Follow-up on the iEarth teaching conversation: Why cognitive apprenticeship?

One question came up after I had written up my one-pager on the iEarth “teaching conversation”: Why “cognitive apprenticeship”?

Over the years, I made a couple of observations across several universities in three countries:

  1. Students learn a lot of factual, conceptual and formalized procedural knowledge, working mainly on textbook data and problems. They often have difficulties transferring knowledge and skills to messy authentic tasks, and they are not given many opportunities to practice applying them to real-world contexts (at least not before their Bachelor/Master projects).
  2. There are not many opportunities for students to engage with teachers informally, meaning that there is a perceived artificial distance that creates a threshold for engagement, and students have little access to potential role models.
  3. Relationships between students and teachers are often confined to the duration of a course, therefore short-lived (unless students work for that specific teacher or write a thesis with them).
  4. Teachers often don’t share their thought processes explicitly for students to learn from, and similarly in a science communication setting, scientists don’t often make their thought processes transparent to their audience.
  5. For many people, the threshold to engage in sensemaking of the physics of a system, both by themselves and in conversation with others, seems very high.
  6. With courses being almost exclusively online since March 2020 where I am at, studying has become a lonely practice and it is difficult to build an identity if communities and role models are not easily available.

Personally, I enjoy deep exchange about what other people observe and how they interpret it, and my own observations and interpretations, leading to the shared construction of a common understanding. When I first started #WaveWatching, I was in a job in a non-oceanography context, and was missing such conversations on ocean topics. Due to the nature of my job, I could not as easily access them in the usual ways (office mates, coffee breaks, seminars, conferences) and thus had to create my own space and community. Now, I want to extend the invitation to join me in this, both to students and in a science outreach context, to share my fascination with water and the fun of a shared sensemaking process.

I retrospectively described the model I chose for #WaveWatching as “cognitive apprenticeship” as defined by Collins et al., 1988, which I summarize here and refer to my points above (in brackets): Cognitive apprenticeship places a strong focus on strategic knowledge, e.g. expert problem-solving and learning strategies (1.). This focus becomes evident in the attempt to give students “the opportunity to observe, engage in, and invent or discover expert strategies in context” (1., 2.), situated in the real world (1.), by using six teaching methods: modelling (4.), coaching (5.), scaffolding (5.), articulating, reflecting, exploring. These methods are used in sequences going towards more complex, more diverse, and from global towards more local skills, with students owning the problems they work on and choosing an appropriate level of difficulty (5.). All of this is embedded in the social context of “a learning environment in which the participants actively communicate about, and engage in, the skills involved in expertise, where expertise is understood as the practice of solving problems and carrying out tasks in a domain.”

The community of practice around #WaveWatching extends far beyond individual classes I teach. Many of it happens online on social media, welcoming everybody to engage with it (2., 3., 6.). Even though I was initially strongly involved in using, and thus gathering a community around, the hashtag, there are now many people engaged in the domain of the physics of surface waves, engaging in the shared practice of trying to understand what is going on, both in situ and on pictures shared within the community: A community of practice has formed. Due to its virtual nature, the threshold for engagement is as low as snapping a picture and pasting it with the hashtag, and people in the community will start discussing about what can and cannot be deduced from the photo.

What I did not consider witing all of this is that the term “apprenticeship” might evoke images of  strong hierarchies, of “the master being The Master”, even though I totally see it now, after it has been pointed out to me. To me, what the term brings to mind is a community of learners, that have a common interest (waves) engage in a shared practice (wave watching). In that way, the apprenticeship model is about “the master” (or teacher) making sure that new members are welcomed in the community and connected to everybody that can help them thrive, about creating a community of practice than about the apprenticeship model itself. Which is, coincidally, where the idea of a “community of practice” originated (Wenger, 2011).

Super interesting to ponder these questions and the implicit assumptions that come with using terminology and that can really confuse us if we don’t manage to catch them and make them explicit!

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