Research Spotlight: Apprenticeship and Authentic Learning

Apprenticeship seems an old-fashioned idea – learning on the job, from a master, instead of in school. Youth development through apprenticeship is the subject of a new book by Robert Halpern, who proposes that the profession take a new look at this old practice. Halpern argues that apprenticeship fits well with youth development not because it teaches workforce preparedness, but because of its developmental fit with adolescence, namely:

  • Apprenticeship provides experiences that allow youth to put into action the skills they have been learning in school and in life.
  • It structures those experiences and gives youth new responsibilities as they grow into them.
  • It involves learning to get good at something specific, which allows youth to “try on” the identity of being in that occupation.

CYFAR Director of Youth Development Lisa Lauxman recommended Halpern’s book in a message to all CYFAR professionals last autumn after hearing Halpern speak. In his book, Halpern outlines three categories of benefits that youth gain from apprenticeship – discipline-specific knowledge, skills and sensibilities; task-specific skills; and self-effects. This last category includes self-knowledge, willingness to take risks, work hard and be active.  Halpern describes the maturation youth show over the course of two or three years of apprenticeship, and says apprenticeship can be a vehicle for forging identity. “In observing youth before and after the experience, one not infrequently sees a tighter, better defined, though not closed off, self.”

A number of CYFAR programs incorporate workforce preparedness into their content. Work-based learning is a part of many youth development programs, and in these, the skills learned are specific. Others incorporate service learning, usually performing clean-ups or other jobs that otherwise go undone, and that often involve more service than learning.

The benefits that Halpern describes are broader than those offered by service learning or workforce preparedness. As he describes apprenticeship, it is more closely related to the concept of authentic learning. According to University of Michigan researchers John Seely Brown, Allan Collins and Paul Duguid, authentic learning, or learning by doing, make lessons meaningful and useful. In it, learners learn in the authentic environment (on site), they are asked to do work that needs to be done, and the lessons learned are related to something they already know.

Authentic learning puts learners together with experts and in context. It asks the learners to do a job that is slightly beyond their ability, and that when done, provides a benefit or product that didn't exist before.  Community service projects can be structured to offer youth program participants an authentic learning experience, and some CYFAR programs are doing so. Some science, engineering and technology (SET) programs do this when they ask youth to learn technology to perform a public service. For example, the Tech Wizards in Washington County, Oregon, mapped of the locations of trained emergency responders for the local fire department using GIS-GPS mapping tools. They also perform water quality testing as part of a local watershed restoration project.

Designing a program that incorporates authentic learning requires that the work done by the participants is something that needs to be done, and that the product or service will be used and valued.

Author(s), Presenter(s): 
Ann Nordby
Year published or updated: 
2010