(Still) writing my dissertation proposal. Apparently, I write non-linearly (no surprise to anyone who knows me), which means ideas coalesce in an ever-expanding fuzzy cloud for a long, long time -- and then burst into a thunderstorm at the end. Right now I'm thunder-storming the section that talks about 3 different ways of thinking about faculty-as-learners: cognitive apprentices, narrators, and agents in a poststructural universe. Here's the apprenticeship part, now that I think it's world-readable.

Oh. Side note. Those who have heard me talk about cognitive apprenticeship in the past will notice the technique list is longer -- in addition to modeling, coaching, scaffolding, and fading (originally called "exploration," btw) there were also originally "articulation" and "reflection." (I didn't realize this until I dug back into the old literature after my last talk and went "WAIT, THERE'S MORE?") So yeah, my next Hacker School talk is getting revised a bit, because it turns out those two are useful too.

One way of thinking about faculty-as-learners is to view them as participants in a cognitive apprenticeship (Collins et al, 1987). The cognitive apprenticeship framework was developed alongside theories of situated cognition and communities of practice (CoP) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If situated learning says that all knowledge is contextual (Brown et al, 1989), and communities of practice are the domain-specific groups of practitioners with whom we share a fellowship (Wenger, 1999), then cognitive apprenticeships are how newcomers learn a contextually-situated intellectual craft by working with and observing others in a CoP. Faculty, especially novice faculty or those new to a particular school, can be thought of as apprentices who learn from watching more-seasoned faculty navigate the practice of teaching engineering.

The creators of cognitive apprenticeship theory were education researchers inspired by anthropological observations of traditional craft apprenticeships such as building furniture or delivering babies. They noticed that apprentices developed their skills in a meaningful context where their novice efforts clearly contributed to the “real practice” of their craft and the building of their skill in that craft (Brown et al, 1989). Reading or talking about designing engineering curricula is not the same thing as actually designing or teaching it, one possible reason the engineering education research-to-practice transfer problem is more difficult than the information dissemination perspective might make it sound. Apprenticeship-style learning is effective at modifying practice because it is modified practice, an deliberate experience of situated learning within a CoP.

Situated learning and CoPs are not new ideas in engineering education. In “Situated Engineering Learning: Bridging Engineering Education Research and the Learning Sciences,” Johri and Olds (2011) provide numerous examples of how situated learning is already embedded in engineering education by virtue of its emphasis on tangible, real-world, hands-on project work. CoP theory is even more widely used in engineering education, including usage specifically geared towards faculty development. For example, the NSF-funded Rigorous Research in Engineering Education (RREE) workshops were based on a CoP model (Streveler, Smith, & Miller, 2005). Engineering education conferences feature workshops and special sessions with titles such as “Feminist engineering education: building a community of practice” (Pawley et al, 2009) and “Communities in practice in engineering education: what are we learning?” (Adams et al, 2005). While not limited to engineering or technology faculty, the Faculty Learning Community (FLC) movement within faculty development has been described as a specific type of CoP (Cox, 2004). Finally, the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) is developing a NSF-funded virtual CoP model for faculty, citing familiar-sounding frustrations with the “inherent limitations” of the “develop-disseminate” model in which researchers develop new materials “and then try to convince others to use them… without any follow-up activity,” (Pimmel et al, 2013, p. 2).

Cognitive apprenticeships, then, provide an alternative perspective. How could the apprenticeship-style learning from traditional crafts be transferred to the development of cognitive skills such as teaching and curriculum development? One large divide needs to be bridged: the difference between cognitive and traditional apprenticeship is that cognitive apprenticeship focuses on cognitive and metacognitive, not physical, skills. Apprenticeships, argued Collins and his co-authors, exposed the process of creation to apprentices; a young man would see his teacher sanding a cabinet, a young woman would watch her teacher wrap a newborn child. It’s somewhat harder to “see” what goes on inside a faculty member’s head when (for instance) they are reconceptualizing what it means to teach design across the disciplines. Since cognitive activity is not visible by default, teachers of intellectual subjects would need to practice “making thinking visible,” or “the externalization of processes that are usually carried out internally... to bring these tacit processes into the open." (Collins et al, 1991, p. 6) In effect, Collins and his coauthors were saying that facilitating cognitive apprenticeships is all about making one’s metacognition visible to learners in one’s CoP. They articulated several techniques for doing so:

  1. Modeling, where another practitioner performs the task in front of learners so they can see how it is done. Faculty-as-learners have extensive experience with this technique: namely, they have sat as a student in someone else’s classroom for years, and their experiences as a student have a significant impact on how they teach — although not as much as their experiences as teachers (Oleson and Hora, 2012). As faculty, they can engage in classroom observations to watch other faculty teach. In an ideal modeling situation, the practitioner who is modeling also thinks out loud, slows down, and explains intermediate steps: why was a particular decision made in designing this curriculum? What was the practitioner paying attention to while teaching?
  2. Coaching, where another practitioner watches the learner perform the task and gives them hints from the sidelines as they attempt it. Peer reviews of teaching, where classroom observations by a fellow faculty or staff member are followed by a feedback session, are one way some faculty already engage in this technique.
  3. Scaffolding, where another practitioner helps the learner perform the task, for example by starting it halfway and then letting the learner finish it once the task is at an easier point. Team-teaching with a more experienced faculty member is an example of this.
  4. Fading (or “Exploration”), where learners are encouraged to go out and tackle the process on their own with less and less help from the preceding practices. This is similar to the transition from teaching assistant to independent instructor.

Two other techniques were described by Collins et al in the original list, but have dropped out of usage over time:

  1. Articulation, where a practitioner asks learners to think out loud – an inversion of the “modeling” technique that helps learners become teachers to each other.
  2. Reflection, where learners compare their process to an expert's process or their internal model of a "good" process.

Regardless of the specific techniques employed, the ultimate goal of cognitive apprenticeship is the development of metacognition and self-monitoring in students – or as Donald Schoen would put it, the ability of reflection-in-action (Schoen, 1983). Developing this ability enables practitioners to serve as “teachers” to one another; faculty can help other faculty develop without being faculty development specialists or even “expert” practitioners of teaching or curriculum design themselves. The only requirement is that the practitioner is self-aware enough to articulate their own performance, including their mistakes. For this reason, I have used the word “practitioner” rather than “teacher” in describing the cognitive apprenticeship techniques, unlike Collins et al, who were writing for an audience of K-12 teachers and education researchers.

It is here that we find one of the major limitations of the cognitive apprenticeship framework in thinking about faculty-as-learners: it was developed in a context where the learners were children, whereas engineering and technology faculty are adults. Agency is thus implicitly assumed to originate with the “teacher,” eventually flowing outward to the learner. This is evident not just in phrases such as “give students the opportunity” (Collins et al, 1987, p. 18) and “create a culture… for students” (p. 7), but in the techniques themselves — “modeling” is a predominantly passive act on the part of the learner, and “scaffolding” and “fading” are simply the deliberate and gradual transfer of agency to the learner. The end goal is for the student to have agency, to allow “the role of ‘expert’ and ‘student’ to be transformed,”(Collins et al, 1991, p. 17) — but it does not start out that way. However, Jane Vella’s 1997 book points out that adult learners must be seen as subjects rather than objects in learning from the very beginning (p. 129-148); they are already used to acting as independent agents, and bring a rich storehouse of past experiences to the table. In the next section, we will explore another viewpoint that takes these past experiences of agency into account.