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Learning From Mentors
by Wendy Priesnitz

“What is desired is that the teacher cease being a lecturer, satisfied with transmitting ready-made solutions; his role should rather be that of a mentor stimulating initiative and research.” ~ Jean Piaget


One of the foundations of life learning is that children and young people learn best by involvement, by doing, by independent risk-taking, by shouldering responsibility, by interacting with the real world of adults. Apprenticeship – both formal and informal – is a great way for this to happen. When a young person can work on-the-job as a helper, they can accumulate knowledge about life, learn specific skills, and study in detail the processes and experiences involved with various types of work.

This type of learning can be quite effective. For instance, researchers Carraher and Schliemann describe in a 2000 study published in the book Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environment how experienced carpenters in Brazil with little schooling informally acquire a better understanding of the mathematical concepts relevant to their work than do carpenter apprentices enrolled in classes specifically designed to teach those concepts.

Informal apprenticeship doesn’t have to take place in a working environment, however. Many older people are seeking opportunities to share their skills, knowledge, and experiences with the younger generation. They are an invaluable source of support for life learning young people who need caring adults to guide and nurture them as they navigate their way to adulthood. Within a few decades, the older adult population will double in size, so there is a growing pool of capable seniors eager to contribute to their communities. By working with older adults on community projects or volunteering in seniors’ residents, young people can develop important skills and attitudes, while meeting real needs.

People can seek mentors on specific topics as well, such as writing or a craft, or life skills like cooking and gardening. And in these situations, in addition to working on skill development, the mentor’s task may well be to communicate what it feels like to be a writer or a potter or a chef.

In an article about mentoring young writers, which appeared in the March/April 2002 issue of Life Learning Magazine, writer and former Growing Without Schooling editor Susannah Sheffer summarized her role with one young writer. “In my quirky way, stubbornly drawing my teaching principles from what I experience as a writer rather than from anything that might be called ‘scope and sequence,’ I wanted to offer Lisa a chance at the precise and surprising joy of sculpting a written piece. I didn’t want to assume that because she felt herself to be a beginner, still struggling to get anything at all down on paper, this seemingly more advanced joy and skill was beyond her reach.” Once the young writer had received that gift from her mentor, the writers’ world was open to her.

The best apprenticeship experiences are those where both mentor and apprentice gain. My eldest daughter, a life learner now in her 40s, launched a now-defunct mechanism in the early 1990s for matching both parties in such an arrangement. She characterized it as barter. “Apprenticing yourself to someone who has the skills you want to gain is an inexpensive and exciting way of learning. Two people work together – one person who wants to gain specific skills or knowledge and another person who is experienced in those particular areas and needs some help. The apprentice offers hands-on assistance in exchange for the mentor’s skills and wisdom. This is a great way to kickstart small businesses, to help business owners get past the awkward stage where there’s too much work to do alone, but not enough money to pay a second person to help.”

Apprenticeships also make sense for the young job seeker as a way out of the cycle of needing experience to get work, but needing work in order to gain experience.

So how do you find the perfect apprentice or mentor? To find a good match, carefully consider what it is you want to gain from the experience, and then write a detailed listing explaining your needs and/or desires. The best way to find a mentor match is through word of mouth. Put out the word in the community, asking neighbors, relatives, club leaders, or ministers for suggestions. If you’re looking for a person to help you in a specific area like writing or a craft, contact the relevant guild or organization. Likewise, prospective apprentices or their parents could also contact local small business associations and ask them for recommendations. Some industries – like publishing for example – have established internship opportunities, which makes the search simpler, although the competition is often great.

Don’t be shy; just go ahead and ask an appropriate person to be a mentor or to help you find one. Describe what you’re looking for and tell them why you think they would be a good mentor. Even if they decline to take on an apprentice – and many people will – they will be flattered that you asked. And they might have a suggestion for someone else to ask.

If a direct one-on-one relationship is not available, consider a more general volunteer experience. Many non-profit community organizations – especially those working in the arts, nature, and activism – have volunteer programs. Many small businesses also will gladly accept another pair of eager hands connected to a conscientious person. This sort of situation may be an option for younger children as well, especially if a parent accompanies them.

In order for mentoring to work, both mentors and apprentices should know what’s expected of them. To be a mentor means to be a wise, loyal advisor, a friend, and a counselor. In this context, it means non-coercively helping someone learn and grow. And that takes time, patience, an understanding of life learning concepts, and of the autonomy of self-directed young people. However, the relationship needn’t be a long-term one; many young people will merely be interested in learning a skill or shopping around for a taste of many different work experiences.

There is a range of responsibilities that a good mentor should undertake, but most importantly, mentors should make sure that their apprentices are well oriented to the organization or workplace, know the workplace rules, receive clear instructions about any tasks they are asked to perform, feel comfortable asking questions and have ample opportunity for feedback.

Apprentices have responsibilities too. In order for the relationship to run smoothly, young people need to, among other things, show up on time, take into account the workplace rules, trust their mentor, ask lots of questions, and speak up when they have an opinion.

Mentor/apprentice relationships can be rewarding for everyone involved. In addition to being a great way for people of all ages to learn, they provide many possibilities for young people to play meaningful roles in their communities.

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's Editor, the mother of two daughters who lived without school in the 1970s and 80s, and the author of 13 books.

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