1994). Society needs many people who can offer both high-level technical skills and basic collaborative, social, problem-solving skills that have largely been discounted by the institutional educational system that grew up to support a manufacturing economy. We are all products of that educational system, and it is hard to break out of that mind-set and its immediate concerns.

Learning and Community

As we come to understand the dynamics of learning, we realize first that learning is essentially a social activity, and second, that learning relies upon knowledge construction more than knowledge transfer. Young people, moreover, are motivated by the wish to belong to groups that value a particular kind of knowledge; the act of learning draws people together around a common task.

Conventional schooling, however, has emphasized the individual, and the individual’s accumulation of abstract knowledge. It can be argued that over-schooling has removed from the family and the local community (the one-room schoolhouse) the very foundation of community existence.

Robert Sylwester (1993/1994) has suggested that we are attempting to resolve late 20th century problems with brains largely designed to function in the forest, jungles, prairies, and caves of 30,000 years ago. Adolescents need to be active. But they also need social activity around a common task to hone their sense of self.

Speaking last year on “Education for All in South Africa,” James Olivier (1994), director of South Africa’s Education Support Services Trust, elaborated on this theme:

All children have a natural aptitude for learning which frequently is not seen in school. They learn all kinds of things—good and bad—and they learn about boredom … which they don’t like. The street children of South Africa are so clever; they look after themselves. Like Mr. Dickens’ Artful Dodger, they make quite excellent pickpockets.


Olivier, who was addressing a conference in Baltimore, exhorted educators to bring some excitement to schooling:

We have to make it possible for children to help one another and to understand the significance of the right kind of relationships with adults and an appropriate morality (but no more Fagins).


As the debate about the education crisis has reverberated around the globe, two common themes are emerging. Young people, unless they are to be excluded from an active role in society, need a range of basic functional skills—numeracy, literacy, and an ability to communicate (the old competencies). But they also increasingly need a range of higher-order skills as well—the ability to synthesize, to solve problems, to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty and, especially, to be creative and personally enterprising (the new competencies).

The old competencies were largely classroom-based—they could be taught. But society does not understand how to develop these new competencies, and has allowed itself to fall into thinking that these, too, can be taught in the classroom. They most certainly can not. Instead, they largely grow from experiences of an active life, and require a far broader base than a classroom. This is where the community comes in.

The crisis in education is not solely a failure of teaching in the classroom, but the failure of the community at large to capture the imagination, involvement, and active enthusiasm of young people.

Role Models and Apprenticeship

In the late 1980s, researchers in the United Kingdom conducted a study of what would most inspire learning in young people. They surveyed groups of 17-year-olds and came up with a surprising conclusion: What the young people said they needed most was more contact with adults other than parents and teachers. As one young man said:

We know what our parents think—we have heard this many times. We are suspicious of teachers; you are paid to say what you do! But what do real adults think? After all it is into their club that we are supposed to be moving, yet we have very little idea of what matters to them and where we might fit.


Mindful of the problem that most children no longer understood what their own parents did at work, let alone what was involved in other employment, a community in northern Sweden more than a decade ago set up its Work Orientation Programme. At the age of 7, children spent a day shadowing their father at his place of work, and a day shadowing their mother at hers. They then spent two days shadowing their best friend’s parents.

So successful was this experiment that the shadowing of these adults was increased to 5 days a year by the age of 10, 10 days a year by the age of 13, and 15 days a year by the age of 16. Always this was done on a one-on-one basis, and always for direct observation, not work experience. In all, the youngsters observed for more than 20 weeks before leaving school for employment or higher education.

“Remarkably good for the young people,” I commented when first shown this scheme. “Ah, but think what it means for the adults,” responded my guide:

First, we all clean our shoes 12 times more a year than we did previously. Second, we have got used to being asked naive questions about why we do things in particular ways, which we can’t answer logically, so we have now changed quite significantly what we do. And third, there is not an adult in this community who does not now realize that the education of young people is far too important to be left to teachers alone, in schools, separated from our daily activity.


He noted that the employers had been very supportive; they saw this practice as having an excellent effect on the community.

As anyone who teaches adolescents knows, the need to look up to someone can be very strong. Charles Handy (1994) of the London Business School even suggested recently that we might add a sixth category to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, namely the need for idealization—the search for something beyond ourselves. Our ancestors knew how to exploit this need through models of apprenticeship.

Learning in Context

Writing in The American Educator, Collins and colleagues (1991) gave a fascinating analysis of the cognitive processes involved in apprenticeship. Their article, subtitled “Making Thinking Visible,” contrasts the highly explicit acquisition of skills that were the key to an apprentice’s development with the thinking and learning process in schools, which all too often is invisible to both teacher and student:

In traditional apprenticeships the expert shows the apprentice how to do a task, and then turns over more and more responsibility until the apprentice is proficient enough to accomplish the task independently.


They explained that there are four aspects to this:

  • First, the master models what he is doing.
  • Second, he provides sufficient scaffolding to support the apprentice as he learns to undertake a particular part of the task.
  • Third, he fades that support as he weans the apprentice from using any further help.
  • Finally, throughout the process, the master talks with the apprentice, coaching being regarded as a key feature of apprenticeship.


The core of the apprenticeship system was the active engagement of the apprentice in understanding what the craftsman was trying to achieve, and how the work of those engaged in sub-skills came together to create more advanced skills. Even when the apprentice was doing no more than sharpening his tools, he was aware of the reason for his actions—sharpening the saw was an intrinsic part of building the hammer beam roof of the craft’s guild hall. Learning was in context.

Craftsmen were motivated by three thoughts: (1) they wanted to be better, and therefore more successful, than other craftsmen so they had to learn to be quicker, sharper, and shrewder; (2) they wanted to be rid of basic routine tasks, but only if they could be sure that these were done properly; and (3) they wanted to ensure their survival.

By active demonstration on a “masterpiece,” the apprentices could demonstrate for all to see that they had mastered their trade. Michelangelo painted the faces in the Sistine Chapel, yet the vast majority of brush strokes you see—the heavens, the figures, and the clothes—were painted by his apprentices.

Commenting recently on a work orientation program in a British town, a father wrote:

My daughter not only gained a better understanding of what I do, but the experience has helped her to see her education in a wider context. She and I make a good team. In fact, it has helped us to form a new and different form of bond.


Said his daughter:

They really treated me as if I mattered; it was wonderful to be part of the team. I wish it could be like that more of the time. We helped each other, and that made me feel good.


She gained some insight into her father as well:

I also understand why my dad sometimes falls asleep on the settee in the evenings; he has to work very hard and lots of people want to talk to him (Education 2000, 1994).


St. Augustine is reputed to have said that he learned most not from those who taught him, but from those who talked with him. Similarly, a father who needed his son’s support as he sought to complete a complicated repair job on a piece of agricultural machinery told his son:

You can’t actually help me if you don’t first understand what I am trying to do. You have to learn to think like me; then you will understand why I have to do the job this way.

To which his son replied, “Dad, I need to ask you some questions about what you do, because one day I would like a job like yours.”

The day of the family farm or the family shop proudly proclaiming its longevity in its title—A.J. Abbott & Sons, since 1893—may be virtually over. The direct learning experience of training within the community is almost lost (as is living over the shop, as did Margaret Thatcher, or, as Napoleon suspected, as did the vast majority of the English!).

But the need to see a direct relationship between study and some form of positive outcome remains as strong as ever. Consider this exchange: The traveler stopped two men working in a quarry. “What are you doing?” asked the traveler. “I am squaring this stone,” said one. “I am building a cathedral,” replied the other. Clearly what counts is not so much what work people do, but why they think they are doing it (Caine and Caine 1991).

Modern society has done young people a grave disservice by separating the world of learning from the world of work and its immediate concerns. Interaction with ideas and the environment is critical for all young people if they are to develop a sense of personal purpose, self-esteem, and an understanding of the essential interconnectedness of all forms of human endeavor. If education and the world of work are to connect, then we have to escape from the 19th century thinking that a person’s only worthwhile learning occurs between the ages of 5 and 18, during the 20 percent of his or her waking hours spent in a classroom.

If the school and the community can link together to create, through their separate strengths and resources, a genuine learning community that is friendly to children, then the progression of young people into the world of work will be smooth, logical, and effective. As Shoshana Zuboff (1988) says in The Age of the Smart Machine, “Learning is not something which requires time out from productive activity; learning is the very heart of productive activity.”


Abbott, J.A. (1994). “Learning Makes Sense: Recreating Education for a Changing World.”Education 2000, Letchworth, England.

Caine, R.N., and G. Caine. (1991). Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Collins, A., and others. (Winter 1991). “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible.” The American Educator 15, 3: 38–46.

Education 2000. (1994). The Bury Project, Bury Grammar School for Girls. Bury, England.

Handy, C. (November 1994). Speech to a conference of the Careers Research Advice Centre, London.

Olivier, J. (December 1994). “Education for All in South Africa.” Address to a conference of the United States Coalition for Education for All, Baltimore, Maryland.

Sylwester, R. (December 1993/January 1994), “What the Biology of the Brain Tells Us about Learning.” Educational Leadership 51, 4: 46–51.

Zuboff, S. (1988). In the Age of the Smart Machine. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.