Experience Trumps Theory: Reviving the Apprenticeship Model

Once upon a time, we learned only by doing. A quality education meant finding an expert to take you under his or her wing. Whether you wanted to be a blacksmith or a shoemaker, the ultimate break was ultimately a relationship. In exchange, your capacity would be stretched. You would learn in real-time, soaking up the knowledge through trial and error. You would learn the trade in practice rather than theory. You would also build a network and gain respect based on your performance rather than any sort of degree.

This era of apprenticeship is now largely a relic of history. Somewhere along the line we decided to economize and scale education. Given the time-intensive and intimate nature of apprenticeships, we sought to train more people at once with a streamlined curriculum. As we moved more and more learning into the classroom, we compromised the intense learning that happened in the field. We traded experiential learning for a more standardized but less potent education.

I believe the classroom underserves us. We become dissuaded by theoretical lessons, disenchanted teachers, and a reward system that is all about the grade and not at all about the trade. If experiential education is so important, why don’t we give college credits for what happens outside the classroom?

As we moved more learning into the classroom, we compromised the intense learning that happened in the field.

Unfortunately, undergraduate education is centered on the classroom experience and takes extracurricular activities (clubs, etc.) as an
afterthought. Many schools provide credit for internships, but they don’t stress them as an integrated aspect of the overall program. What’s more, the schools usually play little to no role in coordinating the internships, so it’s very hit or miss: A student could have a life-changing experience, or spend a semester fetching coffee and sitting on the sidelines.

Most of the passionate creative people I have met are motivated more by a genuine interest than by money. We are driven by our pursuit of an expertise in what fascinates us. The Holy Grail for most creative careers is becoming a leader in your interests and making an impact.  Experiential on-the-job learning is the most natural conduit for developing such an expertise.

While working with Steve Kerr, the legendary leadership development guru who helped found learning initiatives at GE and other top companies, I learned about the 70/20/10 model for leadership development. The model suggests that, when it comes to training leaders, only 10 percent happens in a classroom through formal instruction, 20 percent is all about feedback exchange and coaching, and a whopping 70 percent is experiential. With this premise, some companies create “stretch assignments” for employees – bold projects that purposely push comfort zones and maximize exposure to lessons learned the hard way.

Experiential on-the-job learning is the natural conduit for developing expertise.

We need to bring back the apprenticeship model. And if we can’t do it in the system, we need to do it for ourselves.

For those of us that are experienced practitioners, we should be serving as mentors. Apprenticeships are mutually beneficial. Aside
from the benefit of willing labor, many teams develop their greatest employees from internship experiences. Your mentees will also broaden your network. I’ll bet you anything that some of them become your future customers – or perhaps your managers.

When it comes to a rich education that sticks, it seems “old school” is the way to go. Let’s start exploring the apprenticeship model and find ways to build our expertise by actually doing what interests us most.

More insights on: Leadership, Skill Development

Scott Belsky

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Scott Belsky is Adobe's Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.
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  • Jonathan Patterson

    Wow, this article is so on-point!

    Totally agree about classroom experience. My company has recently brought on an intern and for a few projects I have him sit and watch me work. I tell him what I’m doing and why. After that, I have him break off on his own and continue learning.

    Really good article.

  • TubbyMike

    Oh, and this is so true of software design and development. Every software house and IT department should have a formal apprenticeship programme. What’s more, companies should make time for seasoned IT professionals to be able to mentor apprentice developers and analysts. Software development is one of the last mass people-intensive crafts left in this industrialised world.

    Book learning is great, but in a craft there is just no substitute for experiential learning. Junior software professionals should progress from apprentices through journeymen (person) to mastery. I know this produces high quality people, as I was fortunate to mentor an apprentice who is now well on the way to mastery.

    This concept seems to me to be linked to a concept in Akido: Shu-Ha-Ri; hold-break-leave. When you start out, you hold to the rules the teacher gives you. When you get more experienced, you know when to break the rules. Finally, on mastery, you leave and make your own rules.

    Proper apprenticeships would, in my view, produce a much higher quality product – and the master can somtimes learn from the apprentice!

  • jlamontagne

    It’s a relief to see the discourse shifting from college-ready to career-ready. Those interested in the apprenticeship model will want to look at Citizen Schools http://www.citizenschools.org/… among others featured in this recent Edutopia post http://www.edutopia.org/stw-ca

  • RIDave

    This is why I went to college at Northeastern University. Their co-op program is awesome and the combination of real world experience and in-class curriculum that encourages entrepreneurship is a great package.

    Does anyone know of a website that lists companies offering apprenticeships in different fields? It would be a great resource.

  • Patrick Wilson-Welsh

    I think we need to reinvent the entire education system in the manner you describe, Obie. And there are alternative education/learning movements trying to do just that. I hope my 4-year-old gets to learn this way, instead of in classrroms. Rock on.

  • Kevin Taylor

    Our company, http://obtiva.com, has had a formal software apprenticeship program for several years.

    Many of our apprentices were very green when they entered the program and are now respected members of the Chicago developer community.

    Our approach to apprenticeship is twofold: putting junior people side-by-side with experienced people; and, exposing them to progressively more challenging tasks and projects to match their level of skills and knowledge.

    Don’t throw out theory. Use it in combination with the right level of experience.

  • Dave Hoover

    Thanks for writing this. I have two comments.

    First, in response to, “If experiential education is so important, why don’t we give college credits for what happens outside the classroom?” It’s because you can’t standardize experiential education. Every mentor, mentee, and project they work on together are different, and it’s a PITA to measure (aka grade) the resulting competency. The current system is broken, and will slowly be replaced by experienced-based systems that prove themselves on the market of competency creation.

    Second, in response to “We need to bring back the apprenticeship model. And if we can’t do it in the system, we need to do it for ourselves” Take heart! There are a growing number of software development shops that are taking advantage of the apprenticeship model. I authored the book “Apprenticeship Patterns” and founded an apprenticeship program at Obtiva in 2007 that has produced great results for us. Feel free to contact me at dave@obtiva.com if you’re interested in learning more about starting apprenticeship programs for software developers.

  • Alex Waber

    In high school one of my teachers said something that I’ve taken to heart and feel has made a great difference in the course of my life: “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.”

  • Lonny Eachus

    How old are you? I think it’s pretty obvious that you have had little experience with real apprenticeship programs.

    While the following was true of some older days too, I won’t go into that here. But at least in the late 19th and throughout most of the 20th centuries, during which labor unions firmly enforced the rules of apprenticeships, they were often little better than slavery. Supposedly the reason for apprenticeship was to gain knowledge, but the more-experienced people jealously guarded that knowledge. Rather than freely teaching, the journeymen and masters deliberately PREVENTED apprentices from learning, so that they would not gain the knowledge to compete at the upper levels. It wasn’t cooperation it all; it was competition.

    Teaching is great. Mentoring is great. But a system modeled on real-world trade apprenticeships would be a disaster.

  • Andrew Kim

    Mr. Belsky, I am a community college student and I just turned 20 years old last month. I enjoyed reading your article and I appreciate it greatly. I wish to share my story with everyone who is willing to spare a few minutes.

    I entered community college right after high school in ’08 because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I had no passion whatsoever. I’ve always wanted to help people, but it was always just an ideology. I jumped from one major to another thinking each and every one of those were perfect for me(during those two years, I was blinded by only wanting a high paying job). I am proud to say I have found the major I wish to pursue and that is operation research and I am applying this semester to transfer to a 4-year university.

    During my years in community college, I have learned a lot from not only in my classroom but outside of it as well. My community college has a lot of non-traditional students who are in their late 20’s to elders who are barely able to walk. I have been blessed to be able to talk to Gen X students in my campus. I have been inspired by their work ethic, their experience, and their knowledge. They have been my role models during my two years in community college.

    After two years of wasting my time, I have decided on a major, now applying to transfer, and getting involved in the school and the community. I am the Founder and the President of the Business Club on my campus and I attend networking mixers through local business organizations. This is where I would like to point out a problem with a lot of ‘experienced practitioners’. When I attend mixers, I am the only student out of a group of business owners. I honestly do feel out of place. When I tell them I am a student, they are encouraging and tell me I am smart to attend mixers while being a student. But when I tell them I am a community college student, I get one of two replies, the confused, “where?” or the disappointed “oh…”

    I have had people think I was an intern invited from a prestigious university and walk away from me once they find out I’m from a community college. I understand, but judging a person by the school they attend and the level of education they have is not right. I wish to be an apprentice. I wish to have a mentor who can not only teach me skills, but also about ethics, values, and morals. The vision they have. Their philosophy. I want to watch professionals in the industry do what they are really passionate about and be inspired. I want a role model and a mentor who could really push me into the right direction. I want to share dreams.

    As a community college student, the opportunities for us is very limited. I’m joining business mixers, formed a business club, and constantly networking, but I haven’t found many people who take me seriously when I tell them I want to learn from them. I contacted the schools I wish to transfer to and asked about internships and the opportunities the school and the community in the area can provide for the students. They had no answer for me and suggested me to look at the internship section of the school’s website that has rarely been updated. Mr. Belsky is right, schools play little role in coordinating internships.

    I am sure most of the people on this website are out of school and working in the industry. I wish when you meet a student attending a less-known college, please don’t look down on the person as if they are uneducated or incompetent. There’s more to a person than the school we are attending and the education level we currently have. It’s great if you look to mentor a student, but give those students who don’t attend the best colleges a chance too.

    I have written a lot, and it may sound like a rant, but it is something I have had in my mind for a while now and would like to share it with those who are willing to read it. Personally, I am a community college student in Southern California, and I would love to have a mentor. My email is adjkimm@gmail.com. Please email me. Even a word of advice or having discussions through online would be amazing. Thank you, I would really appreciate it.

  • Scott Belsky

    Well said Alex. I couldn’t agree more.

  • Scott Belsky

    Dave – Will check out your book. I hear your point on the standardization piece; I would hate to lose the circumstantial value of apprenticeship experiences just because we can’t adequately measure it.

  • roitsch

    Great article and really true. I can’t agree more, when it comes to my education and experience. I missed a lot of practical experience during my studies. That’s why it took myself a long time to get done with my studies and added the practical parts myself. I did internships, spend a year abroad, I was part of a start-up, and did some private projects. I dont regret that at all. Maybe I won’t be that young any more when I am finally done with university but my experience will help me a lot, for the rest of my life. And I guess Employers will appreciate it as well.

  • Scott Belsky

    No doubt they will appreciate it. I think there should be more discussion around HOW to “sell / market” the value of experiential education to prospective employers. There’s not enough focus on that…

  • roitsch

    I don’t know, I think the education system knows that but it’s really difficult for such big systems to change. Private schools have it easier to change things.
    I was asked to hold a workshop about self promotion with the help of the web at a private design school (journalism) in Hamburg. The teacher wants to tell his students that they need to build up a reputation.
    I will write my German diploma about the idea to bring “Design Thinking” into the focus of educational programs. It totally overlaps with you statements above. If you would, at least, implement real life projects, with real clients into your studies, it would give the students a lot more that just an internship. At internships you learn a lot of practical stuff, as you mentioned above but there is almost no connection the the theory at school. The only thing which is an attempt to connect both things is a internship review you have to write, AFTERWARDS. But that doesn’t make any sense. New schools like Hyper Island from Sweden show that there are possibilities to make a great connection. Or the d.school in Stanford and Potsdam (close to Berlin).

  • Evan Freedman

    Scott, I think a brief look into the historical factors for why apprenticeships have faded is necessary. First off, you had the Guild system during the Medieval ages, which managed to scale up the practice of apprenticeships to be as ubiquitous as formal education is today. The problem was, the old tradesmen got too greedy by artificially limiting competition and locking young up-starts into their apprenticeship system. The young guys wanted a fair chance, they rebelled, and that was that.

    Then capitalism comes along, hand in hand with a powerful central state, and suddenly the various trades find themselves being professionalized, regulated, and subject to certification. This is not necessarily a bad thing– think of the “doctors” of old selling their magical formulas; I’ll take the professionally educated and certified doctors, please. Bureaucracy depends on quantitative measurements. You throw numbers into the machine and it does fine. You start to ask bureaucracy to use qualitative measurements and suddenly you’ve got a problem.

    Now all of that applies to professional trades, which again, are subject to bureaucracy. But where things start to get interesting is in the creative fields, where job descriptions and expectations are not universal, simply by nature of the job being performed– it’s always different, and constantly changing! Now here’s an area where perhaps qualitative evaluation can start to make inroads, and systems like apprenticeship can have a comeback.

    Personally, I believe all it takes to change the current system (in which grades are a currency to be cashed in for a job upon graduation) is for a few employers to be bold and brave and start to demand more from their prospective employees, more proof of experience in particular. I believe this will be a socio-cultural change rather than a bureaucratic technical one. People in general will start to respect and value informal learning.

    This hope is partly what drives my work at Skillshare, which you may have heard of, Scott. I believe as more and more people participate in informal learning, one’s informal “report card” will start to carry a lot more weight, to the point that it has value in a way that grades now constitute a currency. What we need is a “proof of learning” for experiential learning that people trust and respect.

    Phew, that was exhausting. Looking forward to hearing you speak at The Feast!

  • redsquirrel

    In the world of software development, proof of informal learning can be seen in open source contributions. I’m much more interested in someone’s Github repository than their GPA.

  • Scott Belsky

    @skibumef – I think you’ve chronicled the evolution of this very well. I agree the creative industries offer a unique opportunity for a new form of apprenticeship to provide and invaluable experiential education. Hopefully some employers in the industry will start to take it on…

  • Cathy Monetti

    Our firm has an unusual structure: five senior partners (all with equal ownership in the firm) and no employees. Instead, each partner offers a 3-month apprenticeship within his/her discipline that can be renewed upon mutual agreement between the partner and apprentice for up to one year. It is a model that has worked beautifully for us. We are able to attract top talent, and in return, we offer a small salary and one-on-one mentoring. When our first design apprentice “flew”earlier this summer, she received two job offers within 24-hours and landed at a great agency.

    Our philosophy is that an apprenticeship is very different from an internship and requires a great deal more from the mentor. But in our experience, apprentices give a lot more, as well.
    A wonderful opportunity for both.

  • Love 2live

    just when I thought I was alone… I read an article from a potential mentor. As a expressive creator (current title, last one was opportunistic entrepeneur) the past decade has me experimenting and producing visually sheerly due to soulful need. Universe had me in 2009 purchasing laptop fuelled with 3 corel programs, always find myself participating in at least one artist endevour, be it set design, film prop, book cover, or spiritual letter full of colour. I’ve lived an amazing full life and am not even forty yet. Mentorship, or apprentice work, collaborative fullfillment or oldfashioned being taken under wing is never been so available long distance since the internet and this Canadian is a perfect example of the potential that could and needs to be stoked by a partnership such as your topic. Like history has shown before what was once old becomes once again new.
    As iz,
    Chantelle S. Grenke

  • Traveling bags

    Nice review ! I like your article and i will definitely look again……………………………………

  • professional resume

    what a great post! thats amazing!

  • education articles

    Apprenticeship helped me a lot to improve more areas of my life. I think it’s still beneficial. I agree with what you’ve said about “old school”.

  • Anonymous

    May i know when is this written/published?

  • tyelmene

    It seems to me that there is an ‘ideal fit’ between the guild cooperative developmental learning construct and the post-industrial/machine age.

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