Friday, March 21, 2008

Back to Basics: Cognitive Apprenticeship

School as we know it is a fairly modern invention. Apprenticeship was the most common method of learning back when school was for an exclusive few. The word apprentice summons up the idea of the blacksmith and shoemaker in the Middle Ages, or even, Mickey with Merlin in Disney’s Fantasia. Apprenticeship was a way to prepare the next craftsman for the trade. The master gained a helper ensuring an increase in production, more clientele, and cheap labor. On the other hand, the apprentice, usually, not only gained an education and expertise of the craft from the master; but also, housing and food along with the hope of becoming a master craftsman himself and owning his own shop one day. It was a win-win situation for both.

Nowadays, schooling has become part of the culture of mass production of our society. The master-apprentice bond has shifted to a teacher-student acquaintance. The teacher is supposed to impart knowledge to as many students as possible. The master was to impart wisdom and expertise to his few apprentices because his craft, name, and reputation were at stake.

Rojewski and Schell argue that if the goal of education is to prepare students to ultimately transfer the knowledge gained in school to a work setting, then the best way to reach that goal is through cognitive apprenticeship. They contend that school is detached from real-world situations and that most of the skills being promoted do not necessarily transfer as easily, as quickly, or as noticeably to a real-life setting. Cognitive apprenticeship would take advantage of the master-apprentice relationship of old and apply it to the craft of thinking. Through cognitive apprenticeship, learning would be embedded within a workplace setting where students would see the concrete and contextual relationship of the skills learned as applied to real life.

Rojewski and Schell’s article reminded me of Lynn Langer Meeks and Carol Jewkes’s “Literacy in the Secondary English Classroom”. Austin and Meeks state that the terms learning and acquisition, as defined by Krashen and Terrell in 1998, are closely related but very different. Learning is a conscious and formal process; whereas, acquisition is an unconscious and informal one. Rojewski and Schell’s cognitive apprenticeship provides a framework for both learning and acquiring skills and knowledge pertinent to both school and the real world, thus creating an optimal learning environment for students.

Moreover, cognitive apprenticeship has many of the characteristics proposed by Brian Cambourne’s Conditions for Learning; as well as, Lauren Resnick’s Principles of Learning. Cambourne’s and Resnick’s work although similar, came from two different theoretical frameworks. Cambourne’s conditions are based mostly on linguistic research, specifically second language acquisition; while Resnick’s principles are based on cognitive and social psychology. Austin and Meeks combine the Conditions and Principles to create a working model of literacy learning environment for second language learners, similar to the cognitive apprenticeship model proposed by Rojewski and Schell. Furthermore, Cambourne and Resnick’s work echoes many of the basic concepts of learning.

In addition, the cognitive apprenticeship model re-establishes the teacher-student relationship to that of a master craftsman-apprentice. The first rule of real state: “Location, location, location!” could be altered to the first rule of teaching: “Relationship, relationship, relationship!” A student is more likely to want to learn from a teacher that he/she respects and admires, and ultimately would like to emulate. On the other hand, a teacher would more likely want to teach a learner who admires and respect him/her. The result is a symbiotic association between the learner and the teacher where both gain respect and knowledge from one another.

Finally, I’d like to point out that the word teacher, maestro, and learner, aprendiz (pl, aprendices), in Spanish are direct derivatives of the master-apprentice connection that existed in the Middle Ages. Accordingly, we must not forget that we have always been maestros preparing aprendices to continue forth our crafts. At the end of the day, it has always been our name, reputation, and future at stake.

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