19. Learning by Doing: Apprenticeship

19.4. Strengths and Weaknesses

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

  • Teaching and learning is 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 preparing for university teaching:

  • 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’ the 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 modeling 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.
  • Traditional vocational apprenticeship programs have a very high attrition rate: for instance, in British Columbia, more than 60 percentage 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.