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Cognitive Apprenticeship


Cognitive apprenticeship is an instructional design model that emerged from situated learning theory and was introduced in 19891) and developed by Allan Collins, John Seely Brown and their colleagues. The authors

  • … propose an alternative model of instruction that is accessible within the framework of the typical American classroom. It is a model of instruction that goes back to apprenticeship but incorporates elements of schooling. We call this model cognitive apprenticeship.2)

Cognitive here means that emphasis is on teaching of cognitive rather than physical skills, and apprenticeship means that learning will occur through interaction with a more experienced tutor.3)

What is cognitive apprenticeship?

Cognitive apprenticeship is a way of learning through experience guided by an expert. Motivation for this approach came from criticisms of formal education that usually separates learning from practice and teaches skills and knowledge in an abstract manner, making it difficult for the students to apply the learned knowledge in real-world situation. According to Brown,

  • the central issue in learning is becoming a practitioner, not learning about practice.4)

Learning is here, just as in situated learning theory defined as naturally tied to activity, context, and culture which form the learning context and occurs through legitimate peripheral participation (a process in which a novice joins a communities of practice on periphery and as he learns moves toward full participation).5)

Cognitive apprenticeship focuses on four dimensions that constitute any learning environment6)7):

1. Content (Knowledge type)
Domain knowledge (declarative knowledge like concepts, facts, and procedures) Heuristic strategies (general techniques for accomplishing tasks) Control strategies (general steps for directing one's solution process) Learning strategies (knowledge about how to gain new knowledge)
2. Method (Way of learning)
Modeling - students model a decision-making process by observing an expert reasoning. In general, modeling can be behavioral (learning a motor skill through imitation) or cognitive (modeling a decision-making process by observing an expert reasoning), but cognitive apprenticeship is oriented mostly on cognitive modeling. Coaching - sometimes considered the same as mentoring and sometimes different8)9). Usually those processes include an expert offering advice, hints, verbal descriptions, diagrams, questioning, assistance, support, exercises and explanations to learners trying to perform the task. Scaffolding10) - according to some, scaffolding is just a form of coaching. Expert supports students when they need it, but then gradually removes his support as they advance. There are two types of scaffolding: directive (a teacher-centered approach where expert provides learners with strategies of successful students) or supportive (a learner-centered approach where he provides strategies that fit to student's current interests and needs). Articulation (teacher encourages students to verbalize their knowledge and thinking), Reflection (teacher encourages students to compare their ways of problem-solving with others), and Exploration (teacher encourages students to pose and solve their own problems)
3. Sequencing (Keys to ordering learning activities)
Increasing complexity (meaningful tasks gradually increasing in difficulty) Increasing diversity (practice in a variety of situations to emphasize broad application) Global to local skills (focus on conceptualizing the whole task before executing the parts)
4. Sociology (Social characteristics of learning environments)
Situated learning (students learn in the context of working on realistic tasks) Community of practice (communication about different ways to accomplish meaningful tasks) Intrinsic motivation (students set personal goals to seek skills and solutions) Cooperation - students work together to accomplish their goals

What is the practical meaning of cognitive apprenticeship?

There is no formula for implementing mentioned methods for teaching/learning (modeling, scaffolding, coaching, articulation, reflection and exploration):

  • it is up to the teacher to identify ways in which cognitive apprenticeship can work in his or her own domain of teaching. 11)

A detailed example still can be found in the work of Enkenberg12).

The difference between decontextualized and contextualized learning, characteristic for cognitive apprenticeship13) in educational process can be explained on following example14):

APPROACH 1: classroom (decontextualized, inert) APPROACH 2: authentic (situated in real world problem to solve)
For example, give students a task to through the Photoshop reference manual, tool by tool (or specify a set of tools), in alphabetical order, learning how each tool (line, paint, bucket, select, etc.) works including all possible optional settings. For example, give students a task such as, create a logo for a company. To accomplish it, they should look up and learn only a few particular tools they realize they may need to use to accomplish the design. Demonstrate the task (modeling), explain why each of the sub-tasks is required (explanation), guide students during their task performance (coaching, scaffolding), ask them to reflect and articulate how they solved the task, and require from them to explore similar problems (exploration).

Also, the possibilities of usage of computers in cognitive apprenticeship have recently been addressed15).


The ideas of cognitive apprenticeship are subjected to same criticisms as situated learning since they are rooted in that theory. Aside from that,

  • it may not be advisable to use cognitive apprenticeship methods for initial learning, since the learners discover what they need to know. But for learning at advanced levels and consolidating knowledge so that it can be utilized in increasingly divergent situations, the methods based on situated cognition provide an exciting alternative to current instructional approaches.16)

Keywords and most important names


Read more

Collins, Allan. Cognitive Apprenticeship. In The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, 2006.
Originally this term comes from Vygotsky's social development theory
Borrowed from Heeter, C. Situated Learning for designers: Social, Cognitive and Situative Framework. 2005.
instructional_design/cognitive_apprenticeship.txt · Last modified: 2012/01/12 11:42 (external edit)