The Cognitive Apprenticeship Theory


Constructivism is foundational to understanding much of adult learning theory and practice. As Candy (1991, p. 275) observed that, “teaching and learning, especially for adults, is a process of negotiation, involving the construction and exchange of personally relevant and viable meanings”. Aspects of constructivism, especially the social construction of knowledge are central to self-directed learning, transformational learning, experiential learning, reflective practice, situated cognition, and communities of practice. This essay briefly explores one model within the paradigm of situated cognition or contextual learning perspective which, is emphasized in cognitive apprenticeships wherein the thinking process is modeled and supported for new learners. I will provide highlights of the theory and model, explain why I chose this model, and consider the roles of instructors and learners. Finally, I will provide three examples of how I may utilize this model in my future teachings.

Keywords: constructivism, traditional apprenticeship, cognitive apprenticeship

Theory Highlights

Cognitive apprenticeship is a theory of the process whereby the master of a skill teaches that skill to an apprentice. This process is modeled after craft apprenticeship as novices are taught to think about what they are doing as well as learning the skills associated with the activity.  By using processes such as modelling, coaching and scaffolding, cognitive apprenticeships also support the three stages of skill acquisition (Fenwick, 2003). These three stages are: the cognitive stage, the associative stage, and the autonomous stage (Anderson, 1983).

In the cognitive stage, learners develop declarative understanding of the skill. In the associative stage, mistakes and misinterpretations learned in the cognitive stage are detected and eliminated while associations between the critical elements involved in the skill are strengthened. Finally, in the autonomous stage, the learner’s skill becomes honed and perfected until it is executed at an expert level (Anderson, 2000).

Like traditional apprenticeships, in which the apprentice learns a trade such as tailoring, woodworking, or in my case metal fabrication, by working under a master teacher cognitive apprenticeships allow the master to model behaviors in a real-world context with cognitive modeling (Bandura, 1997). By listening to the master explain exactly what he is doing and thinking as he models the skill, the apprentice can identify relevant behaviors and develop a conceptual model of the processes involved. The apprentice then attempts to imitate those behaviors with the master observing and providing coaching. Coaching provides assistance at the most critical level – the skill level just beyond what the learner/apprentice could accomplish independently. The coaching process includes additional modeling as necessary, corrective feedback, and reminders, all intended to bring the apprentice’s performance closer to that of the master’s.  As the apprentice becomes more skilled through the repetition of this process, the feedback and instruction provided by the master “fades” until the apprentice is, ideally, performing the skill at a close approximation of the master level (Johnson, 1992). The Cognitive apprenticeship theory has many attractive personal perspectives such as modelling, coaching and scaffolding which allow the master to model behaviors within a real-world context.

Why I chose this Theory of Learning

I am drawn to the cognitive apprenticeship theory as it mirrors the same style of methods and processes that are typically shared in the relationship between the apprentice and the instructor in the metal fabrication trade. Through my experiences I will be able to model those skills in a hands-on approach, as the apprentice identifies the relevant behaviors and then develops a conceptual model of the processes involved. The instructor monitors the student’s progress and provides coaching, including additional modeling as necessary, corrective feedback, and reminders intended to bring the apprentice’s performance closer to that of the expected outcome.

Role of the Learner

Learning in a cognitive apprenticeship occurs through legitimate peripheral participation, a process in which new apprentices enter on the periphery and gradually move toward full participation. This process of moving away from the periphery toward the center is not a strategy or technique; it is a process that tends to happen naturally on its own. Essentially, the apprentices are learning about both the overall process of the larger task and profession. They are also learning about the criteria for evaluating performance through the completion of small tasks. As they gain experience and are supported by the process of scaffolding of learning, they are offered larger, more central tasks to complete. Their understanding of how these work tasks affect the end product in a holistic manner supports their performance, as does their knowledge of the criteria that will be used to assess the end product (Dennen, 2004,  p. 814 – 31.2.1)

Role of the Instructor

The facilitator’s role involves modeling, coaching, and scaffolding to help students acquire an integrated set of cognitive and metacognitive skills through processes of observation, and of guided and supported practice (Collins, Brown, and Newman, 1989). Teaching methods should be designed to give students the opportunity to observe, engage in, and invent or discover expert strategies in context. Such an approach will enable students to see how these strategies combine with their factual and conceptual knowledge, and how they will use a variety of resources in the social and physical environment.

Collins, Brown, and Newman, (1991) developed six teaching methods that fall roughly into three groups: the first three (modeling, coaching, and scaffolding) are the core of cognitive apprenticeship, designed to help students acquire an integrated set of skills through processes of observation and guided practice. The next two (articulation and reflection) are methods 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. The final method (exploration) is aimed at encouraging learner autonomy, not only in carrying out expert problem-solving processes but also in defining or formulating the problems to be solved.

Modeling. Modeling is when an expert, usually a teacher, within the cognitive domain or subject area demonstrates a task explicitly so that novices, usually a student, can experience and build a conceptual model of the task at hand. Modeling can include modeling of expert performance or processes in the world.

Coaching. This involves observing novice task performance and offering feedback and hints to sculpt the novice’s performance to that of an expert’s. The expert oversees the novice’s tasks and may structure the task accordingly to assist in the novice’s development.

Scaffolding. Instructional scaffolding is the act of putting into place strategies and methods to support the student’s learning. These supports can be teaching manipulatives, activities, and group work. The teacher may have to execute parts of the task that the student is not yet able to do. This requires the teacher to have the skill to analyze and assess student abilities in the moment.

Articulation. Collins, Brown and Newman (1987, p. 482) suggest that articulation includes “any method of getting students to articulate their knowledge, reasoning, or problem-solving process in a domain”. Three types of articulation are inquiry teaching, thinking aloud, and critical student role. Through inquiry teaching, teachers ask students a series of questions that allows them to refine and restate their learned knowledge and to form explicit conceptual models. Articulation is described by McLellan (1994) as consisting of two aspects: separating component knowledge and skills to learn them more effectively and, more common verbalizing or demonstrating knowledge and thinking processes in order to expose and clarify them.

Reflection. Reflection allows students to “compare their own problem-solving processes with those of an expert, another student, and ultimately, an internal cognitive model of expertise” (Collins et al., 1987,  p. 483). A technique for reflection could be to examine the past performances of both expert and novice and to highlight similarities and differences. The goal of reflection is for students to look back and analyze their performances with a desire for understanding and improvement towards the behavior of an expert.

Exploration. Exploration involves giving students room to problem solve on their own and teaching students exploration strategies. The former requires the teacher to slowly withdraw the use of supports and scaffolds not only in problem solving methods, but problem setting methods as well. The latter requires the teacher to show students how to explore, research, and develop hypotheses. Exploration allows the student to frame interesting problems within the domain for themselves and then take the initiative to solve these problems.

Three Classroom Examples

I will provide three examples of how possible teaching methods may be applied in the cognitive apprenticeship learning theory in my classroom.

One of the first classroom discussions is to demonstrate good house-keeping techniques and the importance of safety in the shop environment.  I would initiate a discussion and engage with students on their personal experiences with respect to accidents, and have students discuss strategies for prevention. A reflection strategy would be to examine the past performances of both expert and novice and to highlight similarities and differences. The goal of reflection would be for students to look back and analyze their performances with a desire for understanding and improvement towards the behavior of an expert.

A second in-class discussion would focus on the potential effects of a metal shop environment on one’s health, and have students brainstorm a list of specific health problems and safety hazards that could cause these effects. By modeling, I would share some of my personal experiences related to safety and potential hazards in the workplace. The articulation strategy would encourage students to articulate their knowledge, reasoning, or problem-solving process in this situation.

In a third in-class classroom environment, I would distribute literature to the students and then engage in conversation to walk them through the safe operating procedures and practices associated with oxy-acetylene equipment. A demonstration would then be conducted ‘in shop’ to engage students in a discussion, as I model the assembly and disassembly of an oxy-acetylene torch set up. This would provide an opportunity for students to observe and study all the features of the cylinders, regulators, flashback arrestors, hoses etc. I would then have students break out, and have them demonstrate the task on their own using scaffolding strategies to analyze and assess the students’ abilities, and coaching strategies to observe and provide feedback to assist in the correct development.


There are many theories that provide valuable insights into the learning process and implications for good teaching and learning methods. I have provided a brief insight into the highlights of the constructivist paradigm, where learning is the construction of meaning through engaging in and reflecting upon experience. The theory of situated cognition posits that learning is embedded in the context where it occurs, with the tools of that context, and through social interaction. The cognitive apprenticeship theory enables this form of experiential learning and is solidly grounded in the situated cognition framework Merriam & Bierema, (2013).

I have described how the cognitive apprenticeship theory appeals to me as it mirrors the same style of methods and processes that are currently shared in the relationship between the apprentice and the instructor in metal fabrication trade, and how I may be able to incorporate these principles into my future teaching methods.

In the situated cognition paradigm, cognitive apprenticeship has become increasingly prominent as a model of instruction. The concept of apprenticeship as a model for cognitive development is ideal as it focuses on the active role of the learner’s development, the active support and use of people in social interaction, and the arrangements of tasks and activities. Shared learning is central to the process of learning in cognitive apprenticeship. The importance of routine activities, supportive structuring of students efforts, and transfer of responsibility for handling skills to students is essential to shared learning in the process of cognitive apprenticeship.


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