Learning From Masters

Brandon Busteed of Gallup made this interesting comment during a session at SXSWedu in Austin on Monday:

“Apprenticeships double the odds that you end up engaged in your work over your lifetime.”

This shouldn’t seem shocking to anyone in education, though it should give us pause. How many opportunities do we give kids to do real world work in our classrooms and schools? Busteed reported that only about 10 percent of college students get the chance real world work for real purposes over time during their tenure at university. Ten percent. I’m sure it’s way less in high school.

Yet my sense is that most people would agree that having the chance to apprentice with professionals who are engaged in work that you want to do would be a pretty great way of learning about that work. The research and writing into exactly how much of what we learn about our jobs is learned on the job is clear, and it’s compelling. The vast majority of what we learn is learned tacitly, by doing the work. Only a small portion of the explicit learning that we do (mostly in school) is retained and used in productive ways. As an educator, you know that’s true. No matter how great your pre-service program may have been, three years in you’ve most likely unlearned and relearned all most all of it.

So, once again, this is not rocket science. Real work is a boon to learning. And that by not letting kids apprentice, we are once again not “doing the right thing” for learning.

I know that’s one of my favorite phrases these days. But to put it bluntly, our efforts to get better at explicitly teaching content to kids without a real world context is a big part of our continuing effort to do the wrong thing right. And we know it.

But apparently we don’t care enough to change it.

While apprenticeship opportunities in the high school setting are growing (see Big Picture Schools as one example), they are still rare and require a major shift in most school visions and cultures in order to scale. In most schools, only a few kids have the chance to work for credit. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t provide more short-term, virtual apprenticeships within classrooms.

I know this first hand. If you’ve followed my personal story, you know that I was using the Web back in 2001 to connect kids to professional mentors who would help them with their work. My journalism students specifically each had professional journalists who were given access to their blogs so they could give feedback, answer questions, and be interviewed about life as a reporter. Was it as good as actually going out and sitting side by side, doing the work? No. But it was a step in that direction. (If you want a sense of the potentials, check out this piece in Edweek. And remember, this was 14 years ago.)

That’s even more possible today. The web can bring scientists, historians, authors, mathematicians and almost any other professional into the classroom to work with kids as individuals or as groups. And they can learn about the field and the work, and in turn, get a better sense of how they might pursue it. These types of “virtual apprenticeships” can guide kids into making better choices about colleges and majors, should they choose to go that route. Given the agency to direct their own learning within a field of study or around a question, the web can be a huge amplifier of that work for students, as long, of course, as they have the literacy to make great choices online.

Especially in these “interesting times,” don’t we want kids to “learn by doing?” According to Gallup, the benefits are clear. The technology to do it is nearly ubiquitous. What are we waiting for?

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