Apprenticeship: Inviting Learners into Learning Clubs

They (children) learn – usually without anyone being aware that they are learning ‐ by participating in literacy activities with people who use written language. It can all be summed up in a metaphor: Children learn about reading and writing by joining the “literacy club.”
–Frank Smith, 1994
Frank Smith has been telling us for decades that there are two main jobs for literacy teachers. First, make sure there is a literacy club alive and working in our classrooms.  Second, make sure every learner is a full-fledged member of that club.
That metaphor resonates for me. And it works across the disciplines. Math teachers lead clubs for young mathematicians. Science teachers lead clubs for novice scientistsHistorians lead clubs for novice historians. Why? Because that’s the way human being learn. We learn best when we belong to a group of like-minded people–our partners in tasks that help us accomplish authentic goals.
Frank Smith points out that when we join a club, we are immediately immersed in shared activities. Even novices are included in those activities, even if their activity is somewhat limited at first. As novice club members gain experience, they take on more and more responsibility for the work of the club. That is what “apprenticeship” means–whether in a club or in our classrooms.
What does this mean for the way we teach?

1.  Teachers show more than they tell.

 A demonstration is worth a thousand lectures. If I’m a history teacher, and I want my students to analyze a historical document, then I need to do it myself and talk them through my process. What did I think about? How did I look for patterns? What questions did I ask myself?   What did I notice? Did I make lists? How shall I share what I’m learning with others?
I save my long explanations and background information until the students’ questions tell me that they are ready. In a club, new recruits typically watch more experienced members lead the work and gradually begin participating fully in the work.

2. Teachers invite students to make mistakes as they learn.

We expect novice club members to make mistakes. Teachers create spaces where it is safe for learners to make mistakes. We cannot create “risk-free” environments, and we shouldn’t try. We want to create time and space where learners can explore, investigate, and experiment as they learn our craft. We want learners to take the risks inherent in learning; we stand by to support their risk-taking.

3.  Teachers design instruction that anticipates what learners need to do next. . .and next. . . and next.

Experienced and thoughtful teachers know enough about their craft to anticipate the steps or stages of their learners’ progress. They use Adaptive Action, asking

WHAT are my students currently doing? What do they know?

SO WHAT does that mean in terms of what they need to learn next?

NOW WHAT shall I do to give them a task that is challenging, but within their learning zone?

They design lessons that build on what the learners now know and what they need to learn next.  Vygotsky called this the “zone of proximal development” — beyond what students can comfortably do without assistance, yet not so challenging that they cannot experience success, even with support.

We sometimes call this instruction “scaffolding” — building metaphoric structures that anticipate the kinds of support that learners will need to accomplish particular tasks. Here are four powerful “scaffolding” tools:

  • Flexible grouping — Sometimes you want to work with the whole class as you demonstrate a skill or strategy. Sometimes you put them into small, heterogeneous groups–groups where students bring different skill levels in which they can learn from one another. Sometimes you have students work in pairs–with more knowledgeable students working with students who are still learning. Sometimes it’s best for learners to work by themselves, and you move around the room, checking in with individual learners to give them “just-in-time” support.
  • Individual conferences — Powerful teaching happens one learner at a time. Over the years, I realized that my most powerful teaching happened in the moments when I took time to have an individual conversation with one student as he or she was in the midst of a challenging task. Making time for those conversations takes some work, but the pay-off is clearly worth it. In English language arts classes, we call those conversations “conferences,” and whole books have been written to help us have powerful conferences.

Join the learning club!

So . . . organize a learning club in your classroom, and invite your students to join the club!  Patterns of apprenticeship show up when when we invite our students into real work — the work of readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, geographers, economists, scientists, artists, musicians, athletes, and more!

Smith, F. (1987). Joining the literacy club: Further essays into literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Smith, F. (1994). Writing and the writer. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Authenticity — Inviting Real Kids to Write Real Messages

Photo Jun 25, 11 30 59 AMWhen students don’t pass the big test on the first try, they are often doomed to hours of practice–practice answering questions on mock tests and hearing teachers explain why their answers are wrong. Again.

This past year, a group of writing teachers decided to try a different approach. As a part of North Star of Texas Writing Project — a local site of the National Writing Project,  several Teacher Consultants have generated an alternative to that drilling and killing approach to test prep.  They call it “Finding True North: A Lesson Framework to Support Powerful Reading and Writing.”

These teachers have framed these lessons as a “writing camp” for students–a series of experiences intended to invite students to build confidence, enthusiasm, and stamina for writing. With one district, the teachers led a one-day Saturday camp a few weeks before the test. With another district, they helped high school and middle school teachers prepare for after-school-tutorials-as-writing-camps. That worked so well that the district invited them back for the summer, to lead an eight-day writing camp for 9th and 10th graders who were eligible to re-take the state test in July.

During the camp, the students read engaging articles and essays–informative and persuasive–just like they would see on the test. They analyzed those essays to think about the author’s decisions. And they wrote and wrote and wrote. Finally, they shared what they wrote with real audiences–not just with their teachers. These teachers and students were engaging in AUTHENTIC reading and writing–reading and writing about relevant issues, voicing their insights and opinions, framing their messages to be shared beyond the classroom.

This video, which was shared at the final celebration on tIMG_7393he 8th day of camp,  captures something of that authenticity and the genuine excitement and confidence that these students felt as authors. In this picture, the students had posted their final essays on the wall for all to read. As readers, they posted responses on sticky notes.

Authenticity is just one of the seven patterns of generative learning that Human Systems Dynamics practitioners point to as a goal for educators who want to transform schools. The authentic reading and writing integrated into the Finding True North camp experience does prepare student authors for the state test . . . and for life beyond our classrooms. But in these camps, we also see other patterns–like empathy, inquiry, dialogue, and apprenticeship.

No pattern stands alone because complex systems generate many interdependent patterns. Some scientists talk about “massively entangled” systems in which you can try to influence one part of the system. A school is a powerful example of many massively entangled systems, and when a teacher makes a single change, we often see other changes ripple  across the whole system. If we want to change the whole system, we can focus on one or two patterns — like authentic reading and writing — and then stand back to see what happens. Small shifts can make make a big difference. Authentic writing opportunities can make a difference in the lives of your students.


These blog posts explore options for action — suggestions for transforming schools by applying concepts and principles about how complex adaptive systems work. The emergent field of Human Systems Dynamics informs both our theory and our practice.


The Power of Patterns

When I walk into a school, it takes me about five minutes to know whether it’s a powerful place for students and teachers to learn. It’s not about whether they have the latest technology, and it’s IMG_7372not about their test scores. There’s a feeling, an attitude, a tone, a climate on a campus like this–a campus where teachers and students alike can take the risks inherent in authentic learning.

What policy-makers do not seem to recognize is that each of these excellent learning places is unique.  Powerful teaching and learning cannot be standardized–no five easy steps; no fool-proof method. These powerful schools are by no means the same, but there are similarities–similarities in the ways teaching and learning even in the wide diversity we see across these schools.

Across these “schools and classrooms that work,” we see similar features, but these features are merely similar–not the same. They vary–sometimes only slightly–in response to the unique features of each community. We see these similarities as “patterns .”

What are the patterns in these powerful learning places? Here is a list of what we have seen–both in the classrooms we know and in the research we read:

  • Empathy and Responsiveness
  • Inquiry
  • Dialogue
  • Authenticity
  • Re-visioning and Adaptation
  • Apprenticeship
  • Deep Content Learning

We use this list of patterns as a springboard for conversations about our goals for learners. There’s nothing sacred about these labels. Some groups decide to talk about “accountable talk” instead of “dialogue” or “modeling” instead of “apprenticeship.” The particular language is not important, but those conversations about the patterns are critical if we want to set the conditions for powerful learning.

Teachers in the North Star of Texas Writing Project (a local site of the National Writing Project) have developed this chart to explain these patterns as they use them in their professional development work:

patterns self assessment

Do these patterns make sense to you and your colleagues? Do they seem true? Do they seem useful? Which three patterns would you choose to prioritize on your campus? Check these out and let us know what you think!

Dear Educators . . .

Your most urgent challenges are daunting.  There are too many moving parts to control, and you can’t predict what will happen next. You can no longer rely on the “way we have always done it.”   This blog is meant to help you  adapt to this ever-changing environment in creative and effective ways.

We are a group of teachers, administrators, parents, and professional development leaders who view schools as complex adaptive systems — open, diverse, and unpredictable! Through Human Systems Dynamics, we are learning to set conditions for generative learning in schools.

Our most basic tool is “Adaptive Action” — an inquiry/action cycle we use in our daily work and with our most overwhelming challenges. This tool is deceptively simple. Just ask and answer three questions:

  • WHAT is happening?
  • SO WHAT does it mean for all of us?
  • NOW WHAT shall we do next?

We can use these questions with students, with colleagues, and with parents and community members. It works with problems both big and small.

The posts on this blog will be from people who are using Adaptive Action everywhere in the schools system. We hope that you can recognize yourself in these blogs and that you will join our conversation.