Cognitive Apprenticeship

Cognitive Apprenticeship

During ancient days, learning occurred through an apprenticeship settings.  All tradesmen, from woodworking to medicine or law who were thought to be experts in the field, trained their understudies in the nuances of their profession.  Daily, the apprentice worked along side the master, watching, observing and noting the subtle intricacies to their chosen profession.  The expert demonstrated or modeled the chosen behavior guiding the novice in an understanding.  Only after years of careful observing, coaching, guiding, struggling and learning from both successful and unsuccessful attempts did the understudy gradually assume more responsibility and eventually was deemed a master themselves. Cognitive Apprenticeship

Educators based their cognitive apprenticeship teaching methodology upon this historical foundation of the early apprenticeship which can still be found in many non-industrialized cultures.  Phenomenal educational success has been noted as apprenticeship has once again returned to the forefront of teaching and learning.  The master educator guides the apprentice through the acquisition of cognitive processes.  Through the careful, guided ministrations, the educator molds the educational experience around the individual educational needs of the student.

Similar to the historical apprenticeship, cognitive apprenticeship is simply the process of an educator or mentor modeling a cognitive process which is then transferred to the learner, student or apprentice (Collins, Brown & Holum, 1991; Dennen, 2004).  The greatest dilemma for students in the acquisition of metacognition skills is the ability to understand the systems in using and applying them (Joyce, Weil & Calhoun, 2009).  This leads to the necessity to apply apprenticeship in a cognitive learning situation. Collins, Brown and Holum (1991) state “cognitive apprenticeship is a model of instruction that works to make thinking visible” (p. 1).

An Understanding of Cognitive Apprenticeship

Cognitive apprenticeship is based on the premise that learning is essentially a social process as students experience interactions with mentors, peers and content on a progression to understand their individual learning needs or learning styles.  It stems from social learning models and constructivism which is the learning process where knowledge is recognized as being unique to the individual who constructs it through acquisition and manipulation into existing schemas within the learner’s mind (Lever-Duffy & McDonald, 2008).  Individual knowledge is a result of a learning process requiring an active participation by the learner as information is assimilated with the goal to promote critical literacy to the learner’s environment, community and personal life (Cummins, Brown, & Sayers, 2007).  Additionally, constructivists define knowledge as a pool of information that has been formulated over time through the contribution of society and culture.  Learning is the ability to participate in a variety of social contexts using skills learned or knowledge (Woolfolk, 2010).

Teachers who base their instruction on the foundation of the cognitive apprenticeship continually apply student-centered learning.  Students are encouraged to use their knowledge in a variety of contexts that will especially direct them toward higher cognitive processes.  Five conditions of learning used are:

  1. First, all learning is integrated into complex, relevant and realistic environments.
  2. Second, learning provides social negotiation and shared responsibility within the community.
  3. Third, content will be demonstrated and taught through multiple means and representations.
  4. Fourth, instructors will nurture self-awareness within the student.
  5. Fifth, instructors will encourage learners to accept responsibility and ownership in regards to their learning (Driscoll, 2005).
Cognitive Apprenticeship in Practice

Malcolm Knowles, accredited for the discovery of self-directed learning, believed it should be the end goal of education to give every student the skills necessary so that he could participate in the full use of his capacities (Knowles, 1975).  However, William Perry (1999) noted that many students graduated from both undergraduate and graduate programs without having achieved the highest level of cognitive development.  Students avoided progress through temporizing, retreating and escaping from responsibilities which then necessitates the obligation of the teacher to model the needed cognitive processes to enable students to be full contributors.

This is accomplished through the individualistic steps of cognitive apprenticeship.  Just as each learner is unique, the process within cognitive apprenticeship is also unique.  Dennen (2004) comment there is a necessity to direct student thinking by pushing them to think one position above their current level of understand.  However, by attempting to push students into stages which are two or more levels higher causes frustration and insecurities for the individual.  The most adequate learning challenges are found in the student’s zone of proximal development (Joyce, Weil & Calhoun, 2009).

When starting to work with cognitive apprenticeship, the student needs to be aware of the rules whether it be to simply sit and observe or to jump in and participate when they feel comfortable.  Students should know what is expected of them within the apprenticeship experience to avoid potential miscommunications.  Since there is never a clear process between scaffolding and fading, the mentor needs to be cognizant of student progress which can be demonstrated in a variety of ways that will be unique to each apprentice.  However, the apprentice will begin to demonstrate mastery with signs such as active listening, annotating their reading, practicing critical questioning skills and other specified signs associated with the skills being taught.

Dennen (2004) includes basic points within the progression for the apprentice. Modeling where the mentor motivates, as well as demonstrates (Boyer et al., 2007), the attitudes, values, skills and personality traits which are consistent with independent learning.  Instructors need to detail hidden thought process to make them visible to their proteges while coaching them through feedback and consistent encouragement.  The most essential aspect of cognitive apprenticeship are the personal impressions made by the student which can be developed through the use of reflection.

It is essential for educators to model reflection as they investigate their personal learning experiences to understand themselves not only as learners but as instructors.  Osterman & Kottkamp (2004) emphasize the importance for educators to understand their learning experiences to enhance their ability to recognize their reactions to their students.  Through this means, patterns can be observed and developed or altered as needed.  Additionally, it is advantageous for educators to notate their feelings and emotions in learning experiences which only develops the ability to identify particular practices within their profession.  The greatest benefit to the learning journal is the development of sensitivity and responsiveness instructors feel as they make connections with their students as they both succeed and struggle during the learning process.

Learners learn participate in reflective practice as they stand back from their experiences to be objective while considering what is happening in their surroundings.  This essential time allows participants substantial space to consider a situation in depth and investigate information before returning to the circumstance.  They permit themselves a mental interval to ponder their actions instead of continuing in a perpetual state of reaction.  These benefits are multiplied exponentially when students and educators participate in not only reflection-on-the-past or reflection-on-the-present but pursue a reflection-on-the-future (Wilson, 2008).  Through this method, students enhance their learning capacities and increase their abilities to improve their knowledge and skills.  Also, they are given the opportunity to watch their mentors experience the learning process which provides a greater respect and example in their endeavors while student achievement rises and accepts more responsibility for personal learning.

Authentic Learning and Fading

Authentic learning occurs through real life experiences which occurs over time and always encourages learning from failures and mishaps, developed most efficiently through social learning experiences such as collaborative learning (Dennen, 2004).  Collaborative learning is an effective teaching and learning technique which has been used to enhance mutual responsibility between learners.  While working within groups, students learn additional skills beyond the course content.  They develop interpersonal skills such as compassion, patience and are even noted to be less critical of others.  Additionally, research affirms students have a capability to learn the same information in a shorter amount of time and with greater efficiency while also pushing students toward higher order thinking skills.  This method cultivates an active learning environment as it fosters positive interdependence between group members.  Other noted benefits of this method include the development of social skills, communication skills, leadership skills and conflict management skills.  It can also be successfully used in both online and on-campus environments with a little creativity from instructors (Klobas & Renzi, 2005).

As the learner demonstrates authentic learning, fading which is a process of descaffolding within cognitive apprenticeship as the mentor shifts the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student takes place.  This transitional period is associated with signs which may be unique and individual to each student.  As an example, when students are participating in a reading section, note whether or not they are actively involved with the content.  Is the text annotated?  Do they ask questions?  Another strong indication would be associated with their interaction with other peers.  Does the student listen carefully and provide concise feedback?  This process of shifting the responsibility from the mentor to the learner does not contain clear or concise steps.  Yet, in guiding fading, the mentor can remember the goals for cognitive apprenticeship or the end product of knowledge.


The results of cognitive apprenticeship is the type of learner it creates by providing successful learning experiences.  Administrators and teachers need to understand that change is a process which requires a daily journey of improvement.  This process will also require teachers and administrators to face their fears of the unknown.  Implementing cognitive apprenticeship will not be an event which is completed as one checks off a task from a to do list.  It will require nurturing, patience and understanding as well as motivation, momentum and a desire to meet the needs of every student as based upon foundational learning theories.

Ponton & Carr (2000) expound on the characteristics of lifelong learners which are categorized in the two main areas of a process perspective and personality characteristics. These characteristics are initiative, resourcefulness, persistence, self-startedness and an active approach to problem solving.  Furthermore, learner autonomy is learning to become aware of their role as a learner.  It requires that students reflect on their learning experiences to be more effective in future learning opportunities.  There is a psychological awareness which demands that the student participate in the learning experience by planning, monitoring, and evaluating themselves, especially through the application of cognitive apprenticeship.

Boyer, P., Butner, B., and Smith, D. (2007). A portrait of remedial instruction: faculty workload and assessment techniques. Higher Education, 54(4), 605-613.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S. & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: making thinking visible. American Educator, 1-18.

Cummins, J., Brown, K., & Sayers, D.  (2007).  Literacy, technology, and diversity: Teaching for             success in changing times.  San Francisco:  Allyn & Bacon.

Dennen, V. (2004). Cognitive apprenticeship in educational practice: research on scaffolding, modeling, mentoring, and coaching as instructional strategies. Handbook of research on education communications and technology, 815-828.

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction. (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Joyce, B., Weil, M. & Calhoun, E. (2009). Model of teaching. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Klobas, J. & Renzi, P. (2005). Evaluation of the efficacy of collaborative learning in face to face and computer supported universities. Computers in Human Behavior, 22(2), 163-176.

Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning: a guide for learners and teachers. Parsippany, New Jersey: Globe Fearon Press.

Lever-Duffy, J. & McDonald, J. (2008).  Teaching and learning with technology (3rd ed.).  San Francisco:  Allyn & Bacon.

Osterman, K. & Kottkamp, R. (2004). Reflective practice for educators: Professional development to improve student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Perry, W. G. (1999). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson, J. (2008). Reflecting-on-the-future: a chronological consideration of reflective practice.  Reflective Practice, 9(2), 177-184.

Woolfolk, A. (2010). Educational Psychology (11th Edition). Needham Heights, Massachusetts. Allyn & Bacon.

By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.


Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.

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