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It’s In the Doing: Apprenticeship and Experi...

It’s In the Doing: Apprenticeship and Experiential Learning

Apprentices at the Sorel Steel plant (1940).

Source: National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque. Library and Archives Canada

Apprenticeship is a time-honored method of learning by experience, but I suspect that it didn’t go down like the history books tell us. Imagine being an aspiring sculptor in the studio of Michelangelo. Most of the time, the master is away painting the Sistine Chapel or executing a commission at some nobleman’s palazzo. In the meantime, junior apprentices learn from senior apprentices. Nothing new there: we learn more from our peers than from our superiors.

A master craftsman makes sure the people she’s developing work and learn from a wide group of people. She rotates them through novel assignments. She assigns challenges and celebrates what people learn from their mistakes. She goes along with Picasso’s sentiment that “I do things I do not know how to do in order to learn how to do them.” She tolerates their fumbles.

Apprenticeship isn’t the master and the apprentice sitting together in the studio. There are journeymen, senior folks, camp followers, groupies, newbies, politicians, young and old in this workscape, everyone helping one another to figure out how to do things and get better at doing them.

John Seely Brown is married to an architect. He notes that architecture students know precisely what’s up with their studio mates. The faculty conducts the equivalent of the hospital intern’s grand rounds. Everyone sees examples and assessments of her peers. Your work is in plain sight on your board. JSB’s lovely wife predates computer-aided drawing. I wonder if architects even have studios any more. All you need is a workstation and the cloud. Or, more optimistically, you could eavesdrop on critiques by true masters, recorded for posterity in the bitstream.


Experience is a difficult task master. We learn more from making a mistake than from getting it right the first time. That’s why wise managers throw team members into stretch assignments. It accelerates learning. Being ejected from one’s comfort zone is why some say that the only thing worse than learning from experience is not learning from experience.

Experiential learning is the gold standard. Matching the most appropriately challenging experience to the developmental stage of the worker is the most powerful lever in the manager’s toolbox.

Those were the two most importance sentences in this mass of verbiage. Let this one sink it. It’s a game changer.

As a reminder, what I said was “Matching the most appropriately challenging experience to the developmental stage of the worker is the most powerful lever in the manager’s toolbox…” Forget what the other guys told you. This is it. Embrace experiential learning. Craft a great mix of challenging assignments. Let them learn. Don’t teach. People are amazingly adept at rising to a challenge and figuring things out.

experienced4One more time, what’s the most common way we learn? EXPERIENCE. Replace jobs with experiences if you must move quickly.

Making the match requires knowledge of the work and the worker. The manager’s judgment in making the best match is what creates transformative learning experiences.

Here’s a list of potential learning assignments that may lie just outside of the worker’s comfort zone.

Expand the scope of the work

  • Increase the worker’s responsibilities.
  • Increase span of control.
  • Increase decision-making authority.
  • Participate in a group to solve a real business problem.
  • Fill in for the manager or someone else.

Change and adversity

  • Work in a situation with rapidly changing circumstances.
  • Handle a crisis.
  • Build a new team from scratch.
  • Champion a new product or service.
  • Turn around a troubled project.

Enter challenging relationships

  • Work with people from other business units or functions.
  • Work with multiple people with contradictory and competing view.
  • Work with customers or a customer service group.
  • Interact with senior management (e.g. meetings, presentations).
  • Lead a cross-functional team.

Persuade, teach and observe

  • Persuade senior managers to take a specific action.
  • Teach coworkers how to do a component of their jobs.
  • Volunteer as a mentor for new hires.
  • Reverse-mentor a senior person on social networking or technology.
  • Introduce new productivity or organization techniques to the team.
  • Shadow a coworker to see how he or she conducts his or her work.

Make work visible and discuss it with others

  • Narrate your work, share what you’re doing with colleagues.
  • Write a process-oriented blog.
  • Be active in social networks in the workplace and in the industry.
  • Curate information and share with others.

Finally, Reflect!

Charles Jennings reports that performance inevitably improves when managers ask their team members these three simple reflective questions:

  1. What are your reflections on what you’ve been doing since we last met?
  2. What would you do differently next time?
  3. What have you learned since we last met?

E-180 | Labs‘ mission is to transform events, spaces and organisations into peer-learning hubs, through what we call Brain Dates. Learn how here!


Jay Cross

Jay Cross is an author, advocate and raconteur who writes about workplace learning, leadership, organizational change, innovation, technology and the future. His educational white papers, articles and research reports persuade people to take action. Jay has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix. A champion of informal learning and systems thinking, Jay’s calling is to create happier, more productive workplaces. He was the first person to use the term eLearning on the web. He literally wrote the book on Informal Learning. He is currently researching the correlation of psychological well-being and performance on the job. Jay works from the Internet Time Lab in Berkeley, California, high in the hills a dozen miles east of the Golden Gate Bridge and a mile and a half from UC Berkeley. People visit the Lab to spark innovation and think fresh thoughts. He is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School.

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