In pre-industrial societies – from which we have evolved – the development of appropriate skills in young people was a matter of sheer survival. By studying such practices, and watching the concurrent neurological changes which medical science makes possible, we see an exact biological response to specific environments. Once a new skill was learnt that young learner was responsible for applying such skills to the benefit of everyone; the “payback” had to be immediate.
Work on the neurological structure of the adolescent brain is beginning to show how these networks draw upon the young child’s earlier dependence on external support.
Adolescence is currently seen as a “problem” in Western Society; that excess of hormones leaves the rapidly maturing child unaware of its new physical strength, and confused as to how to direct it. While modern parents and teachers find adolescence disruptive, earlier cultures directed this energy in ways that developed those skills on which the community was dependent for its ongoing survival. In doing so it also ensured that young people learned, and practiced, what was seen as appropriate social behavior.
Without that support in developing the earliest basic skills young people just can’t cope with adolescence.
As a young teacher at Manchester Grammar School I used to take some of my Sixth Formers to live with the nomads in Iran during the summer. I had a rare opportunity of watching 17-year-old Westerners interacting with nomads of the same age. One day the tribal chieftain as asked, “We are very honored to have these young Englishmen living with us. But we are confused. Why are they not with their parents learning how to run the family business? Unless young men work with their fathers how can they ever learn the wisdom of their elders?”
I found it a hard question to answer. Later that night one of the English boys came to see me. His eyes were damp. “That question really upset me,” he said, “I know my Dad loves me, but I hardly know him. I know he works very hard to support us, but we hardly ever talk. It makes me feel as if I’m incomplete.”
Hold onto that word, “Incomplete,” when you think of adolescents. Adolescence is a problem largely of our own making.
…a way of “going beyond what comes naturally.” A form of intellectual weaning, that balances the rate of physical maturation.
For years when researchers studied learning, they sat patiently at the back of classrooms or stood on the corners of the playground. Rarely did they study learning in pre-industrial societies. Recent work on Cognitive Apprenticeship seeks to redress this; it helps us to understand what our brains expect to do naturally.
As did Vygotsky, Cognitive Apprenticeship identifies four stages. Firstly the successful learner needs to know the significance of the sub-task to the whole job. Like sharpening chisels and carving a figurehead. A man on a walking holiday in Italy recently saw two men working in a stone quarry. He asked each what they were doing. One responded in bored tones that he was “squaring this bloody lump of rock.” The other smiled and said, “I’m building a cathedral.”
To the learner who knows where he or she is going no task is simply “basic;” it’s all part of the greater endeavor. . Secondly apprenticeship recognizes that scaffolding is only kept in place until the new structure has had time to set, to consolidate. Scaffolding is only a temporary expedient.