Oct 14

Situating Cognitive Apprenticeship

“Experiential learning” “Authentic learning”  “multiple intelligences”  “learning styles” …


The context in which cognitive apprenticeship itself is situated deserves consideration.
We can start by considering some of the contemporaneous nomenclature: the “edubabble” of the day. Some biggies of the era are still with us today, here are four examples.

…the great waste in school comes from his inability to utilize the experience he gets outside while on the other hand he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning in school. That is the isolation of the school–its isolation from life.
—John Dewey, 1916
quoted in Mims, 2003

The term experiential is paired with learning since the 1970s or earlier (Keeton, 1976) (Weil and McGill, 1989). Mark Smith (2001) provides a very helpful summary of the literature and reports there are two general descriptions being applied: ‘direct encounter with the phenomena being studied…’ (e.g., Borzak 1981: 9 quoted in Brookfield 1983).  and  ‘…direct participation in the events of life’ (Smith , 2001 quoting Houle 1980: 221). Traditional apprenticeship certainly presents us with both opportunities, but does Collins et al.s’ cognitive? I think we’ll find it does when we design for it.

Frankly, if at first simply over semantics, I’ve never been fond of the term “authentic learning.” For starters, learning is not a noun1 (Silvers, 2011).  and I guess I’d just strive for higher precision where it’s the title of my philosophy of education. When Collins et al. use the word they refer to authentic contexts. This is not to dismiss the school of thought the name represents; practitioners who embrace the concepts and techniques seem to automatically transliterate it to enabling learning within authentic contexts., which I grant is fairly awkward. I believe it has the same meaning as situated learning, which is another term used with cognitive apprenticeship (Brown et al., 1989) (Collins et al., 1989) (Collins et al., 1991) (Lave, 1996).

In fact for many decades educators have observed a gap between life within and outside of schooling.  (Dewey, 1916; Dewey, 1933; Piaget, 1974; Gardner, 1992; Boud and Miller, 1997; Mims, 2003). While my familiarity with the literature is insufficient to judge the degree to which his point “b” is true, I share an antipathy towards uncritical use of the phrase “real world”  (and the advice of those who use it) with John Shindler, who warns, “…a) the real world is rarely defined by adages that include the phrase the “real world,” b) the use of the term the “real world” usually indicates a world-view that has been jaded and is fundamentally dysfunctional, and c) students are likely paying the price for it” (Shindler, 2009:Appendix J). I believe point “c” is a common destination, if by other paths, with at least one of Freire’s who, having said “…Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Freire, 1970)  said elsewhere, “The educator with a democratic vision or posture cannot avoid in his teaching praxis insisting on the critical capacity, curiosity, and autonomy of the learner.” (Freire, 1998).

The ideas of multiple intelligences (Gardiner, 1983) and learning styles (Kolb and Fry, 1975) are related. While it’s impossible to ignore their effect on teaching over subsequent decades they have naturally both been criticized at very deep levels. Again, Smith (2001, drawing on Jarvis, 1987 and Tennant, 1997) summarizes those pertaining to Kolb very well, they centre around extravagant claims and lack of empirical evidence. The latter flaw is also claimed of Gardiner’s theory, along with disconnect from findings from the field of psychology (Wellingham, 2004) (Visser, Ashton and Vernon, 2006a) (Gardiner, 2006) (Visser, Ashton and Vernon, 2006b), yet the ideas persist and some practitioners attribute successes while passionately defending their use in the classroom2.

Social Anthropology’s view of Learning Communities

I strongly suspect treating cognitive apprenticeship as a framework for experience design sidesteps much of the conflict. Cognitive apprenticeship’s heritage, as the others’, traces back to activity theorists such as Vygotsky and Leontiev but charts its course via the social anthropology of Jean Lave and socially situated, community of practice-based learning she explored with Etienne Wenger (Brown, Collins, Didiuk, 1989:41 footnote 1) (Lave & Wenger, 1991) (Lave, 1996). Apprenticeship in general, and cognitive apprenticeship by design, attempts to make thinking visible, illustrated using exemplary case studies (Collins, Seely and Holum, 1991). Cognitive apprenticeship models reject models that value the results of traditionally formal learning (e.g., schooling) over informal ones (e.g., apprenticeship). From an apprenticeship perspective, the assumption that teaching necessarily precedes or is a precondition for learning, or that absence of teaching calls learning into question, is a false one (Lave, 1996:151).

Although my aim is to name specific technologies and methods for employing them that make learning visible, the perspective is that of the experience designer, the focus is on the process. The steps to enabling social interaction, placing suitable tools within reach and empowering participants to engage, according to the cognitive apprenticeship model, are quite clear.. The designer’s tasks (emphasis mine) are

  1. show 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;
  3. vary the diversity of situations and articulate the common aspects so that students can transfer what they learn.

If we look within the six stages of the method3Modelling, Coaching, Scaffolding, Articulation, Reflection, and Exploration—specifically for ways to diversify participant entry and engagement, and  we can turn technology on itself in effect by using polls or remote testing, for example, to question participants directly, gauge relevance on an ongoing basis, remain agile and reflexive, adjust, review, refine and revise the  implementation. It may in fact end up that for some participants none of our preliminary technology picks and strategies are suitable or engaging. When we design the situation to make thinking visible we must also build into the process the ability for all participants to see and report what they’re seeing, and to maintain access to the things they need to make the experience worthwhile. This brings to the foreground an important aspect of design I’d guess is still better understood by Web designers than by most instructional designers, the separation of content and presentation. This is a concept having implications for communication (Clark, 20084) I’ll elaborate in a later instalment, but you can see a good, concise discussion of the basics by designer Sarah Horton on her site.


In the preceding paragraphs I’ve looked at the origins of cognitive apprenticeship and started to employ and apply vocabulary from the Cognitive Apprenticeship Framework. I’ve situated this framework relative to some other modern theories of learning, and we begin to see how focusing on the well-defined environment it provides—the content taught, the pedagogical methods employed, the sequencing of learning activities, and the sociology of learning—allows us to expose, nurture and tap the diversity of talent found within every community of practice. Whether we are in the role of apprentice or expert we need tools and interactions that make the processes of constructing knowledge visible and enable a variety of communication styles and media to be used between participants. I hope I have exhausted the theoretical foundation without exhausting the reader!


The next instalments will start to link this theory to practice. I’ll enter from the sociology side of the environment, using social networking, but I’ll use some technology from the start. My thinking is that to find out what is being said I want to go where the discussion is taking place. Twitter is one place to start, and I have learned over time that many educators use Twitter’s “hash tag” feature to find others talking about similar things, so I loaded 24 hours worth of Tweets that contain the hash tag #edchat into Firefox, and then used the Firebug extension to get the tweets from the timeline using a Web programmers’ technique known generically (by which I mean one can take different steps using different tools to achieve the same result) as scraping?. I then removed a set of words I know are outside the scope of my investigation, and from the rest create the following “Wordle.”

A graphic representation of the words culled from edchat on Twitter, larger or smaller by frequency

Words found on Twitter #edchat from a single 24 hr period sized in proportion to frequency (www.wordle.net/create)

In my next instalment I’ll demonstrate the steps involved in creating such an image and make suggestions for researchers who might want a more robust, reliable and comprehensive approach to getting such data based on similar techniques. In so doing one important result will be an example of a technology-enhanced learning environment …in the state of emerging. I’ll further show that many if not most tools we see today stay in such emergent states indefinitely, and that by applying a framework like the one proposed by Brown, Collins, Duguid, Holum we do much more to help them reach maturity.

Comments are open and encouraged!


  1.  « Somewhere along the journey, as we became focused on making these models and standards more efficient and effective, “learning” went from being a verb to being a noun. If you actually think about what learning is and that it is intrinsic to the individual, how could it possibly be delivered? But that’s precisely how learning is perceived by those buying “learning” and, hence, influencing how it is designed, developed, and “delivered.” » —Aaron Silvers (2011). I recommend this article widely and often, probably in part because I felt it both vindicates some feelings I’d been having about ADDIE and offers viable ways forward.
  2. See, for example, the comments section of Daniel Willingham’s criticism of Gardiner’s theory posted on the EducationNext blog.
  3. I explained these methods in an earlier post.
  4. Because they “…create philosophical and cognitive dissonance for technical communicators trained to think of information as content that is inherently linked to presentation.” (Clark,2007:36)


Boud. D. and Miller, N. (eds.) (1997) Working with Experience: animating learning, London: Routledge.

Brown, J.S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. (1989). “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher, 18(l), 32-42.

Christensen CM, Marx M, Stevenson HH. (2006) The Tools of Cooperation and Change, Boston: Harvard Business School Online http://hbsp.harvard.edu/hbsp/hbr/articles/article.jsp?articleID=R061 retrieved 2009-12-19

Clark, Dave (2007): Content Management and the Separation of Presentation and Content, Technical Communication Quarterly, 17:1, 35-60

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., and Holum, Ann (1991), Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible, American Educator, [1991 reprint available on line at http://elc.fhda.edu/transform/resources/collins_brown_holum_1991.pdf accessed 2012-09-17]

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press.
Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (Revised edn.), Boston: D. C. Heath.

Freire, Paulo (1998) Pedagogy of freedom : ethics, democracy, and civic courage, Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield, 144 pages.

Freire, Paulo (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, Herder and Herder, 186 p.
Freire, Paulo (2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed, 30th anniversary ed., New York : Continuum, 184 pages.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (2006). On failing to grasp the core of MI theory- A response to Visser et al. Intelligence (34:5) 503–505

Gardner, Howard (1992) The unschooled mind: why even the best students in the best schools do not understand, [PDF]

Houle, C. (1980) Continuing Learning in the Professions, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Keeton, M. T. (ed.) (1976) Experiential Learning, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall. 256 pages.

Lave, Jean and Wenger, Etienne (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, Jean (1996). Teaching, as Learning, in Practice, Mind, Culture, and Activity (3:3) pp149-164.

Martin, Jane Roland (1982), Two Dogmas of Curriculum, Synthese, Vol. 51, No. 1, Questions in the Philosophy of Education (Apr., 1982), pp. 5-20

Mims, Clif (2003), Authentic Learning: A Practical Introduction & Guide for Implementation, Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1, Winter 2003, Raleigh, NC: NC State University, http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/win2003/authentic_learning/ retrieved 2012-10-10.

Piaget, J. (1974). To understand is to invent:  The future of education. New York: Grossman.

Shindler, John V. (2009), Appendix J: Examining The Use of the Term the “Real World” of School, College of Charter School of Education, web page associated with the book “Transformative Classroom Management,” Hoboken: Jossey-Bass, 384 pages.

Silvers, Aaron (2011) Fundamental Design of Learning Activities, blog post http://www.aaronsilvers.com/2011/02/fundamental-design-of-learning-activities/, retrieved 2011-08-10.

Smith, M. K. (2001). ‘David A. Kolb on experiential learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved [enter date] from http://www.infed.org/b-explrn.htm.

Visser, Ashton and Vernon, 2006a Beyond g: Putting multiple intelligences theory to the test, Intelligence (34:5) 487–502
Visser, Ashton and Vernon, 2006b g and the measurement of Multiple Intelligences: A response to Gardner, Intelligence (34:5) 507–510

Weil, S. Warner & McGill, I. (eds.) (1989) Making Sense of Experiential Learning. Diversity in theory and practice, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Willingham, Daniel T. (2004), Reframing the Mind: Howard Gardner and the theory of multiple intelligences, Education Next,  Vol. 4, No. 3 http://educationnext.org/reframing-the-mind/ retrieved 2012-10-10.

Oct 10

Cognitive Apprenticeship: an idea whose time has come (back)?

When someone is reading silently and then they ask you to define a word, do you ask them to read the entire sentence? This, said Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989), is because “Experienced readers implicitly understand that words are situated.” Building on Miller and Gildea’s (1987) work teaching vocabulary Brown et al. similarly rejected “the assumption that knowing and doing can be separated,” saying it “leads to a teaching method that ignores the way situations structure cognition.” They came to believe that all knowledge, like language, is intrinsically linked to the situations and activities that produce it—like Web sites, concepts are always under construction (p32). Collins and Brown, with Newman (1989) and Holum (1991) see this idea of “Situated Knowledge and Learning” within the traditional apprenticeship of ancient times—a master practitioner showing the apprentice how something is done and then helping them do it. Modern schooling, by contrast, has amassed great bodies of conceptual knowledge, yet at the same time hidden or removed the thinking behind it from the situation of would-be learners. These authors proposed a synthesis of schooling and apprenticeship they call cognitive apprenticeship. The fundamental goal of cognitive apprenticeship is to “make thinking visible.” (Brown et al., 1989) (Collins et al., 1989) (Collins et al., 1991) (Miller and Gildea, 1987).

Collins et al. define a learning environment as “the content taught, the pedagogical methods employed, the sequencing of learning activities, and the sociology of learning” (1991:1). It’s my assertion that modern technology has direct applications within each of these four elements. I further suggest that an updated1 understanding of the categories, strategies and insights Collins et al. put forth in the early nineties combine with technology and current practice to form a potent framework for instruction and learning.

Cognitive Apprenticeship (CA)

Let’s list the 4 elements, ordimensions, of every learning environment, and what they entail (1991:12-15):

  1. content: knowledge and strategies
    • Domain knowledge: concepts, facts, and procedures explicitly identified with a particular subject matter
    • Heuristic strategies: effective techniques for accomplishing tasks, e.g., “tricks of the trade”
    • Control strategies: how and when to select among possible problem-solving strategies
    • Learning strategies: for learning any of the above; learning how to learn.
  2. method: opportunities to observe, engage in, and invent or discover experts’ strategies in context
    • Modeling: expert performs a task (verbalizing/illustrating their knowledge and thinking)
    • Coaching: expert observes and facilitates
    • Scaffolding: expert provides supports
    • Articulation: expert encourages learners to verbalize/illustrate their knowledge and thinking
    • Reflection: expert enables learners to compare their performance with others
    • Exploration: expert invites learners to pose and solve their own problems
  3. sequence: tasks that structure learning yet preserve meaningfulness (i.e., “situate” the tasks)
  4. sociology: social characteristics of learning environments (i.e., “situate” the learner)
    • Situated learning: the context of working on realistic tasks
    • Community of practice: communication with other practitioners
    • Intrinsic motivation: personal goals to seek skills and solutions
    • Exploiting cooperation: working together (cooperative problem solving) to accomplish these goals

There are three important distinctions between traditional and cognitive apprenticeship: in traditional apprenticeship the process is easily observable; in traditional apprenticeship the tasks arise and emerge in the workplace; in traditional apprenticeship the skills to be learned are inherent in the task itself. To translate the model of traditional apprenticeship to cognitive apprenticeship, experts need to:

  • identify the processes of the task and make them visible to students;
  • situate abstract tasks in authentic contexts, so that students understand the relevance of the work;
  • vary the diversity of situations and articulate the common aspects so that students can transfer what they learn. (1991:3)

Above is a framework, not a formula (1991:17). Already people were exploring technology’s potential as a coaching and scaffolding strategy, for example “…an interactive video display can mobilize the natural ability of a child to learn from context” (Miller and Gildea, 1987:94).

Current practice

Today there is ample evidence and virtually unanimous agreement that, more often than not, traditional schooling fails to engage a majority of learners or to provide meaningful long term strategies for solving real world problems, and almost no consensus on what to do about it (Freire, 1975) (Christensen et al., 2008). Most intrinsic motivation in our society today revolves around the desire to generate very large amounts of money in very short amounts of time, and in education this has manifested in a reform movement that is often outright hostile to research (NZARE, 2012), negligent of neighbourhoods (Frankenberg et al., 2010), and partnering indiscriminately for expedience and personal gain (Jazzman, 2011), while remaining highly supportive of tools and models that appear to fit specific niches in the above framework. These often involve a “supply chain” model involving high-stakes testing and the textbook industry and are designed above all to be easily monetized (Christensen et al., 2008). Educationalists are expected to design and deliver compelling learning experiences regardless of such distractions and competing interests. I believe that, in the hands of designers and pedagogues firmly committed to the end user’s learning experience, this framework can contribute to modern technology’s effectiveness at keeping designers and participants on task and focused on learning.

Several of the cognitive apprenticeship framework strategies associated with sociology, method, and content can be easily identified in a technological innovation that was only in its embryonic stage when Brown, Collins et al. first conceived such a framework—social networks. Communities of Practice may consist of many Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) of just plain folks (JPFs (see Brown et al. 1989)) who are intrinsically motivated (or extrinsically, perhaps in response to issues discussed in the previous paragraph) to incorporate new tools and strategies. They may chat on Twitter, and blog on sites like Blogger. They are seeking out experts and collecting domain knowledge about heuristic strategies even as they share their expertise on other topics and hone their own control and learning strategies. Some have seen the potential of Facebook and refined it to Edmodo, or Twitter and evolved to Tappestry, which tracks formal and informal learning using the new TinCanAPI. They may use a tool like Adobe Captivate to sequence tasks, or a platform like Google Docs. They share strategies such as project-based-learning (which may already have much in common with CA) and the flipped classroom, both of which can be rich in applications of technology.

The notion of cognitive apprenticeship has by no measure slumbered since the early 1990s. Aziz Ghefaili (2003) in particular has made notable contributions to relating the theory to the use of computers. I’m very interested in such efforts, but my focus is praxis—moving theory to practice in ways that induce change (Freire, 1986)2. In the weeks ahead I’ll attempt to map all of the elements of the framework listed above to specific technologies, platforms, and strategies for using them. I welcome input at every stage… please use the comments section.


  1. I’ll elaborate further in the next installment, but the first “update” I wish to make to Collins et al.’s view, situated as it was in the 1980s and 90s, is what I see as a blurring line between teacher and student. [citations]. Collins, Brown and Holum (1991) themselves acknowledge this (p17) even though their language consistently presumes otherwise. Where the authors said “teacher” I have substituted “expert;” for “student” I have substituted “learner.” In some settings the terms “designer” and “participant” might be appropriate.
  2. See for example what is praxis? at infed, the encyclopaedia of informal education


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Collins, A., Brown, J.S., and Newman, S.E. (1989). “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing and Mathematics! In L.B. Resnick (ed.) Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glaser Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Collins, A., Brown, J.S., and Holum, Ann (1991), Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible, American Educator, [1991 reprint available on line at http://elc.fhda.edu/transform/resources/collins_brown_holum_1991.pdf accessed 2012-09-17]

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Ghefaili, Aziz (2003). Cognitive Apprenticeship, Technology, and the Contextualization of Learning Environments. Journal of Educational Computing, Design& Online Learning, Vol. 4, Fall, 2003. PDF at http://coe.ksu.edu/jecdol/Vol_4/Articles/pdfs/Aziz.pdf retrieved 2012-10-10

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