• Dr Nikki James

The art of apprenticeship

I want to start off by saying THANK YOU. Thank you for reading my words. Thank you for taking the time to encourage me. And thank you for sharing my words with others, either intentionally or by accident (Susan's colleague's, if you're reading this, thank you for joining this journey). As an introvert, it takes more courage than you know to hit send and share my internal dialogue with the world before it is fully formulated. But, if 2020 taught me anything, it is the need for authenticity over perfection and courage over fear.


Right after I finished last weeks’ blog, the phrase 'the art of apprenticeship' popped into my head. As an Australian, the concept of apprenticeship is relatively well known. After grade 10 at school, a few of my friends decided to stop taking academic classes and start apprenticeships in various trades like hairdressing, building, or plumbing. For them, their education took a turn; instead of going to school and sitting in the classroom each day, the world became their classroom. They were no longer learning the theory or formula needed to calculate how much dirt was needed to fill a hole like I was (Shout out to Ms. Mitchell's Calculus class in 1999!); they were learning it in practice. They were working alongside someone who had mastered the trade and was willing to pass it on, think Yoda, but a little taller and a little less green.


My own experience of being an ‘official’ apprentice was not in a trade or physical skill. It was in leadership. My apprenticeship started the day I decided to become a youth leader at my local church. The process was the same. I was placed under the guidance of a more experienced youth leader - my very own Yoda. She taught me not by explaining leadership theories in a classroom but by modeling good leadership, supervising me as I led, correcting me as I stumbled. And, perhaps the most important of all, exercised an unquestionable belief in me. But truth be told, I had been an apprentice many times before that. I had been an apprentice swimmer, ballerina, baker, soccer player, car driver, coffee maker, and many, many more.


Think back for a minute and consider how many times you have knowingly or not been an apprentice. Once upon a time, we were all an apprentice walker. We crawled to build up the muscles in our legs. Our parents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles held our hands so we could practice walking, despite our lack of balancing skills. Then, on the day we were ready, they stood there with open arms encouraging and WILLING us to walk on our own! And, when we did, they cheered, clapped, and celebrated, making us want to do it again!


I believe that apprenticeship is the way we are wired to learn. I'm not saying it is the only way we can learn, but it is the one we use first, long before we sit in a classroom, and probably use it long after we sit in our last classroom. If that is true, I think it is essential for us to understand what is under the hood.


What is the art and science of apprenticeship? And for those of us who are learning designers, teachers, mentors, and coaches, How do we 'apprentice' skills? Especially skills like resilience, initiative, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, decision making, innovation? How do we 'apprentice' a cognitive process like decision – making or creativity that is unseen?


Over the last six years, I've had the incredible honor and opportunity to not only examine these questions but experiment and test out my theories and hypothesis as a teacher, learning designer, researcher, technology designer, mentor, and leader. The theory is not fully formulated yet, but I do have data that backs it up, and one day I hope to present these thoughts in the academic arena. But, I am confident enough in what I am seeing to share it with others passionate about developing people like myself.


Let's start with the science of apprenticeship. I think an apprenticeship is where theory and practice intersect. To explain, let me introduce you to one of my favorite theories, The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition. The model is steeped in research; if you're interested in reading more, this paper is a good jumping-off point. In a nutshell, the model proposes that when it comes to acquiring a skill, whether it is a physical skill like kicking a soccer ball or a cognitive skill like making a decision, we go through five phases: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. If you're apprenticing a skill, you're probably at the top end of this continuum – proficient or expert.



If you look at the image, you'll note that an expert "operates in autopilot" and "knows when to break the rules," this suggests two things:


  1. That ‘the process' you learned to master the skill is so engrained that you might have forgotten there actually is a process.

  2. That you are so competent at the skill you innately know when a situation requires you to deviate from 'the process.'


If you’ve ever attempted to teach someone how to drive a car, you've probably experienced the impact of this 'autopilot' when it comes to an apprenticeship. I did, right about when I yelled STOP to prevent my friend from reversing into a ditch. Evidently, I'd forgotten to mention the vital step of looking behind you before reversing!


Unlike an expert who has: learned the process, automated the process, and, in a sense, 'forgotten' the process, a novice does not know the process. In fact, the key to transitioning a novice through advanced beginner to competence is to give them a process to follow (or, as the image says, a set of rules to follow). Essentially, the vital ingredients for a novice to become competent are:


  1. a process to follow and,

  2. opportunities to practice and build our confidence.


Mmm. Maybe that's why math textbooks give you a formula, followed by a million 'practice problems.


Some might be satisfied with that, but if you're as passionate about developing people as I am, you just asked yourself the question: "How do you get from competent to expert?" Funny you should ask; to transition from competent to expert, a few things have to happen:


  1. We have to learn when to break the rules,

  2. We have to learn to maintain our confidence in the face of increased ambiguity, complexity, and pressure.


Take kicking a soccer ball, for example; a competent soccer ball kicker can meet their mark. An expert soccer ball kicker can meet their mark with three defenders closing in, two open players, a risky shot on goal, and 10 seconds left in the championship game. Similarly, a competent decision-maker can use a structured decision-making process to identify a problem, develop multiple potential solutions, evaluate each possible solution, and make a decision. An expert decision-maker can make the same decision when the stakes are high, time is poor, and there is no 'right' answer in sight.


We can practice our way to competent, but the transformation from competent to expert happens on the field. If we genuinely want to develop our apprentices into experts, we need to:

  1. teach them a process to follow,

  2. give them opportunities to practice and,

  3. let them loose on the field with healthy doses of encouragement and feedback as required.


To me, the art of apprenticeship is not being the expert yourself; it’s not knowing the process or even how you encourage or give feedback. The art of apprenticeship is our ability to identify where our apprentices are on their journey from novice to expert and understand what they need from us to take their next step.

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