Cognitive Apprenticeship (Collins, Brown, Newman)

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., & Newman, S.E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.) Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453-494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

The authors describe the cognitive apprenticeship model, which advocates a “master-apprentice” relationship for successful learning. Though the spirit of cognitive apprenticeship stems from Lave and Wenger’s work observing traditional apprenticeship practices, the CA framework extends beyond traditional apprenticeship in significant ways, primarily by being focused on the higher-order metacognitive skills and problem solving/task completion strategies employed by experts. Teachers, playing the role of experts in a domain, must make such usually implicit processes visible for their students and use appropriate scaffolding to guide students toward mastery.

Many complex and important skills, such those required for language use and social interaction, are learned informally through apprenticeship-like methods (not involving didactic teaching): observation, coaching, and successive approximation (p.453)…”Apprenticeship embeds the learning of skills and knowledge in their social and functional context” (p.454).

Problem with schools in terms of acquiring expert practice:

  • Few resources are devoted to higher-order problem solving activities that require students to actively integrate and appropriately apply subskills and conceptual knowledge
  • Conceptual and problem-solving knowledge acquired in school remains largely unintegrated or inert

“…Cognitive and meta cognitive strategies and processes are more central than either low-level subskills or abstract conceptual and factual knowledge. They are the organizing principles of expertise, particularly in such domains as reading, writing, and mathematics. Further, because expert practice in these domains rests crucially on the integration of cognitive and metacognitive processes, it can best be taught through methods that emphasize what Lave calls successive approximation of mature practice, methods that have traditionally been employed in apprenticeship to transmit complex physical processes and skills” (p.455).

Traditional Apprenticeship:

  • Apprenticeship focuses on the specific methods for carrying out tasks in a domain.
  • Apprentices learn these methods through what Lave calls observation, coaching and practice (teachers: modeling, coaching, and fading).
  • Because learners are embedded in a subculture in which most, if not all, members are participants in the target skills, they have continual access to models of expertise-in-use against which to refine their understanding of complex skills. Moreover, it is not uncommon for apprentices to have access to several masters and thus to a variety of models of expertise.
  • Observing others with varying degrees of skill encourages apprentices to view learning as an incrementally staged process.
  • Observation also aids learners in developing a conceptual model of the target task or process prior to attempting to execute it [Molecules and Minds]. This provides learners with:
  1. An advanced organizer for learners’ initial attempts to execute a complex skill
  2. An interpretive structure for making sense of the feedback, hints, and corrections
  3. An internalized guide for the period of independent practice
  4. A way to reflect and continuously update their internal understanding; conceptual models encourage autonomy. (Reflection- the ability of learners to compare their own performance, at both micro and macro levels, to the performance of an expert.)

Cognitive Apprenticeship:

  • Aimed primarily at teaching the processes that experts use to handle complex tasks.
  • Conceptual and factual knowledge are exemplified and situated in the contexts of their use (used to solve problems or carry out tasks).
  • Focus of the learning-through-guided experiences is on cognitive and metacognitive (rather than physical) skills and processes.
  • Requires the externalization of processes that are usually carried out internally.
  • CA teaching methods are designed to bring the tacit processes that comprise expert cognitive and metacognitive functioning into the open, so that students can observe, enact, and practice them.
  • Requires extended techniques to encourage development of self-correction and monitoring skills. This is done by:
    • Encouraging reflection on differences between novice and expert performance by alternation between expert and novice efforts and via abstracted replay.
    • Developing and externalizing a producer-critic dialogue that studens can gradually internalize (accomplished through discussion, alternation of teacher-learner roles and group problem solving).
  • Emphasis on decontextualizing knowledge (by contrast, traditional apprenticeship emphasizes teaching skills in the context of their use).
  • Extends situated learning to diverse settings so that students learn how to apply their skills in varied contexts.

Active listeners or readers, who test their understanding and pursue the issues that are raised in their minds, learn things that apprenticeship can never teach. To the degree that readers or listeners are passive, however, they will not learn as much as they would by apprenticeship, because apprenticeship forces them to use their knowledge. Moreover, few people learn to be active readers and listeners on their own, and that is where cognitive apprenticeship is critical–observing the processes by which an expert listener or reader thinks and practicing these skills under the guidance of the expert can teach students to learn on their own more skillfully” (p.459). [Brown and Adler’s “Minds on Fire”: “The building blocks provided by the OER movement, along with e-Science and e-Humanities and the resources of the Web 2.0, are creating the conditions for the emergence of new kinds of open participatory learning ecosystems that will support active, passion-based learning: Learning 2.0.”]

Three models for cognitive apprenticship:

  • Palincsar and Brown’s Reciprocal Teaching of Reading
  • Scardamalia and Bereiter’s Procedural Facilitation of Writing
  • Schoenfeld’s Method for Teaching Mathematical Problem Solving

“Textbook solutions and classroom demonstrations generally illustrate only the successful solution path, not the search space that contains all the dead-end attempts. Such solutions reveal neither the exploration in searching for a good method nor the necessary evaluation of the exploration. Seeing how experts deal with problems that are difficult for them is critical to students’ developing a belief in their own capabilities. Even experts stumble, flounder , and abandon their search for a solution until another time. Witnessing these struggles helps students realize that thrashing is neither unique to them nor a sign of incompetence” (p.473).

“Successful problem solving requires that one assume at least three different, though interrelated, roles at different points in the problem-solving process: that of moderator or executive, that of generator of alternative paths, and that of critic of alternatives. Small-group problem solving differentiates and externalizes these roles: Different people naturally take on different roles, and problem solving proceeds along these lines. Thus, group discussion and decision making models the interplay among processes that an individual must internalize to be a successful problem solver” (p.474).

Abstracted replay – process recapitulation designed to focus students’ attention on the critical decisions or actions. The alternation between expert and student postmortem analyses enables the class to compare student problem-solving processes and strategies with those of the expert; such comparisons provide the basis for diagnosing student difficulties and for making incremental adjustments in student performance. Moreover, generating abstracted replays involves focusing on the strategies as well as the tactical levels of problem solving: This aids students in developing a hierarchical model of the problem-solving process as the basis for self-monitoring and correction, and in seeing how to organize local (tactical) processes to accomplish high-level (strategic) goals.

Framework for designing learning environments:



  • Domain – conceptual and factual knowledge and procedures explicitly identified within a particular subject matter.
  • Heuristic strategies – generally effective techniques and approaches for accomplishing tasks; “tricks of the trade.”
  • Control strategies – control the process of carrying out a task. Require reflection on the problem-solving process to determine how to proceed; operate on many different levels; have monitoring, diagnostic, and remedial components.
  • Learning strategies – strategies for learning the other types of knowledge.


“A major direction in current cognitive research is to attempt to formulate explicitly the strategies and skills underlying expert practice, to make them a legitimate focus of teaching in schools and other learning environments” (p.480).

  • Modeling – involves an expert’s carrying out a task so that students can observe and build a conceptual model of the processes that are required to accomplish the task. In cognitive domains, this requires the externalization of the heuristics and control processes by which experts make use of basic conceptual and procedur al knowledge.
  • Coaching – involves observing students and offering hints, scaffolding, feedback, modeling, reminders, and new tasks.
  • Scaffolding – supports (suggestions or help, cue cards, etc.) the teacher provides to help the student carry out a task. Fading – gradual removal of supports.
  • Articulation – includes any method of getting students to articulate their knowledge, reasoning, or problem-solving processes in a domain.
  • Reflection – enables students to compare their own problem-solving processes with those of an expert, another student, and ultimately, an internal cognitive model of expertise.
  • Exploration – pushing students into a mode of problem solving on their own. Natural culmination of the fading of supports (in problem solving and problem setting).


  • Increasing complexity
  • Increasing diversity – wider and wider variety of strategies or skills are required. As students learn to apply skills to more diverse problems and problem situations, their strategies acquire a richer net of contextual associations.
  • Global before local skills – allow students to build a conceptual map before attending to the details.


The ready availability of models of expertise-in-use, the presence of clear expectations and learning goals, and the integration of skill improvement and social reward help motivate and ground learning. Presence of other learners provides apprentices with calibrations on their own progress, helping them identify their strengths and weaknesses and thus to focus their efforts for improvement. Availability of multiple masters may help learners realize that even experts have different styles and ways of doing things and different special aptitudes. Helps develop in the learner the belief that learning involves using multiple resources in the social context to obtain scaffolding and feedback. Structuring the social context to encourage the development of these productive beliefs sets the stage for the development of cooperative learning styles (Levin, 1982) and of collaborative skill generally.

  • Situated learning – helps with development of “problem finding” (Getzels & Csikszentmihalyi, 1976) and of pursuing “emergent goals” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1985).
  • Culture of expert practice – experts must be able to identify and represent to students the cognitive processes they engage in as they solve problems. Drawing students into a culture of expert practice in cognitive domains involves teaching them how to “think like experts.” Include focused interactions among learners and experts for the purpose of solving problems and carrying out tasks.
  • Intrinsic motivation – important to create learning environments in which students perform tasks because they are intrinsically related to an interesting or at least coherent goal, not for a good grade or praise (extrinsic).
  • Exploiting cooperation – powerful motivator and mechanism for extending learning resources. Cooperative learning and problem solving provides students with an additional source of scaffolding, via knowledge and processes distributed throughout the group.
  • Exploiting competition – perhaps best to organize group competitions.

Appropriately designed computer-based modeling, coaching, and fading systems can make the apprenticeship model of learning cost effective and widely available. Such computer systems need to only augment the master teacher in a way that amplifies and makes her efforts more cost effective. Designing these learning environments may help us better understand the processes and knowledge that students require for expertise and that teacher require to effectively diagnose student difficulties, give useful hints, sequence learning activities, etc.


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