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As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Apprenticeship for Life

For most of recorded history, young men trained for their trades by being apprenticed to master craftsmen. They did not go to school or college to learn.  Instead, they learned on the job.  Some professions like medicine still require internships before giving a person full authority to work on his own. The intern/apprentice is taught and guided by the master practitioner while working on the job. No other educational technique has ever proven as effective as this most ancient method.

The first master practitioners young children learn from are their parents.  Children blessed with parents who take this role seriously seem to  function better in life.  Richard Feynman, the physicist,  described how his father taught him in a book entitled. “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”  His father translated what the young child was experiencing into a  reality he  could understand.  When teaching about dinosaurs he did not  just tell him that the dinosaur is twenty-five feet high and its head is six feet across and he should memorize that.  Rather, he told the young boy what that means. “That would mean that if  he stood in our front yard, he would be tall enough to put his  head through our window.  But his head would be too wide to fit in the window.”  On a walk in the woods his father would tell him about interesting  things happening there.  He did  not  have  him memorize the names of the  birds, rather he had him observe what the birds were doing.

Feynman says he learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.  What makes this first apprenticeship so effective is the relationship between the master teacher and student.  That is ultimately what makes all apprenticeships effective.

Stephen Hamilton of Cornell University advocates an American System of Apprenticeship in a book entitled, “Apprenticeship  for Adulthood: Preparing Youth for the Future.”  This author came to the  same understanding that Feynman’s father practiced  so  well when he wrote:  “Schools are not necessarily the best places  for learning.  They are too prone to detach knowledge from its  uses, therefore  not  only  impairing motivation  but  also  ultimately distorting learning.  Beyond accumulating facts, education  means acquiring  both an understanding of how the world works  and  the ability  to learn the principles and skills required at  a  given time.”

In  West Germany apprenticeship is the predominant form of  education for upper-secondary education.  Young people from 16 to 18  years old typically serve three year  apprenticeships.   They attend  school  one or two days a week and spend the  balance  of their time learning at work.

Teachers  like  the one portrayed by Robin Williams in the film “Dead Poet’s Society” often function as master practitioners for  their  students.  These  teachers do not  just teach the students,  they immerse them in the richness of great written works whether that is  part of the curriculum or not.  The apprenticeship these teachers offer is helping the students  live a life rich in ideas.  They understand that  the  business  of education is not to gather facts, but to find a ruling passion  – something around which the students can organize their lives.

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