A page-turner that engages the brain

12th February 2010 at 00:00

Michael Shaw's review of John Abbott's book Overschooled but Undereducated showed he was unfamiliar with the concept of cognitive apprenticeship. (In "A premise that wanders into nomad's land" (January 22), he wrote that they "sound groovy", but asked "Apprenticeships in what? Pottery? Telesales?")

It is almost two decades since Allan Collins, John S Brown and Ann Holum published their thesis, Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible, proposing an apprenticeship model of learning as the closest to the grain of the brain. It is teaching through "guided experience", an approach which can be applied in all subjects and is chosen by many students and their teachers.

It is the application of the principles of modelling (showing), coaching (explaining), scaffolding (supporting) and fading (giving independence), to the classroom and schools. It includes articulation (learning to explain for yourself), reflection (there is no learning without thinking), and exploration of the boundaries (as the students push forward to explore for themselves, to set goals, revise their skills and grow). No single approach is right for every topic or every subject, but teachers would tell you that this approach works.

It is not leaving students to discover for themselves or preparing them to become potters or telesales people. It takes full account of recent research and understanding of expert practice. Tasks are placed in authentic contexts and their relevance is clear. Teachers themselves understand the process and make thinking visible. Students take responsibility for their own learning, and learn for life.

Understand this and the scope and importance of Mr Abbott's book is revealed.

Gone are "obvious, vague and contradictory conclusions" and possibilities for the future are immense and compelling.

The "tough challenge of improving education for teenagers" is a challenge for all of us, which will require us to look at our values and ask, "Education for what?"

This remarkable book helps us to see how we could better prepare children to be good citizens. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who cares about adolescents.

Janet M Lawley, Former headmistress, Bury Grammar School for Girls.

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