Master and Apprentices

by Flemming Funch, 17 Nov 95

Many gems amongst the patterns in "A Pattern Language" that make be stop and think. Several of them provide intriguing keys to education. #83 is called "Master and Apprentices".

"The fundamental learning situation is one in which a person learns by helping someone who really knows what he is doing".

"It is the simplest way of acquiring knowledge, and it is powerfully effective. By comparison, learning from lectures and books is dry as dust. But this situation has all but disappeared from modern society. The schools and universities have taken over and abstracted many ways of learning which in earlier times were always closely related to the real world of professionals, tradesmen, artisans, independent scholars. In the twelfth century, for instance, young people learned by working beside masters - helping them, making contact directly with every corner of society. When a young person found himself able to contribute to a field of knowledge, or a trade - he would prepare a master "piece"; and with the consent of the masters become a fellow of the guild.

"An experiment by Alexander and Goldberg has shown that a class in which one person teaches a small group of others is most likely to be successful in those cases where the "students" are actually helping the "teacher" to do something or solve some problem, which he is working on anyway - not when a subject of abstract or general interest is being taught.


"Arrange the work in every workgroup, industry, and office, in such a way that work and learning go forward hand in hand. Treat every piece of work as an opportunity for learning. To this end, organize work around a tradition of masters and apprentices: and support this form of social organization with a division of the workspace into spatial clusters - one for each master and his apprentices - where they can work and meet together".

Looking at my own experiences I must say that I have learned much faster and much more thoroughly by working together with people who knew what they were doing, and were willing to talk about it, than I have by trying to figure things out myself from books or generalized presentations.

Also, it makes me very sad to see my kids come home form school day after day, being put through artificially generated tasks that they can't really connect with the real world. Homework that needs to be done to not get a bad grade, and that gets discarded after being turned in. Having to recite words and facts they don't know what to do with.

I compare that with a Japanese friend of ours who comes by once in a while and sits down with my son for an hour and shows him how to do Origami. He has since shown a remarkable ability to create things out of folded pieces of paper, and comes up with his own inventive constructions.

There is just such a big difference between disconnected abstract data one is forced to learn, for rather vague reasons, and the learning that comes naturally when one tries to master a skill and there is somebody around who knows it well.

In my jobs I've had the opportunity to interview and hire many applicants for positions as computer programmers. It has been sad to see that the applicants fresh out of college with masters degrees in computer science are often the most hopeless to ask to do something for real. I have gotten much more milage out of 19 year old high school kids who have been hanging out with their hacker friends and writing computer games at home. And I've seen much more learning take place with people who simply would hang around and help as best they could, even if they came out of another field, than I've seen with people who've spent too many years learning theories, in environments disconnected from practical application.

So, yes, let's have learning that is integrated with work, that is closely tied with something that is perceived as meaningful and rewarding in itself. And let's find more ways of linking up with people who know what they are doing and who will allow others to help them.

- Flemming