Today’s learning has been moving more and more toward information presentation and knowledge testing, despite the growing evidence that this will produce no meaningful outcomes for the business. Instead, we need a new model that naturally incorporates the type of activities known to develop persistent abilities in learners. We need to move away from schooling and toward models that are more aligned with how we naturally learn.

Before schooling, our most successful approach to learning was apprenticeship, which intrinsically incorporated gradual acquisition of meaningful skills in a community of practice. However, that approach focused on skills that do not reflect the knowledge work that characterizes modern needs. Is there an approach that is similarly natural but focuses on the needs of today’s information era?

Back in the late 1980s, Allen Collins and John Seely Brown wrote about what they called “cognitive apprenticeship.” Cognitive apprenticeship is a model of instruction that they had developed by abstracting three separate approaches across different domains. Most models of instruction (and associated theories) are not static but develop over time. I contend that today’s models are heading toward where cognitive apprenticeship already is. Here I will lay out the elements of cognitive apprenticeship and the valuable contributions those elements make, and talk about some extensions I add. I want to suggest that cognitive apprenticeship is a fundamental model that incorporates the best things about creating learning experiences.

The subtext for this approach is “making thinking visible” (see References: Collins, Brown, and Holum). Works by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter, by Annemarie Palincsar and Ann Brown, and by Alan Schoenfeld all provided different approaches for making thinking manifest (see References). It’s important to see how those three approaches established a basis for this abstraction.

Scardamalia and Bereiter were focused on developing the ability to write, a core cognitive skill. Their approach included specific processes that would provide valuable support for writing. To support this acquisition, they started by providing external guidelines and checklists. This approach of scaffolding (supporting) the writing process was coupled with gradually removing the support, requiring learners to bring onboard the necessary skills. Thus, the externalization of the thinking via job aids was internalized through usage and increasing requirements for learning the approaches.

Another approach came from work by Palincsar and Brown on reciprocal teaching, in this case for reading. In this process, the instructor would model reading for the students, and then the students would take turns reading. They would comment on one another’s performance, in constructive ways, as a way to practice the meta-skills of reading. As with the scaffolded approach above, the goal was to have learners internalize the performance monitoring and develop the ability to apply it to themselves, becoming self-improving learners. Explicitly practicing the reading skills again made them visible.

To round out the three, Schoenfeld’s area was mathematics. He recognized that experts working on problems have so automated the procedures that they’d skip demonstrating the underlying thinking. So an expert would work a problem saying, “First you do this, then you do this...,” without recognizing that really, the thinking is more like, “Well, you could do this or that, but because of this I’ll do this first, and then that leads me here, where I could do this or that, but because of this aspect I’ll do this next, and...” Schoenfeld modeled the underlying thinking out loud; he even made mistakes and continued, then noticed the mistakes and backtracked, showing not only the thinking but also the ongoing monitoring. Again, this is making thinking visible. 

See what we’re doing here: reading, writing, and ’rithmetic? These are core cognitive skills that exemplify the type of thinking increasingly needed in today’s workplace. The goal was to develop a model that worked across complex cognitive domains to support important learning outcomes. As it becomes easier to automate rote efforts, the valuable work for organizations will increasingly be the complex decisions embodied in cognitive skills like these core abilities.

Allan Collins and John Seely Brown noted that there were similarities among these approaches that formed a core model for developing cognitive skills: 

  • Modeling the desired performance 
  • Coaching performance 
  • Providing and releasing scaffolding 
  • Having students articulate their understanding 
  • Guiding reflection on their understanding
  • Encouraging exploration of new problems 

An important distinction in Collins and Brown’s work is that they write about different types of knowledge. In addition to the domain knowledge itself, the cognitive apprenticeship approach talks about heuristic knowledge about problem-solving in the domain, then about control strategies that guide successful experimentation and monitoring progress, and finally learning strategies. I find it useful to combine the domain and heuristic strategies as domain knowledge, and control and learning strategies as meta-learning strategies. Regardless, paying attention not just to the domain but also to the learning-to-learn skills is a big part of creating a learner who can not only perform the task, but become a member of a community of practice, continue as the task adapts over time, and improve on an ongoing basis, as well.

Presciently, Collins and Brown were talking about sequencing the skills with global-before-local practice, increasing the complexity over time, and increasing diversity. These are all elements that appear in newer compilations of learning research such as Make It Stick (Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel) and the Serious eLearning Manifesto (Allen, Dirksen, Quinn, and Thalheimer). The goal here is to gradually develop skills in ways that are consonant with the way our brains learn.

These aspects were also inherently social, with students working together in communities of practice around meaningful problems. Collins and Brown also consider several other aspects of the learning environment, including tapping into intrinsic motivation and working cooperatively.

While their efforts focused on children, the underlying approach is relevant for adult learning, too. The aspects of social, meaningful tasks, meta-learning, complexified practice, and more all align with the ways we learn best. There are side benefits as well, developing the culture of learning as well as the specific capabilities of a learning organization (see References: Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino).

Together, the elements of cognitive apprenticeship provide a method for learning that can guide the design of learning experiences. I like to assist the intrinsic motivation by emotionally engaging the learner at the beginning, and closing the emotional experience at the end as well, but overall this is a viable and valuable model that naturally incorporates the necessary elements to make learning work. I encourage you to read the relatively short and incisive original article.


Allen, Michael, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn, and Will Thalheimer. Serious eLearning Manifesto. 2014.

Brown, John Seely, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid. “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher, Vol. 18, No. 1. January-February 1989.

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Collins, Allan, John Seely Brown, and Ann Holum. “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible.” American Educator, Vol. 15, No. 3. Winter 1991.

Collins, Allan, John Seely Brown, and Susan E. Newman. “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics.” In Lauren B. Resnick (ed.), Knowing, Learning, and Instruction: Essays in Honor of Robert Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989.

Garvin, David A., Amy C. Edmondson, and Francesca Gino. “Is Yours a Learning Organization?” Harvard Business Review. March 2008.

Palincsar, Annemarie Sullivan, and Ann L. Brown. “Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Fostering and Comprehension-Monitoring Activities.” Cognition and Instruction, Vol. 1, No. 2. 1984.

Scardamalia, Marlene, and Carl Bereiter. “Fostering the Development of Self-Regulation in Children’s Knowledge Processing.” In Susan F. Chipman, Judith W. Segal, and Robert Glaser (eds.), Thinking and Learning Skills, Volume 2: Research and Open Questions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1985.

Schoenfeld, Alan H. “Learning to Think Mathematically: Problem Solving, Metacognition, and Sense-Making in Mathematics.” In Douglas Grouws (ed.), Handbook for Research on Mathematics Teaching and Learning. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992.