Apprenticeship week

We need to think about both pedagogy and ‘performance character’ if we want to create outstanding apprentices, argues Bill Lucas

Everyone in England wants more apprenticeships at the moment. This is good news. But in the rush to the three million mark we will tarnish the brand unless we really focus on the art, science and craft of teaching and learning – pedagogy – and, at the same time, are more demanding about the goals of apprenticeship.

Neither ‘pedagogy’ nor ‘performance character’ are words that necessarily trip off the tongue of further education professionals. But I think they should do, especially bearing in mind Sir Michael Wilshaw’s ongoing criticism of quality in further education.

Let’s start with pedagogy. In City & Guilds’ report Remaking Apprenticeships, Ellen Spencer and I argued that to select the best kinds of teaching and learning it was necessary to be more aspirational about the outcomes we want. As well as developing workers who are reliably skilled, literate, numerate and work-ready, we also need to focus on cultivating resourcefulness, craftsmanship and a set of wider skills.

If we truly desire these things too, then our pedagogies will use the full range of methods – learning from experts, systematic practising, hands-on approaches, actionable feedback, coaching and mentoring, real-world problem solving, and activities that are time-bound. Methods need, of course, to be matched to learners’ needs, contexts and assessment requirements, but the principle is clear.
Now for ‘performance character’. Schools have been talking about character for a while, with a growing interest from researchers, practitioners and politicians in concepts like ‘grit’ or ‘resilience’.

So, too, has the CBI. As John Cridland, the director general, put it: “Character attributes and behaviours are equally as important as qualifications. Most employers do not recruit on subject or qualification unless you need a particular scientist for a particular research job.”

But the FE sector in general, and apprenticeships in particular, have been slow to engage in this debate. Instead, the focus has been too much on structures, standards and funding models.

Performance character is sometimes unhelpfully called ‘soft skills’ or ‘non-cognitive skills’. I don’t like either of these for their potentially negative implications. Performance character is a more useful phrase, initially developed by educators in the USA and adopted here more recently to describe the capabilities most useful to young people in life and learning.

Capabilities include resilience, positive attitude, self-control, ‘grit’, growth mindset and craftsmanship. Valuable in their own rights, they also lead to better educational outcomes. Researchers who have shown such correlations include Ron Berger, Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck, John Hattie, James Heckman, Tim Kautz and Martin Seligman.

Recently, we have moved beyond the language of skills to seek to describe a set of ‘habits of mind’ of the kind that both employers and educationalists can find common cause. We suggest the following.

  • Self-belief: confidence in oneself and one’s capability.
  • Self-control: the ability to forgo short-term impulses/diversions to prioritise higher goals.
  • Perseverance: a set of attributes including effort, persistence, attention, grit and a commitment to long-term goals.
  • Resilience: the ability to adapt to challenges, seek growth in them and bounce back.
  • Curiosity: a strong desire to know and learn with an openness to new experiences.
  • Empathy: being able to ‘walk in another’s shoes’, identifying with and understanding their feelings and views.
  • Creativity: the production and development of new and useful ideas, often collaboratively.
  • Craftsmanship: pride in a job well done, an ethic of excellence.

Can these be developed in apprentices? Most certainly. How? By choosing the right blend of learning methods and creating the culture within which these are used and valued. This is described in more detail in Learning
to be Employable (see below).

Does a focus on character distract from the important job of developing reliable expertise in an identified occupation? On the contrary. The evidence suggests that apprentices will be both more work and life ready. Better able to progress, we hope, right up to the new degree level apprenticeships, such employees will be more confident citizens and much more effective learners.

Professor Bill Lucas is director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester. His latest research, with Janet Hanson, Learning to Be Employable: practical lessons from research into developing character, is published by City & Guilds.

You can read Remaking Apprenticeships here.

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