Learning by doing: the dynamics of apprenticeship

In last night’s lrnchat (a Twitter-based discussion), someone asked how apprenticeships fit into the context of social learning and informal learning.  I think of the best apprenticeships as combining planning and structure, on the one hand, with open-ended opportunity for trial-and-error.

The reality of traditional apprenticeships was that they were often time-focused rather than outcome-focused.  Indenture contracts could bind a person to a seven-year apprenticeship.  The guild controlling a particular craft had a vested interest in limiting the supply of officially qualified craftsmen.

Left to right: master, journeyman, apprenticeCollins, Brown, and Holum, in their 1991 article on cognitive apprenticeships, saw four key aspects of traditional apprenticeships:

  • Modeling: Here’s how to do it.
  • Scaffolding: Try this one first.
  • Fading: Now that one.
  • Coaching: Here’s how you did;
    here’s how you do it.

The Collins article also sees four types of content in a cognitive apprenticeship: domain knowledge (e.g., how the world of civil engineering is organized), heuristics (tacit skills of effective civil engineers), control strategies (how to choose and when to switch your approach), and learning strategies (how to deliberately get better at what you do).

Cognitive apprenticeship is not a model of teaching that gives teachers a packaged formula for instruction. Instead, it is an instructional paradigm for teaching. Cognitive apprenticeship is not a relevant model for all aspects of teaching. It does not make sense to use it to teach the rules of conjugation in French or to teach the elements of the periodic table. If the targeted goal of learning is a rote task, cognitive apprenticeship is not an appropriate model of instruction. Cognitive apprenticeship is a useful instructional paradigm when a teacher needs to teach a fairly complex task to students.

Cognitive apprenticeship does not require that the teacher permanently assume the role of the “expert”–in fact, we would imagine that the opposite should happen. Teachers need to encourage students to explore questions teachers cannot answer, to challenge solutions the “experts” have found–in short, to allow the role of “expert” and “student” to be transformed. Cognitive apprenticeship encourages the student to become the expert.

There’s a vital role for planning and organizing, though.  I see the potential neglect of that role as one of the greatest drawbacks to so-called informal learning.  If you haven’t thought carefully about a set of skills and the contexts in which someone applies them, you’re likely to emulate less-effective models–and then to solidify them.

The announcement in the image below seems to be more serious about qualifications than some of the shopping-mall ear-piercing services I’ve seen.

CC-licensed images:
Feline apprenticeship by cjc4454.
Piercing apprenticeship by dreamsjung.

4 thoughts on “Learning by doing: the dynamics of apprenticeship

  1. Dave, that’s why I love Cog App as a learning framework: it’s optimized for the important stuff. Orgs aren’t really going to be leveraging rote stuff (hint: automate), the advantages will come from getting “fairly complex” tasks wired, and helping learners become experts.

  2. Clark: I’d add that a group of expert practitioners could work up some good conceptualizations of things like:

    • Tasks clustered by difficulty (the vM&K “task classes”)
    • Procedures and sets of rules for things that are done essentially the same way (“recurrent skills”)
    • Domain descriptions and problem-solving approaches to build tacit knowledge.

    It’s a side point, but I do think that people who go on and on about how great apprenticeships were in the olden days forget the temptation for the master to use the apprentice as low-paid labor. That’s not to say don’t do this; more that telling someone to watch Old Frank, and calling that “cognitive apprenticeship,” doesn’t make it so.

  3. Dave: I work as a field representative for registered apprenticeship /State of Minnesota. I read your blog daily and learn a great deal from your posts as well as those of others. Thank you. Apprenticeship law in the US changed last year so that employers could have ( if they chose) a competency based apprenticeship using testing( performance and/or theoretical) /assessment to confirm competency. Most apprenticeship programs are also governed by ratio (journeyman to apprentice) requirements to avoid employers taking advantage of apprentices for “cheap labor”. There are many apprenticeship programs evolving in the US in occupations other that the traditional construction trades. I see informal and social learning playing a very important role in successful apprenticeship programs if the employer can make the technology and know how available for apprentices.

  4. Rich:

    Thank you for both the compliment and your well-informed contribution. As with community colleges, it sounds to me as though state apprenticeship programs are doing practical, useful work, even if it rarely grabs headlines.

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