Cognitive Apprenticeship

Cognitive apprenticeship is a theory of the process where a master of a skill teaches that skill to an apprentice.

Constructivist approaches to human learning have led to the development of a theory of cognitive apprenticeship [1]. This theory holds that masters of a skill often fail to take into account the implicit processes involved in carrying out complex skills when they are teaching novices. To combat these tendencies, cognitive apprenticeships “…are designed, among other things, to bring these tacit processes into the open, where students can observe, enact, and practice them with help from the teacher…” (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1987, p. 4). This model is supported by Albert Bandura's (1997) theory of modeling, which posits that in order for modeling to be successful, the learner must be attentive, must have access to and retain the information presented, must be motivated to learn, and must be able to accurately reproduce the desired skill.

By using processes such as modeling and coaching, cognitive apprenticeships also support the three stages of skill acquisition described in the expertise literature: the cognitive stage, the associative stage, and the autonomous stage (Anderson, 1983; Fitts & Posner, 1967). In the cognitive stage, learners develop declarative understanding of the skill. In the associative stage, mistakes and misinterpretations learned in the cognitive stage are detected and eliminated while associations between the critical elements involved in the skill are strengthened. Finally, in the autonomous stage, the learner’s skill becomes honed and perfected until it is executed at an expert level (Anderson, 2000).

Like traditional apprenticeships, in which the apprentice learns a trade such as tailoring or woodworking by working under a master teacher, cognitive apprenticeships allow the master to model behaviors in a real-world context with cognitive modeling (Bandura, 1997). By listening to the master explain exactly what she is doing and thinking as she models the skill, the apprentice can identify relevant behaviors and develop a conceptual model of the processes involved. The apprentice then attempts to imitate those behaviors with the master observing and providing coaching. Coaching provides assistance at the most critical level – the skill level just beyond what the learner/apprentice could accomplish by herself. Vygotsky (1978) referred to this as the Zone of Proximal Development and believed that fostering development within this zone leads to the most rapid development. The coaching process includes additional modeling as necessary, corrective feedback, and reminders, all intended to bring the apprentice’s performance closer to that of the master’s. As the apprentice becomes more skilled through the repetition of this process, the feedback and instruction provided by the master “fades” until the apprentice is, ideally, performing the skill at a close approximation of the master level (Johnson, 1992). Part of the effectiveness of the cognitive apprenticeship model comes from learning in context. Cognitive scientists maintain that the context in which learning takes place is critical (e.g., Godden & Baddeley, 1975). Based on findings such as these, Collins, Duguid, and Brown (1989) argue that cognitive apprenticeships are less effective when skills and concepts are taught independent of their real-world context and situation. As they state, “Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity. Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are fundamentally situated” (Brown, Collins, Duguid, Brown, 1989, p. 32). In cognitive apprenticeships, the activity being taught is modeled in real-world situations.

[This entry is an excerpt from R. Shawn Edmondson's doctoral dissertation, entitled Evaluating the Effectiveness of a Telepresence-Enabled Cognitive Apprenticeship Model of Teacher Professional Development (2006).]

1. ^ Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1987; Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989


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