Martin Hicks – Wrenches and scalpels

I was thinking about this fall’s HEQCO conference “Hands on: Exploring apprenticeship and the skilled trades.”  We are broadening our focus to embrace pieces of the postsecondary mosaic beyond public colleges and universities, and the conference is but one manifestation.  And yet, even as we do so we are aware of a trade off (pun intended): we are not likely to attract as many university colleagues to our conference this year. It feels like a reach too far across the silos.  Do universities and the trades share nothing beyond the occasional story of a student straying over the fence in one direction or the other?

Then I was thinking about my daughter who is working her way through medical school. The way physician training is organized has strong parallels to apprenticeship. Perhaps the distance between the academy and the shop floor is shorter than we believe.

Apprentices train for up to five years, some of it theory and foundation in the classroom, most of it hands-on in the workplace.  Medical school begins in the classroom in year one, but moves completely to hands-on practice in hospitals and in the community by year three and four (the clerkship), and remains there through the additional two to six years of residency.  Apprentices are earning-learning employees.  So are residents.  Apprentices learn complex and critical procedures by first watching, then assisting, then leading under supervision, finally performing solo followed by evaluation.  So do medical students.  Both have to master – through doing and through theory – a comprehensive list of learning outcomes and pass a provincial or national exam before being licensed by their respective professional colleges.

How is it that these silos have, independently, settled on the same fundamental approach to teaching-learning?  Perhaps this reflects the demands we place on these seemingly disparate graduates.  Consider the broad parallels between what you need and expect from your automotive service technicians and your doctors.  On a good day (for you) one fixes a dent on your hood; the other removes a wart from your arm.  On a bad day (for you), one replaces a worn valve in your engine’s cylinder head; the other a worn valve in your heart.  On a challenging day (for them) one diagnoses an intermittent electrical problem hidden in a haze of electronics, the other a rare condition signalled by sporadic symptoms you have difficulty describing.  The stakes can be high: whether a botched brake job or bungled surgery, you’re dead. Your performance expectations are correspondingly high.

Of course there are big differences, too, between trades and docs training.  And that’s the beauty of it.  If someone else has evolved something fundamentally similar to what you are doing but in another arena and with significant variances in approach and execution, well then there is real potential to learn and adopt big new ideas into your world.  Way more so than if you go only to conferences of fellow technician or physician educators, who collectively explore incremental change on the margin.

Now perhaps some from the liberal arts will say “Yes that may apply (pun intended) to medicine and other professional programs, but not so much to us.  We’re the thinkers, not the doers.  It’s not like our graduates are going to open a philosophy shop. ‘Broken syllogisms repaired here.’”  But you face students who are increasingly asking:  “show me how this applies.”   And you deal with the pressure to weave variants of workplace based or workplace applicable learning into your programs.

Besides, Descartes was likely mistranslated.  He really said “I do, therefore I am.”  Think about it.  (HEQCO Conference November 5-6, InterContinental Toronto Centre Hotel,register through our web site.)

Wrenches and scalpels
-Martin Hicks, Executive Director, Data & Statistics

3 replies on “Martin Hicks – Wrenches and scalpels”

Clever comparison. Certainly, anyone who has had to undergo orthopedic surgery knows of the similarity to an auto shop!
Some of us out here in the West are examples of a “new” breed of university, where not only do we highly prize teaching and learning, but some of us even have trades programming at the same school as, say, those philosophy students. And I, for one, will be at the HEQCO Conference you are writing about as a representative of Vancouver Island University.

I agree with Steve that this is a clever comparison. (Even though we have the sames last name I don’t think we’re related.)

At the CAFCE conference in June one of the speakers pointed out that learning by doing, i.e. co-op education or work integrated learning is the earliest form of education; it’s how children learned to become farmers, hunters, traders …

Director of Cooperative Education and Career Services
Redeemer University College

I’m glad to see this theme explored. There’s a lot of precedents for the apprenticeship model as a sound conceptual framework for training. We’ve all learned things at the hands of people who know more than we do (i.e., parents, mentors, coaches, teachers, etc.). It’s about time that the higher education sector starts to explore the “earn as you learn” model as a real program/curriculum alternative.

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