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How apprenticeships can lead to deeper learning


Posts on explore: 

DEEP LEARNING: How we might renovate our instructional approach and achieve for preK-12 teachers and students a wholesale transition to 21st century teaching and learning

QUALITY LEADERSHIP: How we might apply the best aspects from the public, private, and charter sectors to make U.S. public schools and districts the best in the world; or 

LIVING FAITH: Intersections of faith and public life, so that we might "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).

How apprenticeships can lead to deeper learning

Tyler Thigpen

When’s the last time you had a chance to participate in a meaningful apprenticeship? 

Not long ago my wife Joy welcomed a new apprentice, Emma, to join her in making beautiful environments. Emma comes from Maryland via France and she brings her own learning goals and plans to work closely with Joy over the next ten months.

I shot them both an email this morning after reading, serendipitously, this seminal piece on apprenticeships and deep learning: The Means to Grow Up by Robert Halpern.

Reading the book provoked me: How can we achieve apprenticeship-like opportunities for PreK-12 students in the U.S.? How can “production as curriculum” increasingly become the norm?

Halpern argues “there are correspondences with apprenticeship in almost every dimension of good learning environments.” Specifically, he argues, apprenticeship fits nicely into a teaching and learning framework that includes multiple components. 

The following are the critical components of a meaningful apprenticeship

The first component is task structure, or what the apprentice actually does:

  • The apprentice must first identify key sections and determine dimensions of key tasks.
  • As it is with deeper learning environments, apprentices face open-ended problems and shifting variables.
  • Tasks are characterized by real-world realities and limitations.
  • “Tasks in apprenticeship have a sense of intentionality.”
  • Tasks often require use of the whole self, different senses, physical and emotional as well as cognitive skills.

Next, Halpern envisions “production as curriculum.” That is, the curriculum in apprenticeship is embodied largely in the work, in the skills, practices, and products of that work.

Then comes the role of experience. Learning for the apprentice occurs through trial and error, practice and repetition, and “increasingly close approximation.”

As much as we don't like tests, there is a place for organic assessment, which comes after experience. Assessment in apprenticeship focuses on practice and the products of that practice like plans, corrections, working notes, ledgers, drafts, dead ends, unfinished works, and new iterations. Assessment is often instructional rather than summative, meaning it usually takes the form of feedback pointing out elements that might need more work or correcting errors.

Next Halpern explores the role of setting, or where a particular discipline, craft, or art form is actually practiced. “Just as learning and producing are interwoven," he says, "the learning environment is embedded within-for all practical purposes is-the production environment.” Good apprenticeship settings will include the materials that define and advance the work.

In terms or tone, Halpern recognizes that the climate in apprenticeship settings varies but is typically serious, somewhat intense, but not tense.

Lastly, and here’s some gold, Halpern lists a series of critical mentor moves that foster rich apprenticeships. In no particular order, the moves are: 

  • Teaching in apprenticeship, typically, involves generous instruction, correction, and assistance at the outset, declining as apprentices gain proficiency.
  • The teacher or mentor is more active early on in structuring learning tasks
  • For more experienced apprentices, the teacher's focus shifts to encouraging self-initiative, introducing qualitative dimensions of a field, fostering professionalism and identity.
  • Teachers or mentors begin to discuss the subtleties of work in a field
  • Teaching by walking around
  • Some instruction takes the form of feedback as the apprentice works on a task.
  • Both teaching and feedback may take the form of demonstration
  • Teachers or mentors direct apprentices' attention to particular dimensions of a task, process, or product
  • Being an “experienced collaborator”
  • The adult sometimes acts as an "experienced collaborator" 
  • Teachers or mentors use their own work as examples. 
  • Teachers or mentors share their aesthetic with youth, which may serve as youths' own initial aesthetic.
  • Teachers or mentors will discuss what it is like to work as a professional in the discipline at hand. 
  • Teachers or mentors may also connect apprentices to the tradition in which they are working, for example, a group of lamp-making apprentices working in the arts and crafts style learn about and visit houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Apprenticeship is deeply personal for me. When I graduated college, my first employer let me live in his basement rent-free so that, via proximity, I could learn his trade. And I did. 

And three and 1/2 years after moving in, I married his daughter, too. Which is another win. 

And another story altogether.