Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup
Support Materials

HomeAbout the CourseSession Overviews

Support Materials

Related Links

Learning Challenges

Site Map


8. Watch It, Do It,
Know It - Cognitive Apprenticeship

Session Content Outline

Key Questions

  • How can students learn to think strategically?
  • How can teachers make thinking visible for their students and support more powerful learning?

Learning Objectives
  • Creating cognitive apprenticeships – Teachers will learn what kinds of tasks and projects are appropriate to a cognitive apprenticeship. They will recognize that tasks should be authentic, representative of the field or domain being pursued, and based on real-world needs and contexts.
  • Making thinking visible – Teachers will consider how to make expert thinking visible and how to support student learning through modeling, scaffolding, and coaching. They will recognize the need to break down a task, to carefully scaffold, and structure activities to guide a cognitive apprenticeship.
  • Assessing students' learning – Teachers will understand how to make student thinking visible so they can judge when and how to support students' learning.

Session Outline

In many traditional occupations, masters of a trade would take novices under their wings and teach them through an apprenticeship. Master blacksmiths, seamstresses, or craftspeople would teach their apprentices through a process of demonstration, assistance, and coaching. In such settings, the learner was able to observe and participate in the process of work from beginning to end. The master's job was to create opportunities for the apprentice to assist in the work and practice new skills under supervision. Teaching and learning in apprenticeship settings revolved around authentic, real-world tasks and products. In this Session, we discuss the idea of a "cognitive apprenticeship," which applies this ancient tradition of practical, trade-oriented apprenticeships to the kinds of teaching and learning that take place in modern schools.

Designing Cognitive Apprenticeship Environments

The context for the cognitive apprenticeship has three key features:

  • The work must be situated in realistic tasks that are representative of the field being pursued (e.g. conducting a scientific experiment or a historical inquiry, writing a short story or a school newspaper)
  • Tasks are typically carried out within a collaborative learning community where students work together with the teacher to develop ideas and assist and critique each other's work.
  • Tasks are motivating to students due to their real-world value (e.g. performing for an audience outside of a classroom or conducting a poll and analyzing the results to shed light on a community issue) (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).

Teaching Strategies in a Cognitive Apprenticeship
  • Modeling – showing a student how a process is done
  • Scaffolding – structures that give the student just enough support for her to accomplish a learning task
  • Coaching – assigning tasks, providing support, offering feedback and encouraging students to guide their learning

Making Students' Thinking Visible

Having students elaborate on their thought processes can –

  • help them become aware of their own understandings and misconceptions
  • provide opportunities for students to assist their peers
  • give teachers insights to use in scaffolding and assisting students' learning.


Cognitive apprenticeship is not a formula; it is an instructional approach that helps teach complex skills and reasoning. Teachers should consider key questions as they plan their instruction:

  • What are the central skills and concepts of my subject area that I would like students to master?
  • How can I make visible to my students how I, and other experts, think when we perform these skills and work with these concepts?
  • What kind of unit or class can I design that will require students to understand, practice, and receive feedback on the real-life application of these understandings (both individually and in collaboration with others)?
  • What kind of strategies can I use as a teacher to coach and scaffold the development of expertise?


Back to the top

Return to Support Materials for Session 8


© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy