From education to employment

Is apprenticeship learning a thing of the past?

Dr Dawn Morley, Lecturer in Higher Education, University of Surrey

For centuries traditional apprenticeship models have existed to hand down skills and experience to the next generation. The master worked closely with the apprentice coaching, role modelling and even reprimanding the younger version of themselves to adhere to the skills, knowledge and traditions of the craft to which the apprentice was being introduced.

There must be something very powerful within this model of learning that has drawn the government back to promoting the new degree apprenticeships. Explicit within this reinvention is the recognition of skills shortages, the need for a high level of training and education and the opportunity to give students a deep expertise in the degree apprenticeship of their choice. The essential components common to all apprenticeships appear to exist, but will students still experience that unique supervisory relationship that has transformed learning in the past through ancient apprenticeship routes.

Inspirational teaching is certainly motivating but, equally, being supervised by a negative, and perhaps bullying, mentor can cause students to question their career choice and leave vocational courses. Failing students can believe that the work environment is either too tough or they don’t have what it takes to survive the journey.

In most cases, students have not been given enough personalised time or coaching to adapt to work based learning. Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist who specialises in researching the work of professions who work under extreme stress, argues that professional development can occur quicker and smarter if learners are supported under the right conditions. Klein is against a generic experience, but believes that learning is better if it is focused on goals that can be clearly self-evaluated and accurately assessed and that this type of learning is built through an extensive bank of experience.

This sounds like the intensive apprenticeship supervision of the past, and both FE and HE providers therefore need to be cognisant of their responsibilities, both for student learning and placement supervisor training once work experience has begun. Students ability to question practice, and start to find their own voice in a professional environment, is now seen as an essential skill of modern apprenticeships and yet this will not successfully occur unless the student feels safe and encouraged to express their opinion in the work environment. Likewise, the gulf between theory and practice needs connecting with continual attention to the contextual interdependence between the two.

The criteria to meet good work supervision therefore seems like a big ask of busy professionals who are juggling both their work with their supervision responsibilities. However, social learning theorists, such as Etienne Wenger-Trayner, would argue that the students’ professional journey is enhanced by the support of the whole community of practice of which they begin to be part. Students bear this theory out – after placements many speak of the helpfulness of administrative staff who gave them confidence to settle into the organisation as well as the awe-inspiring leadership of the person in charge. This variety of perspective provides the experience bank that Klein alludes to and which helps students begin to negotiate the politics of placement; a powerful para curriculum, that is part of authentic work experience.

So, how can students and their work supervisors be supported in practice to meet the demands of work based learning? Encourage students to “follow the action”, whether it be planned or a situation that arises as the day progresses. This will add to their experience and, whoever they are with and whatever their level within the organisation, encourage staff to discuss the learning with the student, making it both explicit and memorable. These fragmented learning incidents can be joined and expanded upon by the lead work supervisor, or visiting academic staff, in the formal assessment meetings as raw data worthy of discussion.

In conclusion, include the student, be interested and remember that, like the master- apprentice of the past, students are the future of the organisation and, with the right attention to their learning, professional practice will not just be replicated but progress to something better than before.

Dr Dawn Morley, Lecturer in Higher Education, University of Surrey.

All opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect the opinion of the university.

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