Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator, 15(3), 6–11, 38–46.


In this article, Collins, Brown, & Holum (1991) described about the concept of Cognitive Apprenticeship in teaching reading, writing, and mathematics. In addition, they also discuss a framework for designing learning environments including content, method, sequence, and sociology. The concept of apprenticeship has been known from the ancient times and it has been applied in modern times as a form of formal schooling. However, there are aspects such as the process of thinking that are not easy to observe for both students and teachers. Therefore, this Cognitive Apprenticeship model helps to make this problem more visible. After reading this article, the audiences will be able to see successful framework and examples where teachers use apprenticeship in their teaching, reading, and writing.

Cognitive apprenticeship is helpful when teachers want to use it for complex projects or tasks for students, but rote tasks would not be appropriate in this case. Teachers will not be a permanent expert in this model. As times goes by, the students will be encouraged to be experts in their learning, asking questions that teachers might not able to answer and to challenge the solutions.

A Summary of Key Points:

  • Traditional Apprenticeship – there are four main aspects
    • Modeling: learners watch others at work.
    • Scaffolding: giving supports for learners.
    • Fading: the action of removing support slowly so learners can be on their own.
    • Coaching: the process of overseeing the student’s learning.
  • From Traditional to Cognitive Apprenticeship
    • Teachers need to make thinking more visible to students and vice versa.
    • Teachers need to create tasks, assignments, learning contexts that are closely related to real-life examples and make sense to the students rather than abstract concepts.
    • Teachers need to create diverse activities so students are able to transfer what they learn in class to different situations.
  • The effectiveness of Reciprocal Teaching
    • Students are involved in lots of constructive activities such as formulating questions, making summaries, and predictions. As a result, they “understand what they are and to develop the critical ability to read to learn”
    • They know that they will soon in a role of teacher as an expertise.
    • Scaffolding provides a significant success for this model of reading
  • The effectiveness of Writing Model
    • This method helps to build a new way of writing for learners.
    • The cue cards help with generating an idea, elaborating and improving ideas rather than just the basic process of planning.

Design principles:

  • Reading

The article uses the method called reciprocal teaching which proved that it improved the reading scores of both normal students and poor readers. There are four main strategies including formulating questions based on the text, summarizing the text, making predictions about what will come next, and clarifying difficulties with the text.

  • Step 1: both teacher and students read a paragraph silently
  • Step 2: Teacher role: forms a questions based on the paragraph, construct summary, makes a prediction or clarification

Note: Initially, teacher models this process, then turn it to the students to play role of teacher


  • Step 2: Student role: when student undertakes this process, the teacher will coach them extensively how to conduct questions, summary, offering prompts and critiquing their efforts
  • Step 3: As students become more proficient, the teacher fades and provides feedback occasionally.
  • Writing

The article provides methods of “explicit procedural supports, in the form of prompts” to help students learn how to write more complex writing. This process also involves expertise by modeling expert processes and reduced the support over times. Planning is very important to writing according to experts compared to novices who only start writing until they run out of ideas. There are five general processes in planning including: generating new idea, improve idea, elaborating on an idea, identifying goals, and putting it together. In each process, there will be example prompt as a guide for both teacher and students when they write.

  • Mathematical Problem Solving

Schoenfeld (1983, 1985) found a set of principles that help students better improve their learning in problem solving including heuristic strategies, control strategies, elements of modeling, coaching, scaffolding, and fading in varieties of activities. Schoenfeld (1983) also described the importance of small group activities and postmortem analysis- “the students alternate with the teacher in producing postmortem analysis.” (p. 12)

  • Principles for Designing Cognitive Apprenticeship Environments

To create a cognitive apprenticeship learning environments, designers need to pay attention closely to four main ideas such as content (types of knowledge required for expertise), method (ways to promote the development of expertise), sequencing (keys to ordering learning activities), and sociology (social characteristics of learning environments).

Example work:

Watch It, Do It, Know It: Cognitive Apprenticeship

Darling-H, Austin, & Martin (n.d) provided section activities based on Cognitive Apprenticeship that have some examples for small group activities, modeling, students become experts, providing feedbacks, short-answer questions, essay questions, and long-term assignments.

Discussion questions:

  1. What are the differences between traditional apprenticeship and cognitive apprenticeship?
  2. What are challenges of Cognitive Apprenticeship?
  3. Describe an example on how you plan to apply any strategies/ method in this study into your teaching or working?

Additional Resources:

The role of Examples in Cognitive Apprenticeship



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