Cognitive Apprenticeship (Brown, Collins, and Duguid – 1989)

Introduction of the cognitive apprenticeship model is credited by McLellan (1993, p. 7; 1994, p. 5) to Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989). However, a much more detailed exposition is found in both Collins, Brown and Newman (1987) and Collins, Brown, and Holum (1991). Of these two, I recommend the latter, and have selected it as the primary text on which the following summary is based.

The cognitive apprenticeship model is erected on an adaptation of the traditional and historic model of learning and teaching through apprenticeship. It sets forth “a general framework for the design of learning environments”(A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 1). Collins, Brown, and Holum (1991) set the context for the model as follows:

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. In modern times, apprenticeship has largely been replaced by formal schooling, except in children’s learning of language, in some aspects of graduate education, and in on-the-job training. We 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” Collins, Brown, and Newman, 1989). (p. 1)

While recognizing many differences between schooling and apprenticeship methods, Collins et al. focused on one in particular, namely, that “in apprenticeship, learners can see the processes of work” (A. Collins et al., 1991):

In apprenticeship, learners can see the processes of work: They watch a parent sow, plant, and harvest crops and help as they are able; they assist a tradesman as he crafts a cabinet; they piece together garments under the supervision of a more experienced tailor. Apprenticeship involves learning a physical, tangible activity. But in schooling, the “practice” of problem solving, reading comprehension, and writing is not at all obvious—it is not necessarily observable to the student. In apprenticeship, the processes of the activity are visible. In schooling, the processes of thinking are often invisible to both the students and the teacher. Cognitive apprenticeship is a model of instruction that works to make thinking visible. (p. 1)

Translating the model of traditional apprenticeship to cognitive apprenticeship involves making the teacher’s thinking visible to students and the students’ thinking visible to the teacher (A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 3). It also involves situating abstract tasks into authentic contexts–which helps motivate students to work and to learn the subcomponents of the task by demonstrating the value of the finished product. By varying the diversity of situations in which tasks are performed students learn to recognize the common aspects between them, which facilitates generalization and transfer of knowledge.

Collins et al. made it clear that they were not asserting an argument in favor of cognitive apprenticeship as the only way to learn. They recognized that students with good active listening and active reading skills, “who test their understanding and pursue the issues that are raised in their minds, learn things that apprenticeship can never teach” (A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 3). However, they noted that it could be a useful tool for mediating the learning experience of a passive listener or reader, and that it is “a useful instructional paradigm when a teacher needs to teach a fairly complex task to students” (p. 17).

The cognitive apprenticeship framework for designing learning environments consists of four dimensions: content, method, sequence, and sociology. Each of these will be described in brief.

The first dimension, content, consists of both domain knowledge and three types of strategies. Domain knowledge refers to “the concepts, facts, and procedures explicitly identified with a particular subject matter” (A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 13). This type of knowledge is commonly taught in schools, and is what textbooks and class lectures are typically focused on. The first of the three strategies in the content dimension, heuristic strategies, are “generally effective techniques and approaches for accomplishing tasks that might be regarded as ‘tricks of the trade’; they don’t always work, but when they do, they are quite helpful” (p. 13). These strategies are usually acquired by experts through the practice of solving problems. The second type of strategy, control strategies, are strategies used to “control the processes of carrying out a task” (p. 13). Control strategies have monitoring, diagnostic, and remedial components, and guide the ongoing decision process of how to proceed with a task, taking into account one’s current state relative to the end goal. Learning strategies, the third type, are “strategies for learning any of the other kinds of content described above” (p. 13).  These are general strategies that experts have developed for exploring new domains or for “extending or reconfiguring knowledge in solving problems or carrying out complex tasks” (p. 13).

The second dimension of the framework, method, consists of six teaching methods: modeling, coaching, scaffolding, articulation, reflection, and exploration (A. Collins et al., 1991, pp. 13-14). The first three methods—modeling, coaching, and scaffolding—make up the core of cognitive apprenticeship. The next two—articulation and reflection—are “designed to help students both to focus their observations of expert problem solving and to gain conscious access to (and control of) their own problem-solving strategies” (p. 13). The final method—exploration—is used to encourage the learner’s independence in both executing expert problem-solving processes and in defining the problems to be solved. Collins et al. (1991) defined these methods as follows:

Modeling [italics added] involves an expert’s performing a task so that the students can observe and build a conceptual model of the processes that are required to accomplish it. In cognitive domains, this requires the externalization of usually internal processes and activities—specifically, the heuristics and control processes by which experts apply their basic conceptual and procedural knowledge. (p. 13)


Coaching [italics added]consists of observing students while they carry out a task and offering hints, scaffolding, feedback, modeling, reminders, and new tasks aimed at bringing their performance closer to expert performance….The content of the coaching interaction is immediately related to specific events or problems that arise as the student attempts to accomplish the target task. (p. 14)


Scaffolding [italics added] refers to the supports the teacher provides to help the student carry out the task. These supports can take either the forms of suggestions or help….When scaffolding is provided by the teacher, it involves the teacher in executing parts of the task that the student cannot yet manage. A requisite to such scaffolding is accurate diagnosis of the student’s current skill level or difficulty and the availability of an intermediate step at the appropriate level of difficulty in carrying out the target activity. Fading involves the gradual removal of supports until the students are on their own. (p. 14)


Articulation [italics added] involves any method of getting students to articulate their knowledge, reasoning, or problem-solving processes. (p. 14)


Reflection [italics added] involves enabling students to compare their own problem-solving processes with those of an expert, another student, and ultimately an internal cognitive model of expertise. Reflection is enhanced by the use of various techniques for reproducing or “replaying” the performance of both expert and novice for comparison [e.g., video or audio recording]….usually some form of “abstracted replay,” in which the criterial features of expert and student performance are highlighted, is desirable. (p. 14)


Exploration [italics added] involves pushing students into a mode of problem solving on their own. Forcing them to do exploration is critical, if they are to learn how to frame questions or problems that are interesting and that they can solve. Exploration is the natural culmination of the fading of supports. It involves not only fading in problem solving but fading in problem setting as well. But students do not know a priori how to explore a domain productively. So exploration strategies need to be taught as part of the learning strategies more generally. Exploration as a method of teaching involves setting general goals for students and then encouraging them to focus on particular subgoals of interest to them, or even to revise the general goals as they come upon something more interesting to pursue.  (p. 14)

The third dimension of the framework, sequencing,  suggests three principles that must be balanced when sequencing learning activities for students: (a) global before local skills, (b) increasing complexity, and (c) increasing diversity (A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 15). To illustrate the first principle, Collins et al. cite an example from Lave of apprentices learning to sew a garment from precut pieces before learning to cut out the pieces themselves. This enables them to have a “clear conceptual model of the overall activity…[and] make sense of the portion that [they] are carrying out” (p. 15). The conceptual model will also provide the learner with a guide to monitor his own progress, performance and self-correction. The second principle “refers to the construction of a sequence of tasks such that more and more of the skills and concepts necessary for expert performance are required” (p. 15). The third principle “refers to the construction of a sequence of tasks in which a wider and wider variety of strategies or skills are required” (p. 15). Collins et al. note that although repeated practice of a new strategy or skill is important, it also “becomes increasingly important that tasks requiring a diversity of skills and strategies be introduced so that the student learns to distinguish the conditions under which they do (and do not) apply” (p. 16). A further advantage to the introduction of an increasing diversity of strategies is that the students’ strategies “acquire a richer net of contextual associations and thus are more readily available for use with unfamiliar or novel problems” (p. 16).

The fourth dimension, sociology, deals with “critical characteristics affecting the sociology of learning”(A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 16). They are (a) situated learning, (b) community of practice, (c) intrinsic motivation, and (d) exploiting cooperation. First, by situating tasks so that students carry them out in “an environment that reflects the multiple uses to which their knowledge will be put in the future” (p. 16) four things happen:

  1. Students develop an understanding of the purposes and uses of the knowledge they are learning
  2. Students learn by “actively using knowledge rather than passively receiving it” (p. 16)
  3. Students learn the conditions in which their knowledge can be used
  4. By learning in multiple contexts students are able to abstract knowledge and acquire it in “dual form, both tied to the contexts of its uses and independent of any particular context” (p. 16)

Second, in communities of practice a learning environment is created “in which participants actively communicate about and engage in the skills involved in expertise…[which] leads to a sense of ownership, characterized by personal investment and mutual dependence”(A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 16). Third, both situated learning and the establishment of communities of practice provide for intrinsic motivation for learning. In these settings students perform tasks for reasons other than “getting a good grade or pleasing the teacher” (p. 16). Fourth, exploiting cooperation “refers to having students work together in a way that fosters cooperative problem solving” (p. 16) which can also be a powerful motivator.

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