Today’s fast moving, technological world tends to dismiss apprenticeship either as a product of celebrity entertainment or as a trade skill for those not bright enough to go to university. How wrong we all are! My father was one of the most intelligent men I have ever met. Born a day before the start of World War I he grew up on a farm and then went on to a small Devonshire Grammar school where in the late 1920s he studied for the Higher Schools Certificate (equivalent to A-Level). His Headmaster, a man of consummate wisdom, insisted that such academic high-flying youngsters should also undertake a craft apprenticeship at the same time.
My father, during his last two years in school, was apprenticed to a retired silver-smith who taught my father so well that the silver tea service he made by the age of 18 was eventually assayed by the silver-smith’s Guild as the work of a craftsman. He then gave the tea service to the girl he eventually married, who went on to become my mother. Years later he became a clergyman, yet he was forever the craftsman; to me he was as impressive in the pulpit delivering a sermon as he was – stripped to his waist in his workshop deep in the vicarage cellar – shaping a piece of metal in his forge.
Apprenticeship was an education for an intelligent way of life, a mechanism by which young people could model themselves on socially approved adults so providing a safe passage from childhood to adulthood in psychological, social and economic ways.
Adolescents are neither children, nor adults. No longer content simply to be sat down and talked at, yet not skilled enough to earn their own livings, adolescents push to get out and experience life for themselves. In the long evolution of the human race the characteristics of adolescence ─ energy, enthusiasm, idealism, devil-may-care attitude ─ must have had an evolutionary advantage that increased a young person’s chances of survival.
Apprenticeship was an education for an intelligent way of life…providing a safe passage from childhood to adulthood in psychological, social and economic ways.
Our ancestors didn’t try to intellectualise adolescence; they simply knew intuitively how to turn it to society’s advantage. There was no room in society for a youngster who couldn’t do anything properly, and understood apprenticeship as a form of coaching, not a form of teaching. It was about stretching the youngster’s powers of reasoning. “You have got to learn to think like me, then you will come to appreciate what I’m going to do next”, said the old craftsman. It was about showing how each sub-section of a job came together to create the whole. It was full of intuitive understandings, the things difficult to quantify in a textbook. It was about getting the learner to so understand what the task was all about that he eventually developed such a level of expertise that he was no longer dependent on simply playing by the rules. Master craftsmen knew when to break a normally accepted rule so as to get an even more glorious result. You had to be good to be able to do that.
Apprenticeship took learners beyond routinised skills to a third level, a level of understanding described by cognitive scientists as ‘the zone of proximal development’. As we learn, so the theory states, we progressively achieve a higher level of understanding. It’s rather like mountaineering – as we climb the foothills so we see the mountain tops more clearly, but we may never reach the mountain top unless aided by a team of mountaineers. Apprenticeship learning involves collaboration; it’s about talking things through together and being challenged to think outside the box. Interestingly, the French word for learning is ‘apprentissage’, from the verb ‘apprendre’ – a sort of metaphorical ‘catching’ of ideas.