The apprenticeship of observation

Consequently, the most powerful influence on teachers is the one most beyond our control. The sociologist Dan Lortie calls the phenomenon the apprenticeship of observation. Teachers learn to teach primarily by recalling their memories of having been taught, an average of 13,000 hours of instruction over a typical childhood. The apprenticeship of observation exacerbates what the education scholar Suzanne Wilson calls education reform’s double bind. The very people who embody the problem — teachers — are also the ones charged with solving it.

I’ve already written a fair bit about Elizabeth Green’s New York Times article Why do Americans stink at math?.

While Dan Lortie coined the term to refer to teachers, I think this idea applies in a number of other areas of our lives. We learn by watching those around us, our parents, our teachers, eventually our friends and neighbors. What we learn is not always the best way of doing things. In many cases the pattern seems set, and it’s difficult to do things differently.

Learning to do things differently takes time and effort. In many respects, the last five to ten years have been an ongoing attempt to unlearn what I learned in my own apprenticeship of observation. When I chose to work on the web almost twenty years ago, I thought the challenge would be learning new skills. While that is a challenge, the real challenge has been learning new and better ways of solving problems and collaborating.