This article has exercised a great influence on the 21st Century Learning Initiative’s thinking. It originally appeared in the Winter, 1991 issue of American Educator, the journal of The American Federation of Teachers, and is reprinted here with permission.

In ancient times, teaching and learning were accomplished through apprenticeship: We taught our children how to speak, grow crops, craft cabinets, or tailor clothes by showing them how and by helping them do it. Apprenticeship was the vehicle for transmitting the knowledge required for expert practice in fields from painting and sculpting to medicine and law. It was the natural way to learn. In modern times, apprenticeship has largely been replaced by formal schooling, except in children’s learning of language, in some aspects of graduate education, and in on-the-job training. We propose in 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. We call this model “cognitive apprenticeship” (Collins, Brown, and Newman, 1989).

While there are many differences between schooling and apprenticeship methods, we will focus on one. In apprenticeship, learners can see the processes of work: They watch a parent sow, plant and harvest crops and help as they are able; they assist a tradesman as he crafts a cabinet; they piece together garments under the supervision of a more experienced tailor. Apprenticeship involves learning a physical, tangible activity. But in schooling, the “practice” of problem solving, reading comprehension, and writing is not at all obvious — it is not necessarily observable to the student. In apprenticeship, the processes of thinking are visible. 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.

In this article, we will present some of the features of traditional apprenticeship and discuss the ways it can be adapted to the teaching and learning of cognitive skills. Then we will present three successful examples — cases in which teachers and researchers have used apprenticeship methods to teach reading, writing, and mathematics.

In the final section we organize our ideas about the characteristics of successful teaching into a general framework for the design of learning environments, where “environment” includes the content taught, the pedagogical methods employed, the sequencing of learning activities, and the sociology of learning.

Toward a Synthesis of Schooling and Apprenticeship

Although schools have been relatively successful in organizing and conveying Iarge bodies of conceptual and factual knowledge, standard pedagogical practices render key aspects of expertise invisible to students. 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. Where such processes are addressed, the emphasis is on formulaic methods for solving “textbook” problems or on the development of low-level subskills in relative isolation.

As a result, conceptual and problem-solving knowledge acquired in school remains largely inert for many students. In some cases, knowledge remains bound to surface features of problems as they appear in textbooks and class presentations. For example, Schoenfeld (I985) has found that, in solving mathematics problems, students rely on their knowledge of standard textbook patterns of problem presentation rather than on their knowledge of problem-solving strategies or intrinsic properties of the problems themselves. When they encounter problems that fall outside these patterns, students are often at a loss for what to do. In other cases, students fail to use resources available to them to improve their skills because they lack models of how to tap into those resources. For example, students are unable to make use of potential models of good writing acquired through reading because they have no understanding of how the authors produced such text. Stuck with what Scardamalia and Bereiter (1985) call “knowledge-telling strategies,” they are unaware that expert writing involves organizing one’s ideas about a topic, elaborating goals to be achieved in the writing, thinking about what the audience is likely to know or believe about the subject, and so on.

To make real differences in students’ skill, we need both to understand the nature of expert practice and to devise methods that are appropriate to learning that practice. To do this, we must first recognize that cognitive strategies are central to integrating skills and knowledge in order to accomplish meaningful tasks. They are the organizing principles of expertise, particularly in such domains as reading, writing, and mathematics. Further, because expert practice in these domains rests crucially on the integration of cognitive strategies, we believe that it can best be taught through methods that have traditionally been employed in apprenticeship to transmit complex physical processes and skills.

Traditional Apprenticeship

In traditional apprenticeship, the expert shows the apprentice how to do a task, watches as the apprentice practices portions of the task, and then turns over more and more responsibility until the apprentice is proficient enough to accomplish the task independently. That is the basic notion of apprenticeship: showing the apprentice how to do a task and helping the apprentice to do it. There are four important aspects of traditional apprenticeship: modeling, scaffolding, fading, and coaching.

In modeling, the apprentice observes the master demonstrating how to do different parts of the task. The master makes the target processes visible, often by explicitly showing the apprentice what to do. But as Lave and Wenger (in press) point out, in traditional apprenticeship, much of the learning occurs as apprentices watch others at work.

Scaffolding is the support the master gives apprentices in carrying out a task. This can range from doing almost the entire task for them to giving occasional hints as to what to do next. Fading is the notion of slowly removing the support, giving the apprentice more and more responsibility.

Coaching is the thread running through the entire apprenticeship experience. The master coaches the apprentice through a wide range of activities: choosing tasks, providing hints and scaffolding, evaluating the activities of apprentices and diagnosing the kinds of problems they are having, challenging them and offering encouragement, giving feedback, structuring the ways to do things, working on particular weaknesses. In short, coaching is the process of overseeing the student’s learning.

The interplay among observation, scaffolding, and increasingly independent practice aids apprentices both in developing self-monitoring and correction skills and in integrating the skills and conceptual knowledge needed to advance toward expertise. Observation plays a surprisingly key role; Lave (1988) hypothesizes that it aids learners in developing a conceptual model of the target task prior to attempting to execute it. Giving students a conceptual model — a picture of the whole — is an important factor in apprenticeship’s success in teaching complex skills without resorting to lengthy practice of isolated subskills, for three related reasons. First, it provides learners with an advanced organizer for their initial attempts to execute a complex skill, thus allowing them to concentrate more of their attention on execution than would otherwise be possible. Second, a conceptual model provides an interpretive structure for making sense of the feedback, hints, and corrections from the master during interactive coaching sessions. Third, it provides an internalized guide for the period when the apprentice is engaged in relatively independent practice.

Another key observation about apprenticeship concerns the social context in which learning takes place. Apprenticeship derives many cognitively important characteristics from being embedded in a subculture in which most, if not all, members are participants in the target skills. As a result, learners have continual access to models of expertise-in-use against which to refine their understanding of complex skills. Moreover, it is not uncommon for apprentices to have access to several masters, and thus to a variety of models of expertise. Such richness and variety help them to understand that there may be multiple ways of carrying out a task and to recognize that no one individual embodies all knowledge or expertise. And finally, learners have the opportunity to observe other learners with varying degrees of skill; among other things, this encourages them to view learning as an incrementally staged process, while providing them with concrete benchmarks for their own progress.