I think most people in the world today are asleep to the changes being wrought in the information environment, and the implications this should have for us in formal educational settings.

I had a thought provoking discussion this morning with Richard Crum, who attends the Friday morning men’s group at my church and is an accomplished writer, editor, professor and publisher. In the context of our information environment and formal educational structures, Richard reminded me that:

Testing is not learning.

Why are so many of our policymakers today confused on this point? Most likely, it is because they do not understand and have not taken the time themselves to study learning and seek to understand the authentic ways learning is best encouraged and supported. In addition, I think many are overwhelmed and fearful of the rapidly changing communications environment in which we live our fast-paced lives, and do not comprehend the changes which are necessitated in our educational systems as a result of our transforming information landscape.

My in-laws are in town for the holidays, and were sharing stories with us last night of their recent trip to England. Among many other places (this was their fourth trip, they love England dearly) they visited Oxford and the University of Oxford, but were a little disappointed they did not see much of it. (It was raining, and of course you have to go into one of the colleges of Oxford to really “see” it.) I visited Oxford briefly in 1990 when I was in the area for three weeks during a summer “field trip” (actually to Upper Heyford) and aspired to study there on a Rhodes Scholarship once upon a time, but that did not pan out. My main link to Oxford is more a pedagogical one that I credit to one of my doctoral professors at Texas Tech, Dr. Doug Simpson. I took three courses from Dr. Simpson in my doctoral program: one on the thought of John Dewey, one on educational ethics, and another on the thought of Paulo Freire. In each class, Dr. Simpson included a “tutorial” assignment (in the spirit of the Oxford and Cambridge tutor/tutee model) in which each student was required to discuss (in a one on one or one on two environment with the professor) a chapter or book of required reading material in the course.

Apprenticeship learning is one of the oldest and most effective methods to share formal as well as tacit knowledge between “expert” and “novice” learners. Individuals progress from the apprentice level, to journeyman, and finally (a few) to the master level. Some might think of apprenticeship learning as a bygone model that held sway during the Middle Ages– but has not been used widely since the era of industrialization. That perception, however, is false.

As Richard Crum reminded me today, students and scholars in the arts know the value of the apprenticeship model closely. If someone wants to learn how to play and perform a musical instrument with great skill, naturally s/he will seek to study under the tutelage of a “master” of that particular instrument. Independent practice with their instrument is mixed with sessions of direct supervision and instruction by the master. The student seeks to mimic the skills and techniques of the master, but eventually (at higher levels of performance and study) seeks to develop their own unique style of play and performance.

Mike Golay playing the guitar

In the United States in the early twenty-first century, we have an abiding need to remedy the misperceptions which abound when it comes to learning and desirable learning environments. We need to help policymakers as well as members of the public in general understand the fundamental differences between ASSESSMENT and LEARNING. An assessment, which can be “a test” but also takes many other forms, is simply a tool used by a skilled teacher to determine the specific learning needs and abilities of individual students. In the hands of an amateur teacher or professor (a pedagogical novice or in some cases, a pedagogical pretender) a test can operationally more closely resemble a club which serves to bludgeon rather than an instrument which serves to appropriately inform and adjust the learning environment.

Learners are not in school so they can take tests, be tested, and be translated metaphorically into statistics that are aggregated into charts and graphs used by politicians to secure their elective offices. Learners are in school to LEARN, and the confusion which abounds regarding the proper role of assessments today is a key part of educational reforms our nation desperately needs.

We do NOT need more testing, more rigorous testing, and/or more end-of-course examinations in our schools. Testing has never “saved” and will never “save us” from the challenges which face us in the educational environment. Only high quality, professional, caring, passionate teachers can provide what our students deserve and in many cases desperately need: A differentiated, challenging environment of customized learning that involves regular dialog and authentic assessment– much in line with the model of the Oxford tutorial method.

Unrealistic? Too expensive? Ridiculously idealistic? Please.

The United States of America is, in monetary terms, the wealthiest nation on the planet. Despite our politicians’ reckless and irresponsible pattern of deficit spending in the face of enormous wealth, our nation has tremendous capacity to fund and realize educational goals of utopian proportion.

The explosion of voices and perspectives on the Internet in our current informational environment is only going to accelerate in the years ahead. As organisms living in this diverse and dynamic informational environment, each one of us has and will have an abiding responsibility to help each other develop CRITICAL THINKING and CRITICAL LITERACY skills to effectively operate and live. Our traditional transmission-based, factory model of education which increasingly focuses on testing as the END rather than ONE OF MANY MEANS to enhance learning experiences is sorely inadequate to meet our present and future needs.

It’s time for people in the United States to wake up and actively seek to understand the new information environment in which we live. It is not acceptable to merely sustain an antiquated educational system that was designed to largely impart knowledge rather than cultivate critical thinking. The cultivation of critical thinking is no longer something that can be or should be limited to our most august institutions of higher learning. Every teacher and every student, every learner regardless of their contextual status as an expert or a novice in different settings, should aspire to become a more critical CONSUMER and a more thoughtful CREATOR of knowledge and ideas.

For these reasons, I think blogging should be a cornerstone of the learning landscape in the 21st century, and relationships of mentorship and apprenticeship should be sought by learners who want to acquire and refine skills that will help them become more relevant, successful, and fulfilled in the decades to come.

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3 Responses to Apprenticeship learning and critical thinking

  1. […] John encourages listeners to draw a distinction between “learning about something” and “learning to be.” John contends when you build something and enter a community of practice, you start to “inculturate into a practice” and “learn to become” within that practice. Learning through inculturation is something I have not considered before. The challenge of constructing learning environments in which students can effectively “learn to be” is fundamentally different than the high-stakes testing challenges we see most public K-12 schools focused on today in the United States. In his own life, John relates how it was only in graduate school that he stopped learning ABOUT research mathematics and started learning TO BE a research mathemetician. He states this change was tied directly to his access to a mentorship and tutor/tutee model of learning. We need to integrate this model of tutor/tutee and mentorship into K-12 education spaces, and NOT relegate it to only the graduate / university level of education. […]

  2. Jamin says:

    Blogs are changing the world in more and more ways. It would be great if they actually started to help people to think more effectively. At least ideas can be challenged and explored.

  3. Dr. Edgar Lopez says:

    I agree entirely to what you have said about apprenticeship learning. Not only are the “novice” students learning more effectively but they are as well integrating themselves to adult hood more quicker. The schools need to implement an apprenticeship learning to their system so that high school students can more quickly join the mature adult world.  

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