Is It Time for Apprenticeship in Core Classes?

gardenerandthecarpenter-sm-e1475697796568I just finished reading Alison Gopnik’s brand-new book “The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children” and it has my brain buzzing with ideas and questions.

Most of the thinking is around apprenticeship and the value that it brings to learning.  Humans have learned through this process of repeated trials for millennia, and it is used in many specialized classrooms like music, art, and athletics.  Yet, it’s clear we don’t do enough of it in core classes.

When I think about apprenticeship, the harsh experience of chefs on Gordan Ramsay’s reality shows always comes to mind.  Apprenticeship is often a brutal and demanding way to learn a complicated skill.  It requires the student to face the errors that they have made in real and tangible ways.  It moves the learner along slowly as they master each part of the complex task.  It demands from the student a high level of motivation.

Yet, this is not too different from the traditional grading system.  Students typical try a simpler version of the final skill and build up to the final task.  They often fail, and the best teachers give them multiple opportunities to succeed.  But, it’s the inclusion of powerful—honest—feedback and repetitive practice make this a uniquely powerful way to learn skills.

I also like the way that this ties into Dylan Wiliam’s idea that feedback should be detective work for the student.  If we give students multiple attempts and provide honest feedback in between, we are putting them in the driver’s seat of their own success.  We force them to find what was lacking in their previous attempt and correct it.  It’s the same routine as learning to play a level in a video game by playing it over and over again—dying each time—to eventually succeed.

The troubling aspect of apprenticeship for me is the idea that the teacher is a seasoned expert who alone determines whether the student has show proficiency.  While this is how education has worked in the past, it is clearly not what is needed for a future where expertise can be found in myriad places online.  We need to step away from positions of sole authority in the classroom and empower our students to assess themselves.

Can apprenticeship change learning in our schools without venerating old ideas about where knowledge comes from?