Learning by Osmosis

Michael Metzger

Almost all wrong…
I think that architectural training as currently practiced in North America is almost all wrong. It is based on an Enlightenment model (truly based on Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”) that imagines that verbal and or written communication equals knowledge transfer equals education. It’s the opposite of mentoring.

Without going too far into the realm of epistemology, which I am barely qualified to spell, much less discuss, I think the biblical definition of knowing (excluding for the moment sexual knowing) is much more personal and embodied than the Enlightenment “knowledge transfer” model. It involves inhabiting a truth, not just hearing it or writing it down or repeating it. Apprenticeship is the educational model that allows us to inhabit the truths of our master/teacher. It is not done in a classroom, nor through reading a book, though both may play a part.

This is the thing that Frank Lloyd Wright got right in his Taliesin Fellowship. His apprentices learned to become architects by being around him, by watching him work, by emulating him – to the degree that they could. Eventually they all – mostly – moved on to develop their own mature styles: Alden Dow, Bruce Goff, E. Fay Jones and many others had long and distinguished careers (Jones won the AIA’s Gold Medal), but all bore the imprint of the time they spent with the master. They could have gone to 110 seminars on “The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright” (the Knowledge Transfer model) and never learn what they learned sharpening his colored pencils.

The architectural profession now has this all backwards. In most states, you cannot sit for the licensure exam to be an architect without an accredited professional degree. The apprenticeship model has been discarded as not meeting objective standards, as being neither comprehensive nor reliable. Schools of architecture are held to certain standards to guarantee that graduates have been exposed to crucial components of content without any recognition (beyond exams) that they have understood or indwell any of it. “Indwell” is not a word you will ever hear in a discussion of architectural education. “Core competencies,” maybe. So the richest source of architectural learning, the practicing architect, has been swept aside in favor of curricular standards, student/teacher ratios and certification.

[One cannot help but be reminded of the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where the Wizard tells the Scarecrow, “My boy, back where I come from, men teach at great universities with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma!”]

I have long maintained that the reason I passed the licensure exam on my first try was not because of the professional degree I earned in college, but because of the two and a half years I spent toiling away on seemingly insignificant work at a six-person office in Wichita, Kansas. I learned more by osmosis in that small office than I ever learned by diligent (or less than diligent) study at the university. And most of it was overheard.

Let me give you another analog: I think that athletic coaches get this. If you want to be a great basketball coach, reading books and watching instructional videos will not get you there. What would-be coaches do is go and attach themselves to great coaches – as graduate assistants, as managers, as gofers, for little pay, or for no pay at all. And gradually, they absorb a way of coaching that allows them to become great. The lineage of great coaches is easy to trace, like Hank Iba to Jack Hartman to Lon Kruger, because the connections are always personal and always involve being in the master’s presence over an extended period of time. Young players might think it’s neat to say that they went to Bill Self’s Summer Basketball Camp, but real coaches know that if you want to have Bill Self’s success, you have to grab a mop and a towel and humble yourself and go be with Bill Self for four or six or ten years or whatever it takes. Summer camp won’t do it. Why this model, which works so obviously well in coaching, seems unable to wash over into more “serious” professions, is both a mystery and a grief to me.

As an architect and Principal with HOK Sport Venue Event in Kansas City, David Greusel has nearly 30 years of experience designing convention, civic and commercial facilities, including professional and collegiate sports venues. This article was previously published in Comment magazine (www.cardus.ca/comment), a publication of Cardus, a think tank that bridges politics and culture, to rethink, research, and rebuild an integrative vision of North American social architecture.


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. Professional training — particularly that conducted in seminaries — should pay close heed to this essay. The move toward distant learning as a cost saving alternative to the embodied presence of godly mentors only makes sense when applied to the “Knowledge Transfer” model. It is a strategic move in the wrong direction. Apprenticeship is less efficient, but more effective. It is high time that we actually took the example of Jesus’ incarnation more seriously.

  2. Why does it have to be “either/or”? What is wrong with the “and/both” option?

    I am an assistant coach for my son’s basketball and lacrosse teams and I have learned both from attending lectures AND watching better coaches.

    I am a Systems Engineer and I have learned much in the Universities I attended AND much working with better Engineers.

    Certainly most would learn more from an apprenticeship, but that doesn’t mean such things as leactures, distant education, or other “knowledge transfer” models are not useful or wrong.

    So why does one have to be WRONG? Why not use BOTH?

  3. Good insight on the world of learning. My son is an architectural engineering major a Drexel University. He chose the school because of the coop program. He is getting ready to begin his second coop with one of the leading firms in the region. His “learning” has been about the task and about the profession and about what it means to work. The one is taught from books, the other is caught from the relationships.

  4. I am an architecture student at the University of Maryland, and I find much of this is very relevant. We are required to take many classes that are never applied to our main studio class, all for requirements. However, the IDP (Intern Development Program) is another requirement for licensing, a program that requires a certain amount of hours with a firm before taking the tests. However, much of the issues with schooling are still there.

  5. “Apprenticeship is the educational model that allows us to inhabit the truths of our master/teacher.”

    Not only does the student inhabit the truth of his master/teacher in this model, but the truth also inhabits the student.

    Bloom’s Affective Domain describes objectives for education that, at the highest level of learning, characterizes the student. The master’s truth has informed and transformed the student’s grid through which the student interprets, makes decisions, and acts. Truth has habituated the student.

    If the academy would adopt more learning outcomes based on affective goals, then higher education would produce similar results described in this article. See also Leroy Ford, A Curriculum Design Manual for Theological Education.

    In addition, the Apprentice Model naturally tends to create activities for the student that meet affective learning outcomes. The apprentice learns by doing, which forms habits, practices, commitments, and characteristics out of that which the student learns. The student assesses learning through performance and attitudes that the mentor or journeyman can appreciate and advise. The student adopts that which the master demonstrates, models, practices, exemplifies, etc. Imitation of the master by the student is a key feature in this model.

    Moreover, the Apprentice Model tends to create relationships; we learn more when we join with others who are on the same journey. Trust helps accelerate learning. We emulate those we like and trust and admire; we experiment more readily in safe environments–free from ridicule and criticism. The master becomes coach.

    And, because the Apprentice Model occurs in a social context, i.e. on-the-job, the student lives within the culture or ethos of the subject and learns the subject more effectively. Rather than studying the subject in a classroom under the direction of a lecture about the subject, the student experiences the subject in context with the constituents that make up the environment of the subject.

    Thus, field education leads the typical seminary’s mission by emphasizing the Apprenticeship Model in its contextual learning experiences.

    One could argue that they need more!

  6. There is no substitute for the mentoring aspect to learning. However, I had deeper sense of connectedness when I took a correspondance course (that consisted of listening to cassette tapes) with J. Julius Scott at Wheaton College than I ever had with any of my professors at Johns Hopkins.

    Why was that?

  7. I’m thinkin’ Frank Smith “Joining the Literacy Club”, Parker Palmer’s “To Know As We Are Known”, Esther Meek’s “Longing to Know”, and Michael Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge”, to drop a few names and works. Carry on, comrades.

  8. David, great article. I think many of the same thoughts regarding my profession and practice in wealth managment. Many firms simply couldn’t get out and “know” the bundled assets they bought. It was efficient. Used to be the local banker knew the customer and the assets they held. Mike, thanks for including a great guest writer.

  9. I see and agree with this. I have seen it in my own life with teaching. I think physicians do a both/and approach as well and certainly chefs must as well. But I think one must also add love to the mix. If one does not love what one does, not much of anything will help.

    Personally – and on a lighter note – I hope that David G.’s 30 years experience causes him to put more women’s bathrooms in public venues than men’s. I’m still waiting for a shorter line…

  10. Kathryn,

    You’ll be happy to know that many localities have “potty parity” regulations that do indeed call for more fixtures for women. Of course, my firm didn’t need a law to tell us to do that. We inhabit that truth already.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *