Cognitive Apprenticeship For Transmitting Knowledge

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What do you know about cognitive apprenticeship in the classroom?

Reprinted from 1991 in the American Educator, Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible is important reading for teachers serious about education research.

The vehicle for transmitting knowledge…

In the opening paragraph of this 18-page paper, the authors write “In Ancient times, teaching and learning were accomplished through apprenticeship: We taught our children how to speak, grow crops, craft cabinets, or tailor clothes by showing them how and by helping them do it.

Apprenticeship was the vehicle for transmitting the knowledge required for expert practice in fields from painting and sculpting to medicine and law. It was the natural way to learn.”

Education has largely been replaced by schooling (or teaching and learning) as we know it today. But what has changed other than policy and subtle methods? Do our teachers still show our students ‘how to learn’?

I have been wanting to write about this piece of research for some time. In this paper, an alternative model of instruction is proposed – cognitive apprenticeship. As a design and technology teacher, you can imagine my heart sings when reading this.

Put simply, students see the processes of work.

Just as they watch their parents do something at home, or assist tradesperson when building something, or watching someone with more experience create a website or construct a garment. “Apprenticeship involves learning or physical, tangible activity… that the practice of problem-solving is not necessarily observable to the student.”

Making learning visible

Expert teaching requires modelling, or in this research context, cognitive apprenticeship – a model of instruction that works to make thinking visible.

The research describes what this looks like and how it can be adapted for teaching and learning of cognitive skills E.g. metacognition. To begin with, the research recommends that teachers need to understand the nature of expert practice and devise methods that are appropriate to learning that practice. Taken one step further, cognitive strategies that are central to “integrating knowledge and skills in order to accomplish meaningful tasks.”

Traditional Apprenticeship

Rewind a decade or so in the classroom, the teacher would typically show the student how to do a task, watch as the teacher practices each stage, and then provide the student with more responsibility until they are proficient enough to do the task themselves.

The basic concept that the teacher would show the student and help them achieve it. “There are four important aspects of traditional apprenticeship: modelling, scaffolding, fading, and coaching.”

  1. Through modelling, the teacher makes the target processes visible
  2. The teacher would scaffold the support required for the student
  3. As the student requires expertise, the teacher slows fades the support
  4. The teacher coaches the student through a range of activities.

Observation plays a surprisingly key role; it aids learners in developing a conceptual model of the target task prior to attempting to execute it (Lave, 1988)

Towards Cognitive Apprenticeship

The research cites three important differences between traditional and cognitive apprenticeship models.

  1. The process of carrying out a task is easily observable; bring the thinking to the surface and make it visible.
  2. Secondly, tasks come up as they arise in the world, with students naturally understanding the reasons for the finished product. The paper argues that teachers are working with a curriculum, largely divorced from what most adults do in their lives. Cognitive apprenticeship is to situate the abstract tasks of the school curriculum in contexts that makes sense to students.
  3. Finally, in traditional apprenticeship, the skills to be learned are the task itself. It is unlikely that students encounter situations in which the transfer of skills is required. Much of our curriculum reform today now demands that students be able to transfer what they learn.

The research recommends to translate the model of traditional to cognitive apprenticeship, teachers need to:

  1. Identify the processes of the task and make them visible to students;
  2. Situate abstract tasks in authentic contexts so that students understand the relevance of the work; and
  3. Vary the diversity of situations and articulate the common aspects so that students can transfer what they learn.

Download the resource?

I’ve translated this research into a bitesize resource teachers can use to upskill their knowledge or present to other colleagues. Download a copy.

Towards Cognitive Apprenticeship

Future Framework

Part of the paper provides examples of cognitive apprenticeship in reading, writing and maths and cognitive apprenticeship poses numerous pedagogical and theoretical issues that are relevant to the design of the classroom generally. The researchers developed “a framework consisting of four dimensions that constitute any learning environment: content, method, sequence, and sociology.” I have summarised these below:


At the time of publication, research was beginning to “differentiate the types of knowledge required for expertise.” Strategic knowledge is defined as tacit knowledge to solve problems and accomplish tasks. 1) Domain knowledge 2) Heuristic strategies 3) Control strategies (or metacognitive approaches) and 4) Learning strategies are all cited as specific strategies.


“Teaching methods should be designed to give students the opportunity to observe, engage in, and invent or discover expert strategies in context.” Six teaching methods are provided which fall into three groups:

  1. Modelling coaching and scaffolding
  2. Articulation and reflection
  3. Exploration (autonomy and expert problem-solving)

There’s s a great teaching and learning methodology right there!


How to structure lesson plans and teaching provides meaning to students. Three principles (pg 15) are offered:

  1. Global before local skills – to build a conceptual map
  2. Increasing complexity – the construction of a sequence of tasks.
  3. Increasing diversity – to help distinguish the conditions under which they do and do not apply.


The final recommendation considers the classroom itself. Four recommendations are provided:

  1. Situated learning – completing tasks in an environment that reflects the multiple uses it can be applied. E.g. drama performance on a stage
  2. Community of practice – to develop a sense of ownership and personal investment
  3. Intrinsic motivation – related to an interesting coherent goal (rather than an extrinsic reason)
  4. Exploiting cooperation – working together both as a powerful motivator and as a mechanism for extending learning resources.

Conclusions and limitations

Cognitive apprenticeship is not a model of teaching that gives teachers a packaged formula for instruction. Instead, it is an instructional paradigm for teaching. It’s probably worth reading that sentence again.

The researchers also emphasise that this is not a relevant model for all aspects of teaching. As ever, my recommendations to any teachers reading this is, what does cognitive apprenticeship look like in an early years classroom teaching a four-year-old child? What does cognitive apprenticeship look like when you’re teaching a 16-year-old at risk of exclusion?

The researchers recommend that the teacher does not assume the permanent role of the expert. I have mixed views about this, but I guess we know teaching is nuanced and context will matter depending on what you are teaching, to who, when and how.

This research was offered as a framework to help point the way towards the redesign of schooling so that students could develop robust problem-solving skills. Almost 30 years later, where are we now?

Download the paper (Collin, Brown, & Holum)

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