Apprenticeship and No Fake Work

At a recent professional development session, one of the participants asked about the concept of apprenticeship in our curriculum. What did we mean by that, and where could that “apprenticeship” be found? Taking an inquiry-based approach, I could say that there are many possible answers to that question, some better supported than others. Instead, though, it had me thinking about the Inquiry By Design slogan, “No fake work.” One of the highlights of Inquiry By Design is that students are apprenticed into the important work of creating meaning from texts — not distracted by fluffy, artificial side projects.

Consider the apprenticeship of a blacksmith. A young person entering this path will be made familiar, through direct hands-on experience, with the tools and materials, the techniques and trouble spots, the terms and the temperatures, and the trade. The apprentice will hammer hot iron and shape it around an anvil, again and again and again, under the guidance of the master smith, and when a piece comes out misshapen or brittle we imagine the master smith giving timely suggestions, or asking insightful questions like, “What did you do differently with the piece this time that might have caused that?”

Here’s what the master smith is not doing with the apprentice: at no point is the apprentice constructing a collage about blacksmithing. The apprentice is not completing a crossword puzzle, wherein lie two-dozen vocabulary words about blacksmithing. At the end of the apprenticeship, the youth does not work together with partners to present a PowerPoint history of blacksmithing. The master smith has no time for this, because the need of an independent, productive, intelligent assistant is too urgent. The apprentice’s tasks may move from simple to complex over time, but from the beginning of his journey to the end, he is never doing any work that an actual blacksmith wouldn’t do. No fake work.

Our students’ time is exactly that valuable. To apprentice them into the real work of finding and creating meaning with the written word is to give them one opportunity after another to read, write, and discuss, to test their ideas against each other and against the texts, to hammer the hot iron before them again and again and again until it starts to take a recognizable shape. It is work, but it is productive work, and the students will appreciate the respect shown to their time and intelligence as they grow their skills.