Apprenticeship: a very old solution to the Great Schools Crisis

Imagine students as apprentices, gathered around their mentors to learn by example and through collaboration. The idea may be ancient, but it's suited to the 21st-century student.

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The old-fashioned, forward-facing classroom should be given a proper burial.

Imagine students as apprentices, gathered around their mentors to learn by example and through collaboration. The idea may be ancient, but it's suited to the 21st-century student.

Mrs. O’Leary’s cow didn’t start the Great Chicago Fire. Yet, my father insisted this was true 100 years after Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Ahern admitted he made up the story. Such is the power of myth. 

Teachers didn’t create the Great Washington Schools Crisis, yet this myth has become the common meme of credulous legislators and school boards across our state. 

Conspiracy theories abound amongst my teaching colleagues as to who is responsible for the “blame the teacher” dogma promulgated by the current crop of state and local education pols. Some point a finger at the privatizers like the Broad Foundation, while others accuse Charter School supporters or the Alliance for Education. I’ve even heard it said that the National Education Association is behind the move to replace veteran teachers with neophytes.  

It doesn’t matter who is responsible. The entire red-herring argument is meshugas. Teachers are not guilty of creating the current education crisis, nor are administrators, parents, legislators, socio-economics, or video games (well, maybe video games).  

The blame game is all hooey.

Here is the best-kept education secret of the decade: The 20th-century classroom is dead, but nobody is willing to hold a funeral. And any of the current, misguided attempts to resurrect the system are akin to rebuilding Galloping Gertie with her original blueprints. Like the bridge, the entire system needs redesign.

Unfortunately, education pols clutch worn-out ideologies because they don’t have the nerve to admit that public schools (by design) foster passive learners, discourage productivity, and fail to teach self-discipline. Such an admission would open them up to the scorn of angry parents asking, "Why has this been going on for so long?"

The Two-fold Path is Not Working

Contemporary schools saunter along two converging pathways to ensure students meet basic educational requirements. The first relies on the direct transfer of knowledge vis-à-vis printed (and electronic) media. Schools are repositories of accumulated information organized into 13 discrete subdivisions we call a K-12 education. From one grade to the next, students get their ticket punched until, by virtue of riding the system, they graduate (or drop out).  

The other pathway to a well-rounded education is through classroom experiences. Teachers facilitate learning opportunities within a given school year based on material availability, time constraints, and professional creativity. An award-winning teacher like Rafe Esquith, willing to work 12+ hours per day, can be very successful at creating learning opportunities. However, the eight-hour workday is supposed to be the norm in this country, so don’t get your hopes up that every teacher will suddenly morph into an Esquith clone, giving up any personal life for your children. It will not happen. 

Depending on the predilections of their students (and classroom composition), effective teachers strike the appropriate balance between direct transfer of knowledge and learning opportunities.

The twofold path used to work well. In fact, it’s ancient. Imagine yourself as a 12th-century Benedictine or Buddhist Monk seated in your cold monastery studying revered texts by candlelight or butter lamp. An Abbot is forever providing you with opportunities to study and illuminate text. The leap to modern schools is not a far cry, just add heat, lights, sheetrock, and flush toilets.  

Students as Apprentices

An even older method to acquire and transfer new knowledge is the apprenticeship. Since the Middle Ages skills have been passed from master craftsman to pupil (apprentice) through the hands-on process of learning by doing. Education theorist John Dewey promoted this notion but failed to incorporate one essential element: All apprentices need a master craftsman as mentor and guide. Most skilled trades rely on this system to prepare journeymen or women for a professional life independent of the master craftsman’s tutelage. The efficacy of apprenticeships are evident anywhere humans have shaped and formed raw materials into art, machines, or useful structures. 

In 20th-century classrooms the relationship between teacher and pupil is premised on a one-way, vertical transfer of knowledge, where the supremacy of the teacher is based on learning through observation. In the learn-by-doing apprenticeship, a classroom teacher demonstrates skills by doing them with and (prepare yourselves) for the student. A teacher in the role of master craftsman shows the apprentice the correct way to do a task. It’s a mentor relationship where the act of modeling skills is the fundamental instructional tool.

Ironically, industrialized factories replaced the craft guilds in the 19th Century, which seems an appropriate metaphor for how 20th-century schools were eventually configured for educational mass production. 

Redesigning Classrooms and Teachers

We can all agree that classroom design has not changed much since monks sat cloistered, gilding holy texts. Typically, long rows of desks or personal workstations are placed in such a manner as to discourage interaction with the teacher or other students. In fact, the teacher holds the position of authority at the front of the room. Students must approach the teacher for information. Or, they are required to raise their hands, often in fear of saying something embarrassing. This hierarchical and antiquated system creates an invisible emotional barrier between student and teacher.  

In the apprenticeship classroom, large layout or library tables replace individual desks, and the central classroom focus is toward the middle of the room (or varying walls and windows). This “fishbowl” design forces teachers to actively engage students close up. At each table there is an empty space for the teacher to sit, model, and perform the same tasks as the students. Students work independently or collaboratively depending on the task. If illustrative materials are necessary to make a point, teachers can move themselves, the students, or projection units. In an ideal classroom, multiple flat-screen monitors are strategically mounted, and fed by a technologically savvy teacher, employing 21st-century visual media techniques. 

Another argument for reconfiguring classrooms is that proximity allows students to closely observe how mentors solve problems. This is the essence of apprenticeship. Contemporary teachers are imprisoned by their resources at the front of classrooms. Students, then, are compelled to focus on one visual space day after day. While some teachers will argue that this facilitates ease in classroom management, it’s a false premise. In a traditional classroom the best you can hope for from "upfront teaching" is learning by absorption — that is, as long as students are paying attention. Drifting students are the victims of featureless visual information. They have the right to be bored. 

Most teachers are guilty of proffering what I refer to as "junk lessons." We all do it. Because we are notorious pack rats, there is the tendency to dust off the same old lessons each year. The goal is noble — to address the grade-level requirements of our pupils. Nevertheless, innovation rarely hails from a filing cabinet. In fact, innovation is frequently spontaneous. To alleviate this bad habit, teachers must be paid for redesigning their curriculum to ensure it is fresh and compelling. This should be done on a three-year cycle in collaboration with colleagues. And I emphasize: The operative word is “paid.” There is no free lunch if you want to redesign schools. 

Finally, parents and teachers must address a leviathan cultural phenomenon that has finally come up and bitten us in our collective butts. For younger children we can call it “poor work habits,” and for grades 4-12 let’s view it as the “the lack of self-discipline.”

R.F. McClure said it best: ‘‘Our society’s emphasis on instant gratification may mean that young students are unable to delay gratification long enough to achieve academic competence.’’ Parents, harried with the business of survival, cannot be blamed. Nor can teachers in over-crowded classrooms. The phenomenon McClure describes is collective. We configured our world this way. Now we must fix it.  

Classrooms are the ideal place to teach delayed gratification and self-discipline. That’s the job of a competent master craftsman: He models how to perform a task and at what pace. The apprentice learns to mimic his or her teacher. Recognition is given to those students who work hard and/or master the material. There are no phony feel-good accolades dished out to build a false sense of self-esteem in struggling students — only an up-close and individualized critique of their work. But if teaching self-discipline is a classroom goal, then the learning environment must be reconfigured to teach by modeling and to promote learning by doing.

The greatest impediment to establishing apprenticeship classrooms is not cost. Washington has geared up before and we can do it again. The real obstacles are more fundamental: Most teachers, administrators, parents, and politicians hold fixed attitudes about the modern classroom as if they were encased in amber.

If you visualize a classroom in your mind, the image you will likely conjure is the viewpoint from a desk. That’s because you were learning by observing most of your academic life. In an apprenticeship, the classroom becomes a workshop where you engage with mentors in an effort to achieve mastery of your craft. Unfortunately, that image has slipped from our collective consciousness because we were all educated in factories.


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