apprentices 2


I am gradually working my way through Chapter 4 on different models of teaching for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’

First drafts of the following Chapters are now already published and can be accessed here:

Chapter 1: Fundamental Change in Education

Chapter 2: The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching

Chapter 3: Theories of Learning for a Digital Age

Chapter 4: Methods of Teaching

The purpose of Chapter 4 is:

  • to describe several different approaches to the design of teaching
  • to discuss the general strengths and weaknesses of each approach
  • to identify the extent to which each approach meets the needs of learners in a digital age
  • to provide a framework for considering the choice and use of new technologies for teaching in later chapters

I have already done blog posts on transmissive lectures (Why lectures are dead) and another on conversational methods of teaching (seminars, etc.).

I am now offering you my first draft on ‘Models of teaching by doing.’

Models for teaching by doing

There are a number of different models that focus on helping learners to learn by doing things, such as co-op or workplace programs, field trips or internships,usually under the supervision of more experienced mentors or instructors. Here I will touch briefly on only two, the use of laboratory classes/workshops/studios, and apprenticeship programs.

Lab or workshop teaching

Concordia wood shop 2

Today, we take almost for granted that laboratory classes are an essential part of teaching science and engineering. Workshops and studios are considered critical for many forms of trades training or the development of creative arts. Labs, workshops and studios serve a number of important functions or goals, which include:

  • to give students hands-on experience in choosing and using common scientific, engineering or trades equipment appropriately,
  • to develop motor skills in using scientific, engineering or industrial tools or creative media
  • to give students an understanding of the advantages and limitations of laboratory experiments
  • to enable students to see science, engineering or trade work ‘in action’
  • to enable students to test hypotheses or to see how well concepts, theories, procedures actually work when tested under laboratory conditions
  • to teach students how to design and/or conduct experiments
  • to enable students to design and create objects or equipment in different physical media.

An important pedagogical value of laboratory classes is that they enable students to move from the concrete (observing phenomena) to the abstract (understanding the principles or theories that are derived from the observation of phenomena). Another is that the laboratory introduces students to a critical cultural aspect of science and engineering, that all ideas need to be tested in a rigorous and particular manner for them to be considered ‘true’.

One major criticism of traditional educational labs or workshops is that they are limited in the kinds of equipment and experiences that scientists, engineers and trades people need today. As scientific, engineering and trades equipment becomes more sophisticated and expensive, it becomes increasingly difficult to provide students in schools especially but increasingly now in colleges and universities direct access to such equipment. Furthermore traditional teaching labs or workshops are capital and labour intensive and hence do not scale easily, a critical disadvantage given rapidly expanding educational demand.

Because laboratory work is such an accepted part of science teaching, it is worth remembering that teaching science through laboratory work is in historical terms a fairly recent development. In the 1860s neither Oxford nor Cambridge University were willing to teach empirical science. Thomas Huxley therefore developed a program at the Royal School of Mines (a constituent college of what is now Imperial College, of the University of London) to teach school-teachers how to teach science, including how to design laboratories for teaching experimental science to school children, a method that is still the most commonly used today, both in schools and universities.

At the same time, scientific and engineering progress since the nineteenth century has resulted in other forms of scientific testing and validation that take place outside at least the kind of ‘wet labs’ so common in schools and universities. Examples are nuclear accelerators, nanotechnology, quantum mechanics and space exploration. It is also important to be clear about the objectives of lab, workshop and studio work. There may now be other, more practical,more economic, or more powerful ways of achieving these objectives through the use of new technology, such as remote labs, simulations, and experiential learning. These will be examined in more detail in later chapters.


© BBC, 2014
© BBC, 2014

It is useful to remember that apprenticeship is not an invisible phenomenon. It has key elements: a particular way of viewing learning, specific roles and strategies for teachers and learners, and clear stages of development, whether for traditional or cognitive apprenticeship. But mostly it’s important to remember that in this perspective, one cannot learn from afar. Instead, one learns amid the engagement of participating in the authentic, dynamic and unique swirl of genuine practice.

Pratt and Johnson, 1998

Apprenticeship is a particular way of enabling students to learn by doing. It is often associated with vocational training but it should be pointed out that apprenticeship is the most common method used to train post-secondary education instructors in teaching (at least implicitly), so there is a wide range of applications for an apprenticeship approach to teaching.

A key feature of apprenticeship is that it operates in ‘situations of practice that…are frequently ill-defined and problematic, and characterized by vagueness, uncertainty and disorder‘ (Schön, 1983). Learning in apprenticeship is not just about learning to do (active learning), but also requires an understanding of the contexts in which the learning will be applied. In addition there is a social and cultural element to the learning, understanding and embedding the accepted practices, customs and values of experts in the field.

Pratt and Johnson (1998) identify the characteristics of a master practitioner, whom they define as ‘a person who has acquired a thorough knowledge of and/or is especially skilled in a particular area of practice‘. Master practitioners:

  1. possess great amounts of knowledge in their area of expertise, and are able to apply that knowledge in difficult practice settings
  2. have well-organized, readily accessible schemas (cognitive maps) which facilitate the acquisition of new information
  3. have well-developed repertoires of strategies for acquiring new knowledge, integrating and organizing their schemas, and applying their knowledge and skills in a variety of contexts….
  4. …are motivated to learn as part of the process of developing their identities in their communities of practice. They are not motivated to learn simply to reach some external performance goal or reward
  5. frequently display tacit knowledge in the form of:
    • spontaneous action and judgements
    • being unaware of having learned to do these things
    • being unable or having difficulty in describing the knowing which their actions reveal

Pratt and Johnson further distinguish two different but related forms of apprenticeship: traditional and cognitive. A traditional apprenticeship experience, based on developing a motor or manual skill, involves learning a procedure and gradually developing mastery, during which the master and learner go through several stages:

  • observation of both the master and other learners performing the same procedure: this helps provide a conceptual model for the apprentice to follow and an ‘advanced organizer for their initial attempts at performing skills’
  • modelling: explicit demonstration by the master of what to do, followed by the learner copying/practising the task
  • scaffolding: the support and feedback provided to the learner by the master as the learner works on a task
  • coaching: an overall approach of the master in choosing appropriate tasks, evaluating work and diagnosing problems.

An intellectual or cognitive apprenticeship model is somewhat different because this form of learning is less easily observable than learning motor or manual skills. Pratt and Johnson argue that in this context, master and learner must say what they are thinking during applications of knowledge and skills, and must make explicit the context in which the knowledge is being developed, because context is so critical to the way knowledge is developed and applied. Pratt and Johnson suggest five stages for cognitive and intellectual modelling (Figure 5.1, p. 99):

  1. modelling by the master and development of a mental model/schema by the learner
  2. learner approximates replication of the model with master providing support and feedback (scaffolding/coaching)
  3. learner widens the range of application of the model, with less support from master
  4. self-directed learning within the specified limits acceptable to the profession
  5. generalizing: learner and master discuss how well the model might work or would have to be adapted in a range of other possible contexts.

Pratt and Johnson provide a concrete example of how this apprenticeship model might work for a novice university professor (pp. 100-101).

The apprenticeship model of teaching can work in both face-to-face and online contexts, but if there is an online component, it usually works best in a hybrid format. For instance, Vancouver Community College in Canada offers a 13 week semester course for car body repair apprentices that delivers 10 weeks of the program online for unqualified workers across the province who are already working in the industry. VCC uses online learning for the theoretical part of the program, plus a large number of simply produced video clips of practices and procedures in car body repairs. Because all the students are apprentices already working under supervision of a master journeyman, they can practice some of the video procedures in the workplace under supervision. The last three weeks of the program requires students to come to the college for specific hands-on training for the last three weeks of the course. They are tested, and those that have already acquired the skills are sent back to work, so the instructor can focus on those that need the skills most. The partnership with industry that enables the college to work with ‘master’ tradespeople in the workplace is critical for this semi-distance program, and is particularly useful where there are severe skills shortages, helping to bring unskilled workers up to the level of full craftspeople.

The main advantages of an apprenticeship model of teaching can be summarised as follows:

  • teaching and learning are deeply embedded within complex and highly variable contexts, allowing rapid adaptation to real-world conditions
  • it makes efficient use of the time of experts, who can integrate teaching within their regular work routine
  • it provides learners with clear models or goals to aspire to
  • it acculturates learners to the values and norms of the trade or profession

On the other hand, there are some serious limitations with an apprenticeship approach, particularly in non-traditional apprenticeship:

  • much of a master’s knowledge is tacit, partly because their expertise is built slowly through a very wide range of activities,
  • experts often have difficulty in expressing consciously or verbally the schema and ‘deep’ knowledge that they have built up and taken almost for granted, leaving the learner often to have to guess or approximate what is required of them to become experts themselves,
  • experts often rely solely on modelling with the hope that learners will pick up the knowledge and skills from just watching the expert in action, and don’t follow through on the other stages that make an apprenticeship model more likely to succeed.
  • there is clearly a limited number of learners that one expert can manage, given that the experts themselves are fully engaged in applying their expertise in often demanding work conditions which may leave little time for paying attention to the needs of novice learners in the trade or profession
  • vocational apprenticeship programs have a very high attrition rate: for instance, in British Columbia, more than 60 per cent of those that enter a formal campus-based vocational apprenticeship program withdraw before successful completion of the program. As a result, there are large numbers of experienced tradespeople in the workforce without full accreditation, limiting their career development and slowing down economic development where there are shortages of fully qualified skilled workers
  • in trades or occupations undergoing rapid change in the workplace, the apprenticeship model can slow adaptation or change in working methods, because of the prevalence of traditional values and norms being passed down by the ‘master’ that may no longer be as relevant in the new conditions facing workers. This limitation of the apprenticeship model can be clearly seen in the post-secondary education sector, where traditional values and norms around teaching are increasingly in conflict with external forces such as new technology and the massification of higher education.

Nevertheless, the apprenticeship model, when applied thoroughly and systematically, is a very useful model for teaching in highly complex, real-world contexts.

Over to you

Your feedback on this will be invaluable. In particular:

  • do you agree that the time is now ripe to look at other ways of achieving the goals of science and engineering lab classes? Can you give examples of where this is already happening, besides remote labs?
  • do you agree that the main method of teaching college and university professors how to teach is a cognitive apprenticeship model? If so, how well does this work? Would another approach be better? If so, what’s preventing this?
  • for those of you with experience in traditional apprenticeship programs: how well is this working in a digital age? What could be done to improve it?


Pratt, D. and Johnson, J. (1998) The Apprenticeship Perspective: Modelling Ways of Being in Pratt, D. (ed.) Five Perspectives on Teaching in Adult and Higher Education Malabar FL: Krieger Publishing Company

Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action New York: Basic Books

Up next

The final section of this chapter (at last!) looks at a very interesting and important approach for teaching in a digital age, of which connectivism is just one example: a nurturing approach to teaching.




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