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


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

Christensen, Clayton; Johnson, Curtis W.; Horn, Michael B. (2008), Disrupting Class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York: McGraw Hill, 288 pages.

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 accessed 2012-09-17]

Duncan et al. (2010) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning – A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development Policy and Program Studies Service, retrieved 2011-11-10.

Frankenberg, E.; Siegel-Hawley, G.; Wang,J. (2010) Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards, The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA, retrieved 2012-10-07.

Freire, P. (1972) Cultural Action for Freedom, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975, 91 p.

Freire, P. (1986) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

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 retrieved 2012-10-10

Jersey Jazzman (Saturday, August 20, 2011), Rupert Loves Rhee Loves Bradford blog post,, retrieved 2012-10-08.

Miller, G. A., & Gildea, P. M. (1987). How children learn words. Scientific American, 257, (3), 94-99.

New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE, 2012), Thursday, 2 August 2012, 11:03 am press release: New charter school model ignores findings of research, retrieved 2012-09-21

Rittel, Horst and Melvin Webber (1973) “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing, Amsterdam, pp. 155-159.

Säljö R (1979) “Learning in the Learner’s Perspective: 1: some commonplace misconceptions” Reports from the Institute of Education, University of Gothenburg, 76.

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