Cognitive Apprenticeship Teaching Strategy

T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project
December, 2018 (ver. 3)

Handbook Table of Contents
Common Core Relevance

To successfully blend technical writing into science classes, one needs a practical guiding strategy. A good strategy will

  • give students what they really need but don’t have for writing
    more effectively, based on classroom experience, and also
  • take account of recent research on how people generally learn
    complex tasks well, such as nonfiction writing.

Cognitive apprenticeship offers teachers such a strategy.

Motivating Background

Apprenticeship–novices working with masters in an appropriately structured way–has long been how people learn complex, largely physical, tasks (such as tailoring or glassblowing) outside of school. Inspired by the practical success of this approach, Collins, Brown, and Holum (1991) along with Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) found ways to adapt key apprenticeship features to

  • school and its more traditional subjects, and
  • largely intellectual or cognitive tasks (such as learning to write)
    rather than physical ones.

Because of how apprenticeship works, their slogan was “making thinking visible.”

A few years later these same “cognitive apprenticeship” teaching strategies emerged independently, through parallel attempts to address some chronic professional development problems. The problem domain was the apparently frivolous but actually quite scientifically relevant area of stage magic.

Becoming a master magician, or even mastering just one elaborate trick, is almost impossible to achieve merely by watching an excellent performance (or even repeated excellent performances). If the audience could learn a trick simply by watching someone do it well, it wouldn’t be much of an illusion.

Karl Ziemelis (2005) points out the key education-related distinction at work here:

…it is necessary to distinguish the “effect” from the “method.” The effect is the illusion the audience perceives…the method, on the other hand, is the [hidden] procedure that creates that illusion.

Indeed, explaining magic methods effectively for others is so challenging a communication task that Edward Tufte devotes a whole chapter to it (Ch. 3) in his book Visual Explanations (1997). Tufte’s real concern, of course, is not with hidden magic methods, but rather with good ways to explain the more important hidden methods behind the serious professional “performances” of science. Since his own interest is with graphics, he suggests several visual strategies to “reveal the magic” behind professional success:

  • Use astute drawings (not photographs) to show “the revealed and the concealed” aspects of a complex professional activity at the same time (p. 55).
  • Use layered views to let readers look inside at otherwise obscured inner gear.
  • Use ghosting or blurring (as they do in comic books) to show key motions.

“Revealing the magic” is also vital when teaching technical writing to science students. Crafting usable nonfiction prose, like performing stage illusions, involves hidden methods that learners must become aware of and master. Just seeing other students write good lab instructions or project descriptions is no more likely to yield effective personal performance than seeing a well-done magic trick, and for the same reason.

Instructional designer Mike Sharples (1999) spelled out the need for something very like apprenticeship here in social and linguistic terms:

Musicians, chess players, and architects must…serve long apprenticeships, but they generally have the benefits of belonging to a group where they can compare and discuss their preformance, and they can call on a specialized language [to describe their work]. Adult writers generally have no such support system. They usually work alone, and have no language with which to describe to themselves [much less to others] the process of writing and the structure of texts…(p. 33)

Fortunately, a cognitive apprenticeship approach to teaching technical writing can meet both of the needs that Sharples identifies.

Feature Summary

The chart below lists the cognitive apprenticeship features by their formal names (column 1) and briefly explains each one (column 2). Column 3 suggests how each feature applies to teaching technical writing (with many more details and examples in the exercise sections, of course).

General Approach Applied to Teaching
Technical Writing
Observation (students)
Modeling (teachers)
Demonstrate a complex, skilled activity
(1) more slowly,
(2) more overtly
than usual, for students to study.
Need to overtly demonstrate:

  • Drafting/building usable nonfiction text,
  • Revising flawed drafts,
  • Process, not just results.
Externalization Masters

  • Expose, name, compare their normally hidden methods.
  • “Reveal the magic” behind public effects.
Students need externalized:

  • Ways to (re)construct long texts,
  • Ways to find flaws, compare alternatives,
  • Audience analysis tips.
Scaffolding Offer extra, temporary clues, prompts, reminders
for needed underlying moves.
Cases include:

  • Guidelines for (self-)editing,
  • Posters or cue cards,
  • Simple framing diagrams.
  • Actively direct attention.
  • Offer feedback, commentary.
  • Encourage reflection, articulation during practice.
Students need guidance to see
text revisions, reorganizations, alternatives
as normal, desirable activity.
  • Fade the scaffolds.
  • Approach success slowly with iterative refinement.
Good pacing promotes:

  • Building one text-design skill at a time,
    working toward combinations.
  • Comparing multiple text versions in detail.
  • Regarding every draft as a prototype that one can refine
Embedding Show complex skills and hidden methods through real-life cases
and contexts.
Adapting authentic texts:

  • Motivating instructions with recipes,
    descriptions with CSI reports.
  • Barrass, Scientists Must Write, p. 17,
    itemizes the many things that real scientists write.

Writing is a more complex activity than many students realize. And, as noted above about magic, people who do it well often use nonobvious (“hidden”) methods that are perfectly learnable if only someone helps students see and try them. Thus cognitive apprenticeship offers not so much a rigid, formularic way of teaching writing as a promising general strategy, a well-grounded “instructional paradigm” (Collins, Brown, and Holum, 1991, p. 17). Thinking in such apprenticeship terms is a practical way to notice and remember the extra learning opportunities that carefully chosen writing activities can provide (these are too often overlooked when literature is studied in English class). And there is a nice motivational side effect as well: “revealing the magic” takes away the illusion that good writing is mysterious. Almost anyone can improve if they practice the hidden methods.

A typical magic-revealed video on YouTube (“Cups and Balls Trick”) shows just how much one can learn from cognitive apprenticeship for the Common Core goal of teaching technical writing in science class. In the six-minute video at, an uncredited professional stage magician explains how to perform the well-known trick in which three small soft balls appear to migrate between three overturned opaque plastic cups. Every aspect of this clip has useful parallels for nonfiction writing instruction:

  • Showing the illusion three times (the effect) still fails to enable one to perform it oneself (the method).
  • Hidden from viewers are extra props (a fourth ball), just as hidden from readers are the feature checklists and design templates (scaffolds) often used by effective nonfiction writers (e.g., see
  • “Obvious” moves (turning over the cups) often really demand extra practice (with coaching), just like the extra coached practice writers need to find missing steps in a procedure or to organize a description helpfully for an audience.
  • Special cues from the magician (e.g., “walking fingers”) enhance the illusion, in the same way that special cues from a writer (such as headings, step numbers, or figure captions in real-life technical documents) enhance the usability of science and engineering text.

K-12 Literacy Applications

Additional recent evidence for the effectiveness of cognitive apprenticeship
as a path to enhanced literacy comes from extensive empirical research on
two special K-12 groups that often need help building their nonfiction
English writing skills: deaf/hard-of-hearing (d/hh) users of American Sign
Language (ASL) and English-language learning (ELL) students.

SIWI. Deaf or hard-of-hearing (d/hh) students fluent in ASL often
mix ASL syntax with English when they first learn to draft English nonfiction
text. One skill-building approach to boost their English fluency is
Strategic and Interactive Writing Instruction (SIWI). SIWI taps “20 years
of evidence-based research” to focus cognitive-apprenticeship moves on
d/hh literacy needs (Wolbers, 2014, p. 21). Especially helpful have
been explicitly teaching (modeling) expert writing moves to novice d/hh
writers, scaffolding the writing process with overt ASL/English comparisons,
and externalizing the hidden metalinguistic knowledge of English that hearing
students automatically exploit.

SRSD. A similar approach, developed in parallel with SIWI but
from its own long-term empirical classroom-research base, addresses the
extra literacy support that ELL students often need to write about science
easily in English. Called Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD), this
involves such cognitive-apprenticeship features as externalizing master
text-design moves with checklists and other scaffolds, modeling those
writing techniques as students watch teachers actually use them before
the students practice themselves, and prompting/motivating literacy
development with graphic organizers (Harris and Graham, 2018). As with
SIWI, SRSD empirical testing has shown that apprenticeship-oriented
writing-instruction approaches first developed to help a narrow student
audience actually benefit literacy development in all students because
this teaching strategy has underlying linguistic and psychological

Classroom Cases

Diverse simple cases of cognitive apprenticeship turn up whenever teachers report on ways that they have found, through classroom experience, to iteratively build the intellectual skills of their students.

For example, Michael Carter, Miriam Ferzi, and Eric N. Wiebe (2007) interviewed 10 randomly selected students taking a course at North Carolina State University that “introduc[es] life science majors to biology” (p. 285). The students reported that modeling, coaching, and repeated practice with realistic lab reports (rather than with school-oriented “book reviews, summaries, and essays”) helped them understand biology better: “asking students to write in a way that is similar to the way full members of the [biology] community write encourages students to behave in the lab more closely to the way full members of that community would behave” (p. 295).

Jeanne M. Sorrell and her colleagues found similar benefits with students of nursing. In early work (1991), Sorrell noted that merely correcting badly written papers was insufficient to help nursing students write more effectively. Instead, mentor nurses needed to “reveal the magic” of good text design: “to be effective mentors…educators must communicate to students those [normally hidden] strategies that faciliate the writing process” (p. 284). Approximating toward mastery using multiple drafts (p. 285) was especially helpful. In a later study (1998), Sorrell reported how embedding a skill-building apprenticeship (“Nurses as Writers”) into a professional development program “empowered” (p. 29) students to prepare for on-the-job writing demands outside of their school assignments.

Several engineering instructors, working with a different audience, likewise saw cognitive apprenticeship as a reliable path to better student writing. For instance, Barbara M. Olds, contributing an insert to a survey article by Julie E. Sharp (1999), reported getting her “least
helpful peer feedback” when she simply asked students to comment on their exchanged papers (p. 55). Restructuring this activity in apprenticeship terms, with overt editorial coaching and scaffolded by a checklist, yielded much more useful feedback. William H. Guilford (2001) tried a much more elaborate cycle of draft review and critique in his “Cell and Molecular Biology for Engineers” classes. He too found that the biggest changes in student performance and attitude resulted from externalizing article features (by sharing example manuscripts) and from “the highly structured nature” of his manuscript-review assignments (p. 173).

Cognitive Apprenticeship in Other Contexts

Teachers may have already encountered the cognitive apprenticeship approach to developing complex skills in other contexts, as an ingredient of some other commercial or academic projects, and sometimes unacknowledged by name. Three such contexts are

  • the Big Six commercial skill-building program,
  • How People Learn, an influential analysis by the U.S. National Research Council, and
  • Cindy Hmelo-Silver’s research on problem-based learning (PBL).

Big Six

Some schools or districts purchase a coordinated commercial package of activities to help students gain missing enabling skills (often loosely called “information skills”) whose absence thwarts success in traditional subjects like history or science. Mike Eisenberg and Bob Berkowitz address this market with a package that they call Big Six. Their website ( describes it as “an information and technology literacy model and curriculum implemented in thousands of schools.”

The Big Six website offers a very relevant sample of what this package involves: writing a report (Jansen, 2002). A review of the advice (to students) here reveals a clear case of cognitive apprenticeship, of learning by making (normally) hidden methods explicit. Barbara Jansen first decomposes report writing into a sequence of overt steps: define the task, get background information, synthesize what you find (these are general steps that Big Six uses in many skill-building situations). Then comes the apprenticeship move, in which each step has its hidden methods exposed for practice and comment. For example, Jansen shows students that “get background information” requires that the searcher perform these (formerly invisible) actions:

  • list questions in need of answers,
  • brainstorm possible sources, and
  • prioritize the sources by ease of access.

How People Learn

In 2000, John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, writing on behalf of the National Research Council’s Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, edited How People Learn (Bransford, 2000). This two-year study was comprehensive in scope, and one chapter focused on what, if anything, technology can contribute to effective learning.

Here the authors note that technology-assisted instruction can (but does not always) promote the externalization of hidden methods, and hence can encourage student reflection on them. Networked communication tools can “help make thinking visible. This core feature of the cognitive apprenticeship model of instruction…is exemplified in a broad range of [software] instructional programs…” (p. 200). They go on to cite e-mail, interactive databases, and hypermedia collaboration tools as examples of software that prompts learners to “articulate the steps taken” (p. 201) as they solve problems. Such software thus enables the original student, other students, and the teacher to offer focusing feedback on preliminary work. The NRC scientists see this as an instance of the informed coaching and successive approximation to mastery that typify cognitive apprenticeship.

Hmelo-Silver on PBL

Cindy Hmelo-Silver’s research on problem-based curricula in medical schools (Hmelo-Silver, 2004) offers yet a third context where cognitive apprenticeship is in play. Hmelo-Silver thinks that “PBL exemplifies the cognitive apprenticeship model” (p. 245) because a skilled facilitator “is critical to making PBL function well” (p. 244) and such a facilitator has a master-apprenticeship relationship with the students.

What sets this case apart from those above is that Hmelo-Silver sees the PBL facilitator not as a first-order medical expert but instead as a second-order “expert learner, able to model good strategies for learning and thinking” (p. 245). The mastery that the facilitator models is much less biological or clinical than metacognitive. Many students fail to spontaneously discover the hidden methods needed for successful problem-based learning. So the facilitator

  • coaches them on
    • self-directed learning techniques,
    • collaboration with their student colleagues, and
    • overt reflection on their past practice,
  • scaffolds problem-solving techniques that the students gradually make their own, and
  • externalizes student thinking and comments (again, so that students can gradually do this for themselves).

The medical-school context (carefully selected, highly competitive students with extensive background knowledge) seems far removed from most high-school classes. Writing mastery, however, also clearly involves some complex metacognitive skills (planning, self-editing, generating alternatives) to which similar apprenticeship support is highly relevant.


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