The problem with apprenticeships, internships, and mentors

What could possibly be wrong with a school that offers students their pick of apprenticeships, internships, and mentors?

One of the fundamental problems of schooling is that it takes away agency from the student. Young people come into the world eager to learn, but when they are placed in schooling environments, that love of learning is put down. Students are expected to speak only when spoken to. Questions may be asked, but only at the appropriate time. “You want to talk about dinosaurs? Too bad, we’re talking about the color wheel.” “You want to play with the microscope? Too bad, this is core skills time; get back to your Khan Academy math.” Students become convinced that knowledge comes from above, and that adults know best what students should be learning.

Students become reliant on their teachers and the rules of the institution to inform their actions and guide their intellectual development. Many of them even come to believe that they would not learn how to count or read if not for the institution of schooling. Of course, they also would learn to count and read if they were sent to a nursing home for 7 hours a day, 180 days a year, for 13 years of their youth and adolescence—and then society would ask, without nursing homes, how would the children learn?

Because it is such a simple way of looking at the world, and because it is reaffirmed endlessly through cultural norms and rituals, society fully buys into the belief of schooling as the means of learning. Instead of asking how to help their children lead remarkable lives, parents ponder where they can move to so they can get their children into schools that will provide them with the best learning opportunities. In the past, this may have been limited to AP classes, extracurricular clubs, and athletic facilities. But more recently there has been an uptick in schools offering their students apprenticeships, internships, and mentors.

For the parent who is trying to game the system so that they take on minimal social risk while positioning their child to get into a top college, these school offerings sound like safe ways to differentiate their child’s schooling experience. Unfortunately, like everything else in the schooling world, this becomes part of the college admissions arms race, where parents and schools try to provide students with experiences and essay fodder that allow them to stand above the competition. Seeking to capitalize on parental anxiety, schools now tout their special partnerships with organizations that their students can intern at, or list the professionals their students can call on as mentors. “Come to our school,” they say, “and we will get you an internship with a venture backed startup!” “Come to our school, and we will give you a world class mentor!” A parent who is trying to game the system tends to appreciate a school that tees up opportunities for their children to opt into.

However, by offering structured apprenticeships, internships, and mentors, schools undermine the learning process while also limiting the potential for students to leverage those experiences into remarkable lives led.

Numerous studies have highlighted how choice and agency impacts learning. In one study, researchers provided one group of young people with a toy to play with as they saw fit. In the other group, they instructed the young people on how the toy worked, and how to manipulate it. The young people who were free to play with the toy were more engaged and had more fun than the group that received instruction. The free play group developed a deeper understanding of how the toy worked, to include the tasks that the other group received direct instruction on. In another study, students who received clear-cut instructions on how to solve chemistry problems underperformed relative to students who were not given such instructions. And in another study, students in underperforming schools had tremendous competency gains after the schools provided them with the opportunity to decide what topics to engage in. Whereas choice can sometimes be paralyzing (see The Paradox of Choice), it seems in education that the more choices students get to make, the more they thrive.

So, what is wrong with schools giving students options of apprenticeships, internships, and mentors to choose from? Is not an à la carte approach better than not offering options at all? The answer is no. More options are better than less options. But the best option is not to limit young people to any number of options at all.     

When young people are given the freedom to pursue their interests in a safe environment, they have an unlimited number of potential learning experiences. Unlike students at traditional schools, Learners in an emancipated learning environment are not required to take core curriculum classes with the opportunity to take some additional elective courses. Their “extracurricular” activities are not limited to nine sports or twelve clubs. And they are not stuck choosing from a list of ten companies to intern at or twenty coaches to receive mentorship from.

At Abrome, we fully endorse the notion of apprenticeships, internships, and mentors as accelerants to creating deeper and more meaningful learning experiences. We believe that they are worth pursuing when the time is right. But we refuse to dictate when that time is, or to package them in a turnkey manner for our Learners. Instead, we encourage Learners to create their own opportunities based on their unique needs, interests, and goals, and cognizant of the resources they have at hand. It would be naive for us to believe that we could identify appropriate organizations and mentors for each of our Learners better than they could themselves. And it would be foolish for us to believe that Learners would benefit more from us providing them with these opportunities than they would from creating them for themselves.

By removing the limitations of choosing from a menu of internships and mentors, Learners are able to transcend from participating in something someone else has imagined to pursuing something that is personally meaningful. They go from absorbing content in a structured way to deeper learning through the development of connections with people who share their interests. They transition from engaging in experiences for external validation to embracing experiences for personal joy.

The benefits of leaving the responsibility of finding apprenticeships, internships, and mentors to the Learner extend far beyond gaining more meaningful apprenticeships, internships, and mentors. When Learners develop a list of organizations or mentors that they will then pitch themselves to, it helps create in them a mindset where they feel responsible for their own education and lives. They develop agency through the process of creation. They fear failure less because failure becomes a common occurrence for those who take on the responsibility of leading remarkable lives. When they are no longer given a list of options, a world of possibilities opens up before them. And because this happens at a young age, they are not trained to be helpless in the face of uncertainty.