The Apprenticeship Model of Learning

Human behaviour fascinates us as much today as it did the philosophers of old.  Yet it is only recently that scientists have begun to unravel just why it is that we think as we do – and why that thinking can go badly wrong.  Drawing together the research from the bio-medical, cognitive and social sciences (something made possible within the past 20 years through functional MRI scans at one level, and theoretical studies in complexity and systems thinking at the other) it is becoming possible to detect the ‘grain’ to the individual human brain.

The structure of our brains today, rather like a cross section through the trunk of an ancient tree, are much conditioned by adaptations made in the distant past to changing environmental factors.  For example having been walking upright for some 2.5 million years human spines are still not quite adapted to being vertical (consequently we suffer from bad back problems), and we each still have an appendix though a shift in human diet a hundred thousand years or more ago should have made this organ redundant many generations back.

The survival of the human species depends on good thinking, rather than strong muscles.  It is on the ability of each new generation to learn as much as it can from its ancestors, and then to go on beyond the limitations of its parents’ thinking, that our species’ survival depends.  Just as dissecting the bone structure, muscles and nerve systems of a leopard’s legs explain why it is such a splendid hunter, so the new brain-imaging technologies make it possible to appreciate how humans have emerged to be the planet’s pre-eminent learning species.

Philosophers caught glimpses of this long ago: “I learnt most not from those who taught me but from those who talked with me,” reflected St Augustine 1,500 years ago acknowledging the interdependence of mental and emotional development.  A thousand years before that Confucius had said,

“Tell me, and I hear

Show me, and I understand

Let me do, and I learn.”

The medieval craft tradition in England required craftsmen to induct their young apprentices – be they lawyers, silversmiths, clerics or linen workers – into the ‘know-how’ of their craft.  This represented a structured progression (in a Confucian sense) from ‘telling’, to ‘showing’, then to ‘doing’ so that the apprentice could eventually demonstrate that Jack was now as good as his master.  Such apprenticeship was a mechanism by which youths could model themselves on socially approved adults and provided safe passage from childhood to adulthood in psychological, social and economic ways.”

Apprenticeship was an education for an intelligent way of life; it was a context-rich way of learning that integrated thinking and doing, theory and practice at every stage.  It was ‘hands-on’, and it was as much about the contribution that needed to be made to the common good as it was to the success of the individual.  Through constant interaction with practitioners, this enabled adolescents to learn how to become functional adults in home, community and the workplace, and do wisely and responsibly whatever it was that they would eventually have to do.  In contrast today’s classroom instruction involves an enormous amount of ‘telling’, a much smaller amount of ‘showing’, and in most instances very little ‘doing.’  In comparison to apprenticeship, classroom practices are essentially a cheap, but not very efficient, way of learning.

An Apprenticeship Model of Learning (AML) has now to apply the same principles, but in the context of modern communities.

AML is based on the understanding that, over vast periods of time, the guiding principle of our distant ancestors that empowered them to make enough good decisions to survive long enough to procreate which has, over countless generations, made us the planet’s pre-eminent learning species.  Over that vast period of time the ‘guiding principle’ of those distant ancestors (if evolutionary processes can accurately be described as such a term) has given young people the ability to select, out of a number of potential strategies, those which would be the most appropriate to solving particular tasks.  To do that children need to have learned a range of skills, and to have the ability to survey their future alternatives with a mixture of emotional and intellectual skills.

AML involves frontloading the system by providing generous resources to the youngest children so that their education can start a dynamic process whereby they are given such a mastery of a range of skills in their early years that they are progressively weaned of their de­pendence on teachers and institutions.

AML would seek to strengthen the role of the family and the community as the starting place for the apprenticeship model of learning so as to integrate young people fully into the life of a community so giving them the confidence to manage their own learning, collaborating with others as appropriate and using a range of resources and learning situations.

AML has to train teachers to so understand children’s instinctive needs that, like their col­leagues in Finland, they combine a fine subject knowledge with the wisdom to draw upon this as appropriate to take a child – as in apprenticeship – to the next level of understanding. While quality education is everything to do with teachers it is constrained by inappropriate structures of schooling.

In England that means ending the split between primary and secondary schools (and between two different ways of thinking about education); it means a revolution in teacher education, and a rebirth of the historic partnership on which a balanced edu­cation has to depend – on the interdependence of the home, the community and the school. Only when this is done will there be sufficient thoughtful, knowledgeable members of the community to restore the control of the educational process to democratically elected local representatives.