From Traditional to Cognitive Apprenticeship

There are three important differences between traditional apprenticeships and the kind of cognitive apprenticeship we propose. As we said, in traditional apprenticeship, the process of carrying out a task to be learned is usually easily observable. In cognitive apprenticeship, one needs to deliberately bring the thinking to the surface, to make it visible, whether it’s in reading, writing, problem solving. The teacher’s thinking must be made visible to the the students and the student’s thinking must be made visible to the teacher. That is the most important difference between traditional apprenticeship and cognitive apprenticeship. Cognitive research, through such methods as protocol analysis, has begun to delineate the cognitive and metacognitive processes that comprise expertise. By bringing these tacit processes into the open, students can observe, enact, and practice them with help from the teacher and from other students.

Second, in traditional apprenticeship, the tasks come up just as they arise in the world: Learning is completely situated in the workplace. When tasks arise in the context of designing and creating tangible products, apprentices naturally understand the reasons for undertaking the process of apprenticeship. The are motivated to work and to learn the subcomponents of the task, because they realize the value of the finished product. They retain what they must do to complete the task, because they have seen the expert’s model of the finished product, and so the subcomponents of the task make sense. But in school, teachers are working with a curriculum centered around reading, writing, science, math, history, etc. that is, in large part, divorced from what students and most adults do in their lives. In cognitive apprenticeship, then, the challenge is to situate the abstract tasks of the school curriculum in contexts that make sense to students.

Third, in traditional apprenticeship, the skills to be learned inhere in the task itself: To craft a garment, the apprentice learns some skills unique to tailoring, for example, stitching buttonholes. Cabinetry does not require that the apprentice know anything about buttonholes. In other words, in traditional apprenticeship, it is unlikely that students encounter situations in which the transfer of skills is required. The tasks in schooling, however, demand that students be able to transfer what they learn. In cognitive apprenticeship, the challenge is to present a wide range of tasks, varying from systematic to diverse, and to encourage students to reflect on and articulate the elements that are common across tasks. As teachers present the targeted skills to students, they can increasingly vary the contexts in which those skills are useful. The goal is to help students generalize the skill, to learn when the skill is or is not applicable, and to transfer the skill independently when faced with novel situations. 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.

We do not want to argue that cognitive apprenticeship is the only way to learn. Reading a book or listening to a lecture are important ways to learn, particularly in domains where conceptual and factual knowledge are central. Active listeners or readers, who test their understanding and pursue the issues that are raised in their minds, learn things that apprenticeship can never teach. To the degree that readers or listeners are passive, however, they will not learn as much as they would by apprenticeship, because apprenticeship forces them to use their knowledge. Moreover, few people learn to be active readers and listeners on their own, and that is where cognitive apprenticeship is critical–observing the processes by which an expert listener or reader thinks and practicing these skills under the guidance of the expert can teach students to learn on their own more skillfully. Even in domains that rest on elaborate conceptual and factual underpinnings, students must learn the practice or art of solving problems and carrying out tasks. And to achieve expert practice, some version of apprenticeship remains the method of choice.


In this section, we will briefly describe three success models of teaching in the foundational domains of reading, writing, and mathematics and how these models embody the basic methods of cognitive apprenticeship. These three domains are foundational not only because they provide the basis for learning and communication in other school subjects but also because they engage cognitive and metacognitive processes that are basic to learning an thinking more generally. Unlike school subjects such as chemistry or history, these domains rest on relatively sparse conceptual and factual underpinnings, turning instead on students’ robust and efficient execution of a set of cognitive and metacognitive skills. As such, we believe they are particularly well suited to teaching methods modeled on cognitive apprenticeship.