Experience Trumps Theory: Reviving the Apprenticeship Model

Once upon a time, we learned only by doing. A quality education meant finding an expert to take you under his or her wing. Whether you wanted to be a blacksmith or a shoemaker, the ultimate break was ultimately a relationship. In exchange, your capacity would be stretched. You would learn in real-time, soaking up the knowledge through trial and error. You would learn the trade in practice rather than theory. You would also build a network and gain respect based on your performance rather than any sort of degree.This era of apprenticeship is now largely a relic of history. Somewhere along the line we decided to economize and scale education. Given the time-intensive and intimate nature of apprenticeships, we sought to train more people at once with a streamlined curriculum. As we moved more and more learning into the classroom, we compromised the intense learning that happened in the field. We traded experiential learning for a more standardized but less potent education.

I believe the classroom underserves us. We become dissuaded by theoretical lessons, disenchanted teachers, and a reward system that is all about the grade and not at all about the trade. If experiential education is so important, why don’t we give college credits for what happens outside the classroom?

As we moved more learning into the classroom, we compromised the intense learning that happened in the field.

Unfortunately, undergraduate education is centered on the classroom experience and takes extracurricular activities (clubs, etc.) as an
afterthought. Many schools provide credit for internships, but they don’t stress them as an integrated aspect of the overall program. What’s more, the schools usually play little to no role in coordinating the internships, so it’s very hit or miss: A student could have a life-changing experience, or spend a semester fetching coffee and sitting on the sidelines.

Most of the passionate creative people I have met are motivated more by a genuine interest than by money. We are driven by our pursuit of an expertise in what fascinates us. The Holy Grail for most creative careers is becoming a leader in your interests and making an impact.  Experiential on-the-job learning is the most natural conduit for developing such an expertise.

While working with Steve Kerr, the legendary leadership development guru who helped found learning initiatives at GE and other top companies, I learned about the 70/20/10 model for leadership development. The model suggests that, when it comes to training leaders, only 10% happens in a classroom through formal instruction, 20% is all about feedback exchange and coaching, and a whopping 70% is experiential. With this premise, some companies create “stretch assignments” for employees – bold projects that purposely push comfort zones and maximize exposure to lessons learned the hard way.

Experiential on-the-job learning is the natural conduit for developing expertise.

We need to bring back the apprenticeship model. And if we can’t do it in the system, we need to do it for ourselves.

For those of us that are experienced practitioners, we should be serving as mentors. Apprenticeships are mutually beneficial. Aside
from the benefit of willing labor, many teams develop their greatest employees from internship experiences. Your mentees will also broaden your network. I’ll bet you anything that some of them become your future customers – or perhaps your managers.

When it comes to a rich education that sticks, it seems “old school” is the way to go. Let’s start exploring the apprenticeship model and find ways to build our expertise by actually doing what interests us most.


Lo importante es el camino que recorremos, las metas son apenas el resultado de ese recorrido. Llegar generalmente significa, volver a empezar!

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Gabriel Catalano

octubre 2010
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