Tag Archives: cognitive apprenticeship

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!

An iEarth teaching conversation with Kjersti Daae and Torgny Roxå on #WaveWatching

iEarth is currently establishing the new-to-me format of “teaching conversations”, where two or more people meet to discuss specific aspects of one person’s teaching in a “critical friend” setting. Obviously I volunteered to be grilled, and despite me trying to suggest other topics, too (like the active lunch break and the “nerd topic” intro in a workshop), we ended up talking about … #WaveWatching. Not that I’m complaining ;-)

After the conversation, I wrote up the main points as a one-pager, which I am sharing below. Thank you, Kjersti and Torgny, for an inspiring conversation!

I use #WaveWatching in introductory courses in oceanography and in science outreach both on social media and in in-person guided tours. #WaveWatching is the practice of looking at water and trying to make sense of why its surface came to look the way it does: What caused the waves (e.g. wind, ships, animals)? How did the coastline influence the waves (e.g. shelter it from wind in some places, or block entrance into a basin from certain directions, or cause reflection)? What processes must be involved that we cannot directly observe (e.g. interactions with a very shallow area or a current)? Kjersti Daae (pers. comm.) suggests an analogy to explain #WaveWatching: Many people enjoy a stir-fry for its taste, like we enjoy looking at water, glittering in the sun, without questioning what makes it special. But once we start focusing on noticing different ingredients and the ways they are prepared, it is a small change in perspective that changes our perception substantially, and leads to a new appreciation and deeper understanding of all future stir-fries (and possibly other dishes) we will encounter.

I teach #WaveWatching using a cognitive apprenticeship leaning (Collins et al., 1988) approach*: By drawing on photos of selected wave fields (in the field using a drawing app on a tablet), I model my own sensemaking (Odden & Russ, 2019). I coach students to engage in the process, and slowly fade myself out. Students then engage in #WaveWatching practice anywhere they find water – in the sink, a puddle in the street, a lake, the ocean. Since waves are universally accessible, this works perfectly as hyper-local “excursions” in virtual teaching: Students work “in the field” right outside their homes.

Waves are not an integral part of the general curriculum in physical oceanography. While some wave processes are relevant for specific research questions, for typical large-scale oceanography they are not. And the concepts used in #WaveWatching are not even new to students, they are just an application of high-school optics to a new context.

Nevertheless, #WaveWatching helps work towards several goals that are important to me:

  1. Using “authentic data” acts as motivation to engage with theory because the connection with the real world makes it feel more interesting and engaging (Kjelvik & Schultheis, 2019).
  2. Engaging in sensemaking and gaining experience on what can (and cannot!) be concluded from an observation are highly relevant skills and this is an opportunity for practice.
  3. Building an identity as oceanographer – seeing the world through a new lens, joining a community of practice (Wenger, 2011), but also being able to demonstrate newfound expertise and identity to friends and family outside of that new community by talking about this new lens – are otherwise rare in socially distant times.

After being exposed to #WaveWatching, people tell me that they can’t look at water in the same way they did before. They are now seeing pattern they never noticed, and they try to explain them or ask themselves what I would see. They often send me photos of their observation years after our last interaction, and ask if I agree with their interpretations. #WaveWatching might thus be a threshold concept, “a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” and where “the change of perspective […] is unlikely to be forgotten” (Meyer & Land, 2003).


  • Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1988). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics. Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children8(1), 2-10.
  • Kjelvik, M. K., & Schultheis, E. H. (2019). Getting messy with authentic data: Exploring the potential of using data from scientific research to support student data literacy. CBE—Life Sciences Education18(2), es2.
  • Meyer, J. H. F., and Land, R. (2003) “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising” in Improving Student Learning: Ten Years On. C. Rust (Ed), OCSLD, Oxford.
  • Odden, T. O. B., & Russ, R. S. (2019). Defining sensemaking: Bringing clarity to a fragmented theoretical construct. Science Education103(1), 187-205.
  • Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction.

*more on that in this post (that comes online on 21.5.2021).