Apprenticeships as a Style of Learning

By Jonathan Gastel- Principal at Cogdel School Chengdu, China

Apprenticeships- the third step in vocational education- exist in part because much of knowledge needs to be learned by observation and imitation; apprenticeships are defined by that style of learning. We often experience a future career by working with experts in the field- usually at their place of work – but not always. Primary and middle school students can learn from apprenticeships, just like they learn from their parents at home, through modelling and guided practice. At this age, apprenticeships occur inside the school, usually lasting ½ day, and involve generous professionals – a baker joins the school to help students learn to make bread, a writer or publisher helps them learn to write a story or make a book, or a wild-life biologist helps them to learn to count the species of a particular plant or animal on campus. Many teachers can make these types of apprenticeship learning opportunities themselves by modelling skills learned from hobbies and prior professional experience. This modelling is worthwhile, but the students often do not respond the same way as to an outsider who we deliberately build up prior to their arrival. It is important to emphasize that, for educators, apprenticeships at any age are not about the location where they occur, but about the style of learning they encourage which is experiential, observational, and Imitational.

Even after the age of 16, there are, unfortunately, barriers to implementing an off-site apprenticeship program. The first challenge is helping the student decide what they want to do; something they find difficult even with prior exposure and various vocational activities. Once the student has decided what type of apprenticeship experience they want, the next challenge is helping the student find a specific experience that will provide enough supervision and independence to help them mature in their ideas for their future. Here the big headaches begin, with few workplaces willing to help, in part because they are busy and worried about a bad outcome; real concerns which the school needs to address. As evidence of the imbalance between demand and supply, both in the USA and China, companies and mentors have begun charging families large sums for students to join their internship/apprenticeship experiences.  They knowingly suggest the apprenticeship will be valuable for college admission because of the confidence in career direction that such an experience provides. However, once the tradition of high school internships or apprenticeships has been established in a region,  the supply expands, albeit never enough.

There are a few things that a school can do to help cultivate free apprenticeship opportunities for their students and remove the barriers. First, the school can appoint a “point person” to represent the school so the organizations have someone to contact both to create the opportunity and to reassure the company that there is someone at the school to help manage the student to prevent problems or if there is an issue. This apprenticeship office – which is usually just the guidance office- accumulates opportunities everywhere they can, by: writing to local businesses, finding parents who could make opportunities, and forming organizational partnerships – a big social calendar helps. Since students can get credit for the experience, it seems reasonable that the school can in some way pay back the mentor for the time spent; but in my experience the rate of return would not make a significant difference for most quality mentors, and even worse changes the quality of the relationship.  However, there are vocational experiences for which the mentor can be compensated fairly, and I will discuss them in another post.

No matter what the school apprenticeship office does to build up the list of possibilities each year, when the student decides on what they want, they will often find that absolutely no opportunities on the office list match their wishes. The teacher, parents, and student then often have to work together to reshape the interest towards something the school can make possible. At first this failure to find a match seems really important and discouraging to the student, but after having seen thousands of students progress, I can assure you, the reshaping process is usually successful and in the end the student rarely remembers the initial difficulty. When new apprenticeship opportunities are found, the apprenticeship office has the burden of visiting the site and meeting with the mentors to make sure the experience will be safe, positive, and worthwhile for the student. These visits can include an inspection of the physical space, conversations with the owner, and training a mentor to provide encouraging feedback to the student – something many people do not do naturally.

Isolated apprenticeships by themselves are often correctly criticized because they rarely result in deep enough learning experiences. The student is often poorly prepared to take advantage of the workplace; before they begin, learning most be potentiated before the apprenticeship begins. For some students, the most important thing is to make it clear what the expectations of the apprenticeship are; for example, how they need to dress and behave to encourage the workers around them to teach them. However, beyond this, they need to be introduced to the field before they begin. What do people really do in this kind of business or profession? Can we find some videos or websites that might get the student acquainted with this type of workplace or career? Can we try to understand the equipment we might see or the different offices and functions likely encountered? Beyond simply answering questions through queries, students might need an academic boost in the field central to the apprenticeship: such as in the business of banking, technology or healthcare. Going on an apprenticeship is an exciting opportunity, it takes so much energy on behalf of everyone to set it up; everyone associated with the student should use it as a motivational enhancer to drive additional relevant academic learning and communication.

The better prepared the student is, before the apprenticeship begins, the more they can understand once they arrive, and the more questions they can get answered from the staff or from observation once started. Future apprentices also need time, before they start, to reflect on what they hope to get out of the experience to ensure that the administrator, business owner, and themselves are all clear on expectations before the internship or apprenticeship begins. All of this means that at the end of apprenticeship, the student will learn enough to make a decision. Without this pre-apprenticeship training, learning within workplace is too slow.  Even very smart, but unprepared, students struggle to get much out of their mentor or the workplace involvement in the few weeks or months provided.

Some of the best internships or apprenticeships actually eliminate a possible career from consideration. “Oh I liked the idea of working in the hospital but I found I don’t really like helping sick people that much.” better to learn that now than in the middle of a nursing course. Negative knowledge is important knowledge to acquire as long as it is not site specific.  Every administrator feels badly when the apprentice and mentor simply don’t get along. It is very hard to undo the impact of random negative experiences that have nothing to do with the general career path. The coordinator can counteract some of the negative impact by reframing the experience, through group discussion and exchange of experiences.  At the end, the student needs to have time to reflect on what they learned and how they can use the information; in particular they need to form a plan on what to do next to continue their development.

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2 thoughts on “<strong> Apprenticeships as a Style of Learning </strong>”

  1. thank you Jonathan, I thought apprenticeships ( I also was not know familiar with this word) and the CAS diploma had more in common, but after reading your article I realised I was completely wrong, because the programmes differ in their nature, focus, structure and outcomes. Apprenticeships are vocational programmes focused on developing specific skills for employment, while the CAS programme focuses on experiential learning and personal growth within the IB diploma. Both pathways offer valuable opportunities for students, but are designed to meet different educational and career goals.

  2. Hi Jonathan, thank you for your post! I have a question, it’s the first time I hear the apprenticeships, I wonder if there are any connections between apprenticeship and internship?

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