Saturday, March 30, 2013

Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible

Posted by Tara Della Rocca

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible. American Educator, 15(3), 6-12, 38-47.

Cognitive apprenticeship is a 'paradigm for teaching' that mimics the way we learn most naturally.
"In ancient times, teaching and learning were accomplished through apprenticeship... Apprenticeship was the vehicle for transmitting the knowledge required for expert practice... It was the natural way to learn."

"Cognitive apprenticeship" is "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."

"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."

"Too little attention is paid to the reasoning and strategies that experts employ when they acquire knowledge or put it to work to solve complex or real-life tasks."

This article aligns with those written on making thinking visible from Harvard Graduate School's Project Zero. The general idea is that students learn best when the process of an activity (thinking or otherwise) is made visible and then when they are supported in their adoption of the strategy or completion of the activity.

"There are four important aspects of traditional apprenticeship: modeling, scaffolding, fading and coaching."

  • Modeling: the master makes the target processes visible
  • Scaffolding: the master gives apprentices support in carrying out the task
  • Fading: slowly removing support
  • Coaching: a thread running through the experience - observing & giving feedback

In order to translate the model of traditional apprenticeship to cognitive apprenticeship, teachers 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; and
  • vary the diversity of situations and articulate the common aspects so that students can transfer what they learn.
It occurs to me that the first step requires teachers to be explicit about the thinking or process involved in an activity; the second and third steps align with the purposes of PBL. Already, in our PBL classrooms, we are choosing to make relevant the work students complete and giving students the opportunities to transfer their learning in various situations. At least in my classroom, I am aware that I am not specifically paying attention to the first step such that every process my students undertake is modeled and scaffolded for them. Comparing the thinking and activities in a classroom to the work done in a traditional apprenticeship I realize how much we assume students should just be able to do or take on, without the proper modeling and scaffolding. Imagine giving a novice blacksmith a hot iron and assuming he can immediately repair a tool? 

The authors give examples of cognitive apprenticeship in reading (using Palincsar & Brown's reciprocal teaching of reading), in writing (using Scardamalia and Bereiter's approach to teaching writing) and in math (using Schoenfeld's method for teaching mathematical problem solving to college students). In each example, teachers model strategies or activities of expert readers, writers, and problem-solvers, provide scaffolding to try the strategies or activities, coach the students and fade out the support. Throughout each approach, teachers are delineating the thinking involved. Modeling for students is an explicit action meaning students are not simply directed to complete a task, but given the thinking behind the task and clearly shown the process(es) required to achieve the task. Teachers even highlight the natural struggle that sometimes comes along with problem-solving (or completing any task) and the benefit of collaborating with others.

It seems this model coincides with the model of homeschooling (generally called 'unschooling') that successfully works to engage students in learning. With homeschooling, a parent or guardian works closely with a child or children communicating with them constantly about what they see, hear, and do. That communication is the illumination of the thinking behind the action - the 'educator' is modeling and being explicit about the processes involved in thinking, observing, and completing activities. In a classroom, sometimes it feels that this is not possible. The teacher to student ration takes away the apprenticeship feel so we go directly to 'directing' action rather than modeling, scaffolding and coaching. It is interesting to see - through very specific examples with reading, writing, and math - how an 'apprenticeship' can be carried out in the classroom.

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