The Oldest Play in the Book

It was when I watched a 12-year old boy come in for landing in his Cessna, proud mentor next to him in the cockpit, that I really felt the awe of apprenticeships. Here was a kid who had said, to our consternation, "I'd like to be a pilot" when we asked him what job interested him most. How on earth were we going to find a pilot willing to take on a 7th-grade apprentice? We decided to call one place, and if they turned us down as we were certain they would, we would ask the student for another, more reasonable choice. Of course, as luck has it in these situations, the first place we called put us in touch with a local flight school and the first pilot there said "sure!" when we explained the situation. It has stuck with me since that when you tell someone "I have a young person here who dreams of being like you when they grow up - would you show them what you do?", it's a compelling request.

If you imagine how education might have worked in far simpler, pre-industrial times, or even before modern civilization, it doesn't seem a stretch to think that apprenticeships were the primary method. Imagine a young person being apprenticed to learn how to hunt, how to make tools, or how to plant crops. We are wired for this -- for the hands-on experience, for the mirroring of what a more skilled person can do, for learning that rides on the carrier signal of relationship.

Today, we live in vastly different times and societies, yet that wiring is still there. Young people still develop a fascination with the work that adults do and are drawn to understand it. They still learn best when it is relational, when they have someone paying attention to them, showing them skills that generate awe ("that's amazing that you just sketched that building - how did you do it?!").

So here is, I think, one of the biggest opportunities in education today, whether as a parent or a teacher: the apprenticeship. The wiring is still there within us, just hardly used. I've had the chance to see quite a few students become apprentices, through my work at Spark and now through my students at school. I've seen kids apprentice with police officers and graphic designers, tech executives and accountants, clothing designers and architects - almost every profession I can imagine. I've seen students transform in their sense of what is possible for their futures, in their motivation, in their belief that it's worth caring about school, and in their awareness of the path one walks to find a meaningful, purposeful career. The goal is not to choose a career, it's to connect the dots. Connecting school to real life ("you really use this in your job?!"), connecting interests to applications, connecting a student to their own motivation to grow and become skilled, connecting adults to young people.

So how do you do this? Here are a few suggestions from what I've seen:

  1. Follow a student's interest: The starting point is the connection between a student's dream - "I want to be a chef!" - and the real-life chance to explore that. From this comes awe, motivation, and a sense that this is not just another adult-driven learning requirement. It also creates the draw for the mentor - asking them to give precious time is one thing, telling them that "Rachel dreams of being you when she grows up, would you be willing to show her what you do?" is a far more compelling request.
  2. Start with a lot of structure: As adults, we've probably internalized a dozen skills for being in workplaces which are not necessarily obvious to kids. Teach them clearly how to interact with their mentor, how to be in a workplace, what questions to ask (and if any are not appropriate), what to wear. The mentor and apprentice should set very clear goals and schedules together, so that the adult feels their time is being well used and the student knows what is expected of them in this new environment. As the relationship picks up momentum, the structure can be reduced.
  3. Focus on belonging first: Adolescents' most fundamental drive is to belong.  Invite them into the "tribe" of your workplace or profession with clear symbols or experiences. It may sound silly, but give them a company t-shirt or water bottle, or their own desk or workspace for the duration of the apprenticeship, even a company email account. If appropriate, they can present at a weekly staff meeting like everyone else.
  4. Produce something of value: For all apprentices but particularly middle and high schoolers, the creation of something that tangibly demonstrates their new skills makes a huge difference. I've seen culinary apprentices create elaborate gourmet meals for their extended family, architecture apprentices make accurate drawings of a dream house for their parents, and tech apprentices develop a functioning mockup of an iPhone app. All of these become proud, self-evident reminders of how far they've come. They also make an excellent end goal for "backward planning" the structure of an apprenticeship.
  5. Prioritize relationship over content: At its core, an apprenticeship is a mentorship, one that happens in the context of real work getting done and specific skills developed. In some ways this allows mentoring to proceed more smoothly, with less of a need to "make conversation" and more of the natural connection and conversation that happens when two people are working side by side. For students, the memory of the relationship will stick after the smaller details of content are forgotten.

If this sounds familiar, it's because all the ways we try to engineer optimal learning in school environments happen inherently in a good apprenticeship. Learning is social (student and mentor), emotional (connected with an area of interest or even passion), self-driven (the student chooses the apprenticeship), hands-on and in the real world (at an actual workplace), resulting in demonstrable skill or products (the culmination of the apprenticeship). I could go on. Simply put, an apprenticeship is a form of education that springs from our biology. It draws on the powerful human ability to mirror someone else, to watch them in action and absorb both specific skills and intangible mindsets. It's also a form of education that can be done for free. Now that's a good deal - worth a try for parents, educators, or students themselves to create.