Education Opinion

Apprenticeships: A Cognitive-Science View

By Senta A. Raizen & Richard Lee Colvin — December 11, 1991 6 min read

Until recently in the United States, the idea of apprenticeships has seemed vaguely Dickensian, an outdated vocational-education practice that brought to mind images of short-pants waifs working in onerous conditions to learn a trade.

But, with American firms attempting to compete more successfully in the world economy, and educators struggling to address the needs of the roughly 50 percent of American young people who do not pursue further education directly after high school, apprenticeships have moved to the cutting edge.

Although some American businesses have “dumbed down” the workplace in response to their employees’ lack of basic skills and have cut wages and benefits, others have promoted worker training and education reform to improve productivity. Educators are attempting to better serve the needs of business, and the nation’s competitiveness drive, by finding ways to turn out non-college-bound students who are job-ready.

Common in Europe, apprenticeships are increasingly being viewed as a way of achieving both goals.

The William T. Grant Foundation on Work, Family, and Citizenship put the case this way:

“The gulf between vocational education in American secondary schools... and the realities of employment in high-paying craft occupations is wide and possibly widening. Yet, this gap is significantly narrower in West Germany, Switzerland, and Austria,” where widely available apprenticeships are often partially financed by employers. “Apprenticeship programs assist young people ... with an almost seamless passage from secondary classrooms... into full membership in trades demanding highly specialized skills,"a foundation report said.

Relying on such logic, the state of Oregon earlier this year approved an education-reform package that establishes a statewide apprenticeship program. After demonstrating a certain level of achievement in academic subjects such as math or science, sophomores are to be allowed to choose between a college- preparatory program and one of several job-training curricula in health, computer operations, or other vocational or professional programs.

From a policy perspective, combining apprenticeships with traditional schooling clearly has potential.

Properly organized, apprenticeships also have much to offer when analyzed from a cognitive-science perspective. Schooling usually concentrates on teaching students subjects, teaching them “what.” Experience, in life or on the job, teaches us “how” and “why.” Research has found that what is learned better in the context of how and why. Apprenticeships are valuable because they allow learning to occur within an understandable context and combine the learning of specialized and general skills. In addition:

  • Apprenticeship arrangements are consistent with findings about the development of expertise. The difference between an expert and a novice is often not that the expert knows more, but rather that the expert uses knowledge more effectively and is able to draw on experience.

  • Real-world problem solving does not occur in isolation. A problem, such as a nonworking copying machine, occurs in a setting that may offer clues to its solution: it may be overused, used improperly, or placed, for example, over a heating vent. Rather than resorting automatically to his or her classroom training--in other words, to academic learning--a copier technician in the real world would check the environment for such clues. Apprenticeships allow the student to see how a skilled worker uses such environmental information.

  • Knowledge is not held in isolation. Workers tend to discuss the problems they face on the job and help one another by providing examples of their own experiences. Apprenticeships allow students to see such interactions, which run contrary to standard practice in the classroom, firsthand.

Some vocational-education researchers have put forth lists of job skills--such as the ability to work in groups, communicate effectively, and solve problems--that they say students should be required to learn in addition to the traditional academic subjects in order to be job-ready upon graduation.

Such lists assume that schools already are teaching skills effectively, using present methods, and that what is needed is merely a different mix of skills.

In fact, schools have difficulty even teaching basics, often treating them as skills separate from any knowledge base or useful context. Skill training in schools is plagued by the tendency to decompose skills into their smallest parts, the assumption being that if each part of a skill is taught and learned, then the whole skill is learned. Related to that is the idea of a hierarchy of skills--that certain skills must be learned as the building blocks of more complex skills.

The whole idea of skill hierarchies, even in the basics, is being broadly re-evaluated.

For example, a study of the computation skills of children selling goods in the street markets of Recife, Brazil, found that they had picked up ways of using mathematical thinking to give change or measure quantities--but could not do similar problems with paper and pencil in the classroom. The point is not that the school learning is not important, but rather that, when solving problems in context, such as on the job, people have the capacity for greater sophistication than their formal school performance would predict.

One example of how to combine the teaching of general school-based skills with practical knowledge was devised by Thomas G. Sticht, president of Applied Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Inc., for the U.S. Navy. He designed a class aimed at teaching students with poor skills in math and reading to become electronics technicians. The usual method is to give such students remedial training in math and reading before allowing them to tackle electronics as a subject. Instead, Mr. Sticht started with what the students knew about simple electrical devices, such as flashlights, lamps, and radios, and treated them as proto-typical electrical systems. The instructor taught them to examine the equipment, think about it as a system, and understand its functions. Reading, writing, diagramming, mathematics, problem solving, and trouble-shooting were integrated into the teaching of technical knowledge.

Eventually, more and more abstract ideas about electricity were taught, always in the context of specific devices.

Such models will be useful as the specifics of apprenticeship arrangements are worked out, because organizing modern apprenticeships is not as simple as allowing students to hang around the workplace to watch what goes on.

Apprentices need the opportunity to address ill- defined problems, construct meaningful problem-solving methods, and try out multiple solutions. Apprenticeships must be more than just hands-on experience: apprentices need opportunities to collaborate with highly skilled workers who can provide guidance and explanation. Working in groups is also important, because solving problems draws on the knowledge of all the participants and allows novices to observe and understand the tasks of those who are more experienced, discuss these different roles, and perhaps even try out some of them under the guiding eye of an expert who can correct mistakes.

In addition, most jobs today are such that a novice, merely through observation, would acquire little awareness of what the expert actually does or why. Often the technology is so complex and arcane, hidden, or automated that the technician dealing with it, even if expert, is not expected to understand it, let alone explain it to someone else. Besides, most work situations rarely allow the workers enough time to make fully explicit the ways they have devised to conduct their jobs, let alone explain those routines to someone else.

Even though apprenticeships make sense according to what we know of learning and learning for work, school and work still are largely incompatible and distant cultures, with different incentive structures and goals. To incorporate apprenticeships into both realms, they each will have to be restructured to allow the modeling of authentic work experience during formal schooling and the opportunity for education at work.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Apprenticeships: A Cognitive-Science View