According to the American Heritage Desk Dictionary, the word apprentice is defined as “one who learns a trade under the direction of a qualified master or a novice”. I find both of these definitions relevant to the work I do every day, as well as how I think about learning in relation to the remediation of autism spectrum disorders or related neurological disorders.
Vocational training has been around for hundreds of years, dating back to the Middle Ages. The idea of learning itself has been around much longer than that, since the dawn of history. Humans have always learned from “masters”, and this is what allows the human race to survive. Parents learn their children who learn their children, and so on. This transmission of basic survival skills is not what we can traditionally think of as a master / apprentice relationship; but in reality, it is learning in its most basic and necessary form.
We tend to think of apprentices in relation to vocational training, education or the workforce. While this form of training is the backbone of most professions, apprenticeship is used in many places and for many purposes. If you return to the definition at the beginning of this article, it indicates that an apprentice is one who learns a trade under the direction of a master. When I think about it, I take the meaning of the word “trade” loosely. Trade can mean skill, task, or concept. When we think of it this way, learning applies to almost everything we learn throughout our lives.
When was the last time you were an apprentice or a master? I often find myself in both positions. Sometimes I am even taken as a master and apprentice of the same task. As I continue to learn, I start to pass my knowledge and my findings on to someone else. I’m sure you’ve all had that experience as well. Let’s face it, there are some things we will never fully master, but we know enough to hire an apprentice and start guiding them to a new level of understanding.
In my profession, I am in the unique position of being both a master and an apprentice. I spend most of my days guiding parents to begin the remediation process with their children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or related neurological disorder. But I often find myself making new discoveries and developing my abilities even though I’m in the role of master. This orientation and this learning are all based on the master / apprentice relationship which is not specific to parents of disabled children, but which is inherent in the act of parenthood. So I guide parents who are also in a position to be both a master and an apprentice.
When parents play the role of teacher, they spend their time guiding their child to make new discoveries in the security of their trusting relationship. Parents help their children learn new things, taking their teaching one step at a time until the child feels competent and ready to become more independent. So, what does this master / apprentice relationship between parent and child look like? Here is an example of how a parent would guide their child in learning how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the steps he / she would use to foster competence and independence.
- The parent has all the necessary materials ready and begins by asking the child to help get the bread out of the bag onto the plate. The parent promotes the discovery of the need for bread first by explaining to the child what the first step would be. The parent can then ask the child to choose the next item and help them open the peanut butter or jelly. At this point, the parent can simply ask the child to watch as he / she spreads each ingredient.
- As the child becomes proficient with the above steps, the parent then adds the step of spreading ingredients. The parent can start by using the hand on the hand to help the child and gradually withdraw his hand as the child feels competent.
- Then the parent allows the child to make their own sandwich, but stands ready to offer any help or reminders as needed.
- The last step allows the child to make their own sandwich independently, without the support or supervision of a parent.
Each of the above steps can be broken down into even smaller steps, depending on the child’s ability; but the idea is that the child learns skills, makes discoveries and develops independence under the guidance of a trusted parent. It should also be noted that each step should be practiced several times before proceeding to the next step. Guides want to strengthen the skills of their apprentice before expanding the level of independence.
Many parents do this type of guidance on a daily basis, without even realizing what they are doing. Each of these master / apprentice experiences is what promotes independence and a quality of life in our children. This same type of master / apprentice relationship is what we use in the remediation of autism spectrum disorders through the RDI® program. The only difference may be the amount of support and / or the time needed to master a task.