The traditional apprenticeship model of education was centered on the learner engaging in a task under the guidance of a professional. Apprentices acquired competency by doing the work they were attempting to learn. This model was useful for a society founded on guilds of craftsmen that provided the daily goods and service of life. However, modern society requires students to become proficient in many more abstract and intellectual skills such as law, technology and medicine. These advanced professions require a foundational knowledge base that cannot be acquired through the traditional apprenticeship method. However, given the efficiency of that method, it would be beneficial to adapt the principles of the system to the needs of modern society.
Cognitive apprenticeship is a teaching paradigm that seeks to do just that. Developed by Collins, Brown, and Newman in their 1989 paper “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics,” this approach to education applies the master-apprentice relationship to the classroom. In doing so, the three researchers developed a useful schematic for designing successful learning environments that integrate content, method, sequence, and sociology (Collins, Brown, and Holum, 1991). Through the confluence of these four categories of student experience, instructors can incorporate the advantages of cognitive apprenticeship into their teaching strategies.
The content of a successful learning environment extends beyond the domain knowledge of a particular field. The term “domain knowledge” refers to those concrete facts, figures, and processes that form the foundational basis of a subject area. Examples from mathematics would be addition, subtraction, the number line, fractions, and a whole host of other concepts that experts utilize in real-world applications. This domain knowledge is important, but is only a small fraction of the total sum of content students need to succeed.
Along with domain knowledge, students need to learn the strategies necessary for applying it to solve problems in the real world. For example, “tricks of the trade” are learned from repeated experience and offer a kind of reliable shortcut when solving problems. Other important strategies are those that help a student determine what kind of process is best suited to solve a particular problem. Given the possible plurality of applicable solution strategies, students need to develop a way of choosing which specific strategy is the most appropriate.
Following the cognitive apprenticeship paradigm, methods for instructing the aforementioned content should mirror those employed when an apprentice learns a craft. These methods emphasize doing work over hearing about the work of others. Teachers should provide models of the correct ways of performing a task and then coach students through their performance of the same task. In this way, teachers gradually relinquish ownership of the educational process to the students themselves. In doing so, students take ownership of their work and the learning that comes of it.
Acquiring knowledge in a certain area is a constructive process, wherein each step builds on the last. Therefore, the sequencing of instruction should mirror that process. Tasks should be understood on a macro level before proceeding to the micro. Having an understanding of the general guides learning when students then encounter the details of a task. A sequence of increasing complexity and diversity ensures students are not discouraged by being presented with a problem of such immensity that it seems impossible.
The learning that happens in a classroom mirrors the social nature of the real world where acquired knowledge will be applied. As such, teachers must embrace certain sociological techniques to produce a successful community of learners. Fostering a community of practice wherein students are encouraged to communicate and collaborate not only prepares students for collaboration in the workforce, but also encourages reticent students through positive peer reinforcement.