The Benefits Of Engaging In A “Cognitive Apprenticeship”

For centuries before the rise of educational institutions, everyone learned on the job, through formal or informal apprenticeships. An aspiring blacksmith learned his trade by working alongside a master craftsman; a dressmaker-in-training performed increasingly complex tasks under the tutelage of an experienced seamstress. But much of today’s work, of course, is less concrete than hammering an anvil or cutting a bolt of fabric; it’s social, emotional and intellectual labor, often carried on inside a person’s own mind.

In a landmark article published more than a decade ago, cognitive scientist Allan Collins and his coauthors John Seely Brown and Susan Newman gave us a new way to think about this kind of contemporary learning: novices, they wrote, can engage in a cognitive apprenticeship. Like a traditional apprenticeship, this form of training pairs a rookie with a worker who’s far more advanced, but Collins and his colleagues adapted the older custom to the new needs of executives, managers, salespeople and other professionals who work with their heads rather than their hands.

As they describe it, the cognitive apprenticeship proceeds in three steps. First, the master models the skill for the apprentice. Second, the master coaches the apprentice as he or she attempts to execute the skill. And third, the master “fades” or pulls back as the apprentice is increasingly able to work independently. Over the course of this cycle, the apprentice learns to identify and correct mistakes, and to integrate his or her burgeoning knowledge and skill into a smooth, coordinated performance.

So far, this sounds a lot like how things were done in the olden days—but as Collins writes, “Applying apprenticeship methods to largely cognitive skills requires the externalization of processes that are usually carried out internally.” That means that the modern-day master and apprentice must be continuously communicating as they work side by side.

Collins prescribes two specific types of talk: in the first, the master and the neophyte take turns explaining what they’re doing as they do it. This alternation allows apprentices “to use the details of expert performance as the basis for incremental adjustments to their own performance,” Collins writes.

The second approach Collins calls “abstracted replay”: that is, after a task has been performed, the master offers a detailed commentary on what just happened (sometimes augmented by the actual replay of video taken during the task). During the recap, the more experienced member of the pair recounts what would have been his or her internal dialogue so that the less-experienced participant can hear it—and, in time, draw that dialogue inward as well.

2 Responses to “The Benefits Of Engaging In A “Cognitive Apprenticeship””

  1. Becky Blades says:

    I wonder how the current short-attention-span culture and pocket media are impacting the success of “cognitive apprenticeships.” Will apprentices focus enough to get the nuance and make the refinements of final stage learning? I suppose that’s where video replay comes in.

  2. [...] your education. And in doing so, you’ll likely be creating relationships that help not only you as the learner, but the person who teaches you, too – whether that person is teaching you to prune an apple tree, [...]

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