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 If I’m a history teacher, and I want my students to analyze a historical document, then I need to do it myself and talk them through my process.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.

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