How to get your pupils thinking like experts

Observation is the most reliable method of learning, says Beth Budden – and ‘cognitive apprenticeships’ tap into this by modelling to children the thinking processes that experts use in different subject areas
27th November 2020, 12:00am
How To Get Your Pupils Thinking Like Experts
Beth Budden


How to get your pupils thinking like experts

An apprenticeship isn't the first thing that springs to mind when you think about a busy classroom - it's quite a jump away from the stereotypical (and now outdated) view of apprenticeships being undertaken in the dusty work spaces of master craftsmen.

However, an apprenticeship is actually an ancient teaching methodology that may have much to offer in the modern classroom in the form of what researchers describe as a "cognitive apprenticeship".

What, exactly, is one of those? We sat down with primary school senior leader Beth Budden to find out.

Tes: What is a cognitive apprenticeship?

Beth Budden: Before schools came along, an apprenticeship was the most common form of learning: a novice would move through cycles of training towards expertise in a variety of fields - from painting and stone masonry to medicine and law. Think of the apprentice sat beside the expert, carefully watching and listening to explanations of each step in action, and then having a go themselves while the expert coaches them.

Importantly, this method has never relied upon a didactic approach but is defined by a process of explicit "at-task" observation, modelling, scaffolding and coaching.

Exactly as the name suggests, a cognitive apprenticeship is framed around thinking processes rather than physical skills. It relies on making cognitive actions as explicit as the tangible ones that a craftsman demonstrates to his or her student.

Are those actions not usually explicit in schools already?

No, the key aspects of the thinking involved in expertise can often remain invisible to pupils, as we assume that these will arise for pupils simply through their engagement in the task itself. This is because many of the thinking processes involved in what we teach have become automatic for us, embedded in long-term memory, essentially unconscious and thus elusive to young learners.

In just the same way that an experienced driver can drive without thinking at all about what they are doing, a learner driver has to think consciously about every action in detail. Now think how hard it is to explain to the new driver how to use the clutch when you haven't thought about it since you were 17. It's not easy to explain what you have been doing unconsciously for such a long time, but you can if you bring that understanding back into your conceptual consciousness and think carefully.

Cognitive apprenticeship is built on this return to automatic unconscious thinking processes by the teacher in order to make these explicit to the learner.

Where did you find out about this?

I came across this approach while I was reading Paul Kirschner and Carl Henrick's excellent book How Learning Happens - in which cognitive apprenticeship is discussed as an alternative to conventional teaching practices. Following this, I found the original research paper by American researcher Allan Collins and his colleagues entitled Cognitive apprenticeship: making thinking visible.

There's lots of theoretical writing on cognitive apprenticeship out there, but I have tried to adapt the small slice that I've read to what can be practically applied to a busy classroom.

Cognitive apprenticeship interested me because it prompts teachers to examine how their pupils need to think at different stages and not just what they need to do. It forces the teacher to reflect carefully on and break down the cognitive processes involved into steps they can then make explicit to learners. It doesn't cost anything, and you don't need to create a new set of resources.

So how does it actually work in practice?

A good example that Collins et al used in their research was with teaching writing, and this is where I've tried to use it, too.

Often, inexperienced writers are unable to make use of the models of good writing they access in reading, and this can be seen clearly in their own writing.

According to Allan et al, this is because they lack the understanding of how a text is produced and remain oblivious to the need for an effective writer to organise their ideas about a topic, to consider what the reader already knows, and to think about what they want to achieve.

Instead, inexperienced young writers use a "knowledge-telling" strategy. When given a topic to write on, they begin by simply writing their first idea, then their next idea, and so on, until they run out of ideas, at which point they stop and usually shout "I've finished!" across the classroom.

In reality, good writers engage more in "knowledge transforming" - spending a lot more time planning what they are going to write before they write and revising what they have written as they go.

All this thinking is hidden to the reader, but is the backbone of how texts are produced. If a teacher models this more realistic "stop, start" process of writing, explicitly thinking aloud about their intentions as a writer, what they think the reader will want and why, then pupils are able to access the thinking of a real writer, rather than focus on just producing an outcome.

And you have been doing this in your classroom?

Yes, indeed. When I teach writing to young children, I share examples of effective texts, show them "what a good one looks like", but instead of saying, "Now off you go," I spend time modelling writing parts and verbalising the "thinking pattern of a writer".

For example, writing an opening for a discussion text, I might say, "Now I need to start off making sure the reader knows what this is going to be about, but I need to make it interesting enough for them to want to read on." I model the thinking needed to select an effective opening sentence. I say a few opening sentences out loud to myself, I choose one, I ask myself if it sounds OK, then maybe I change a word or two for better effect. Then I write the sentence, read it back, question myself aloud again, maybe change another word for better effect.

The pupils observe. I model the thinking behind what I'm doing. They witness the whole process, not just me writing a sentence on the board as a model.

Then it's the students' turn. I might give them an opening sentence to deliberate over and improve, or a sentence with elements missing for them to mull over, like I showed them in my modelling. This is the scaffolding element of the cognitive apprenticeship.

Gradually, I move them towards writing a whole opening statement themselves, by fading the scaffolding, but with continual feedback, which is the coaching element of the apprenticeship model.

Importantly, there's an interplay between the observation, scaffolding and coaching towards increasing independent practice built on pupils developing their self-monitoring and correctional skills as a writer.

In the end, the inexperienced writer has a better conceptual model of what it means to write texts. This provides an internalised guide for independent practice, as well as the external directions that we might provide in the form of exemplars and demonstrations.

What are the challenges?

As with all aspects of teaching, time is the major issue. In order to develop a cognitive apprenticeship approach, teachers have to take the time to consider the thinking required for what they're teaching and then provide opportunities for pupils to observe this. That's not the fastest option available to you, but I do believe it is the most effective.

Another obstacle lies is the mistaken idea that having pupils observe for longer, instead of mostly "doing", is pedagogically unsound. Observing has become underrated, despite it being the oldest and most reliable method of learning that human beings have. YouTube channels showing us how to do just about anything are testament to this, too.

So is this something you will keep doing?

While parts of the cognitive apprenticeship model are nothing new - after all, the benefits of modelling, scaffolding and coaching are not exclusive to this approach at all - it does provide a framework for the design of learning environments in which the tacit knowledge that underlies an expert's ability to make use of concepts, facts and procedures is made evident.

Yet, as Collins et al point out, it's not a model of teaching that should be viewed as a "packaged formula for instruction" per se. Instead, it is a useful instructional model to adopt when teaching complex tasks like writing, and, importantly, it encourages learners to think like experts themselves, which is, after all, our aim, is it not?

Beth Budden is a teacher and senior leader at a South London primary school who is studying for a doctorate at UCL Institute of Education. She tweets as @BethBudden and blogs at

This article originally appeared in the 27 November 2020 issue under the headline "How I…get my pupils thinking like experts"

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