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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

What Happened to Apprenticeship Learning? DAY 72

In the last post we discussed the concept of the teachers as a ’pedagogue’, referring to the slaves who in

ancient Greece would take boys to school. In this post we are exploring the concept of ’mastering’ or ’apprenticeship’ as a tradition that is slowly but surely is disappearing from the education system and we will discuss the consequence of this development.

In Spanish the word ’Maestro’ means ’teacher’. Germanic languages use the word ’Mester’ or ’Meister’ learning’ referring to learning within an apprenticeship. Interestingly enough, the word ’apprentice’ comes from the Latin word  ‘apprehendere’ that literally means ‘to seize’.

A master in the context of this discussion is someone who has mastered a skill or a field of expertise and who is now teaching by example to someone who is inexperienced within the particular field or craft the master is teaching. This is the basic principle of apprenticeship. It is an old tradition where especially crafts are passed down from skilled elders to the younger members of society. In the past, apprenticeships functioned as an imperative part of ensuring that skills weren’t lost from one generation to the next, especially in times before the mass publication of the written word.

Many fields of craftsmanship still use apprenticeships such as within arts and in many vocational fields, but these positions are becoming more and more rare as education increasingly rely on literary forms of transferring information. One of the consequences of this development is that illiterate people and people with learning disabilities who previously could have found work within vocational fields, now have great difficulties finding work because even the simplest jobs now require a certain standard of literary. The reason for this is the aforementioned transition from apprenticeship based learning to a focus on literacy where for example a prospect mechanic now have to rely more on books than on being showed how to repair a car from a skilled mechanic. Now – there is nothing wrong about wanting people to be able to read and write, and it is certainly practical to have written manuals instead of relying solely on a master-apprentice based learning process. However at the same time, innumerable studies have shown that most people learn best from physically working with a problem or task rather than simply reading about it or working with it only on a theoretical level.  As Aristotle so famously said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

So why is apprenticeship based learning taking a back seat to more theoretical forms of learning?

One of the reasons is that the global society is moving more and more towards a ‘knowledge economy’ that relies on intellectual capital, abstract information and complex analyses with the purposes of for example managing society more effectively and create profit optimization. This is obviously happening juxtaposed with a transition to more digital forms of communication where interaction happens in a virtual rather than a physical space.

Apprenticeship learning has its limits in the context that we can only be in one place at once. When an apprentice or student learn from a ‘master’ in a particular field, they are bound to the laws of physics in that physical training and labor can only happen as fast as we are physically able to learn and manufacture products. An apprentice also seldom has the opportunity to travel around the world and learn from various skilled experts in their field and is most often limited to train under only one or a couple of masters. With theoretical learning there is a greater sense of flexibility through which the student can almost virtually ‘travel in space and time’ through reading historical books or gather information from many different sources across the world.

As such, there is a value in learning through abstract and theoretical sources of information because it has the possibility of speeding up and expanding one’s learning process – which is also what we are seeing with the development of the knowledge economy, where we for example through technology more rapidly are able to develop new solutions.

But what should and could have been a ‘healthy balance’ between physical and theoretical learning based on an understanding and appreciation of the unique value of and interdependence of the two forms of learning, the theoretical has now become dominant within the global society.

We are witnessing a diminishment and down prioritization of physical forms of learning (such as through apprenticeships) where more theoretical forms of learning are seen as more valuable and attractive. This obviously isn’t anything new, but the consequences of this development are becoming more evident and devastating, not only for people but certainly also for the environment, the animal and plant life on the planet.

On February 27 2014, The British newspaper The Daily Mirror published an article on the lack of apprenticeships where they referred to a study on apprenticeships that revealed that “only 6.6 per cent of young people aged 16 to 24 were in training schemes – one of the lowest levels in western countries. At the same time 54 per cent of school leavers said they would like to take up an apprenticeship but could not get a place.” (Source: )

As such there is a distinct incongruence between what is recommended by schools and the educational community in general and what priorities held, not only by corporations who obviously focuses on profit-optimization more than anything else, but also by governments who seems focus more on getting students into universities in order to compete in the global race for the knowledge economy, rather than actually securing employment for their citizens.

Another (albeit more cynical) explanation for why apprenticeships are being down prioritized is that governments and corporations are increasingly off-shoring physical labor to other countries, leaving few jobs available within the fields of manual labor for the countries own citizens.

Just like all roads lead to Rome, all failures and flaws within the education system leads back to a prioritization of money over life. Apprenticeship learning is important in so many ways, not only within vocational fields but also in theoretical fields and sciences. When apprenticeships disappear we are left with manuals and standards often written by people who aren’t even working in the field they are writing instructions for. And I am sure many of us can relate to the experience of coming out of the university-bubble and onto the job-market only to realize that most of what we’ve learned is entirely redundant in practical reality and that most of the things we are now required to do, are things we never learned in school and that we now have to start over with learning basic skills such as interacting and collaborating with others and solving problems in unexpected situations. There are so many things we can only learn once we start working with it on a practical level and the fact that we have neglected this side of education is indicative of the problems we are collectively facing in the world. Let me give an example: It is difficult to for example create standards about teaching or childcare or even to theorize about educational environments and material. Because each moment and each student is unique and if we as teachers enter the class room distanced from the actual physical space we are occupying, lost in some mental head-space of theorizing about child development and didactic methods, we stop being authentic, we stop being real, and we stop being able to see the real human beings standing in front of us, not to mention the ability to unconditionally asses a situation within the context of a unique moment. And as a result, what happens? Children become distant and start preferring virtual spaces and fantastical realms embedded within games and movies because the reality they are faced with presented to them by teachers and parents isn’t real, isn’t authentic and doesn’t in fact see them.

It is important to consider that education and learning isn’t only about integrating and being able to juggle abstract and complex theoretical information in one’s mind. Most importantly, education is about becoming effective at living in the world as well as being able to make effective decisions in one’s own life and in co-existing with others. When we focus so much on the theoretical aspect of life, we distance ourselves from the practical physical reality – with one of the most alarming consequences being children who grow up to become apathetic, passive and unequipped at effectively directing their own lives.

Mastering skills of any kind requires people leading by examples where children get to learn by doing and are shown on a practical level how to effectively solve problems. This is one of the basic foundations of the apprenticeship principle and the fact that physical and practical learning is being down prioritized shows how we are more and more distancing ourselves from the practical reality – with real life consequences where we aren’t equipped to handle natural catastrophes on a global level, but even on an individual level where we as new parents for example have little to no skills on how to effectively raise or care for a child or for example manage our personal finances effectively.

A teacher is supposed to be a master of sorts, someone who has mastered a particular skill or field of expertise and who can pass this skill and knowledge onto their students. But with standardized curricular and education policies rooted in competition for profit-optimization in the global knowledge economy, actual learning takes a backseat to the detriment of our students.  The same is the case with parents. Parents are in essence the first ‘masters’ a child encounters. Being born into this world we are novices, apprentices looking to those who came before us as examples. When these people haven’t been taught effectively, we are facing a dire situation that gets worse with each generation as the ‘blind lead the blind’ and we are left with a society of people relying on standardized manuals and ‘instinctive’ reaction patterns that they’ve got no control over because there are no one to show them how to effectively discern information or solve problems at a practical level. While the concept of apprenticeships may be relevant on certain levels within education and on other levels not, it is evident that we require people in this world who have effectively mastered the skills needed to change this world into a place that is best for all and that we each become such masters, both in our own lives and in the various fields within which we work – so that we can stand as examples to the children that are born into this world and we together can change the course (and discourse) of the world with a direction focused on making the earth the best possible habitat for all living beings. Aren’t those the first and most important skills we ought to teach ourselves?

Investigate the Proposal for a Guaranteed Living Income System – a proposal for a system that has the potential to fundamentally change the concept of ‘work’ from something that we do to survive to something that we do to support and expand ourselves to thrive and LIVE.


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