The traditional apprenticeship model has its roots in the medieval guilds where the apprentice worked with a highly skilled specialist.
This model of learning has been regarded as a journey through a series of stages of increasing complexity, supported by a master. The journey has provided the apprentice with the opportunity to mature not only in occupational expertise but also personally and morally (Fuller and Unwin 2009).
Apprenticeship as a way of occupational preparation has been institutionalised in various ways in the course of history. As a specific mode of learning, it is generally characterised by observation, imitation and practice in an authentic workplace setting. Apprentices are not taught; they learn as part of everyday life and comprehend the knowledge they need to carry out their tasks, and their individual engagement is essential (Billett 2016). It has been argued that the idea of apprenticeship may provide a basis for an inclusive social theory of learning (Guile and Young 1998).
The renewed interest in the apprenticeship mode of learning is related to the practice turn in the learning theory, emphasising learning as participation in socially situated practice (Lave and Wenger 1991). The focus is not on individual cognitive abilities and learning as acquisition. According to this perspective, learning occurs as a socialisation process that involves the learners’ steadily increased participation in social practice. Moreover, a crucial point is that learning cannot be understood without reference to the context in which people act.
Along with the practice turn in the learning theory, there has been a growing interest in workplace learning. The focal point for strengthening professional development has shifted from courses and programmes to professional learning as an aspect of work (Webster-Wright 2009; Timperley 2011).
Is it true that socially situated theory of learning and the focus on workplace learning tend to underpin the increased interest in field placement in higher education and an apprenticeship mode of learning? The institutionalisation of learning in schools and higher education implies a separation of the central aspects of professional competence, indicating a gap between theory and practice (Burrage 1993; Sullivan 2005; Joram 2007; Laursen 2015).
The focus on graduate employability and job readiness implies that graduates of university disciplines are expected to have acquired not just a specified body of knowledge but also the ability to apply such knowledge in practical problem solving in a reflective and responsible way.