October 28, 2014

The Apprenticeship Model of Learning

I can’t wait to teach my children stuff. Anything. Even teaching my baby to stick out her tongue has been super exciting the last couple of weeks, so you can imagine how much more I look forward to teaching her about reading and writing and math and art and science and Jesus and music and sports and baking and being kind and EVERYTHING! I can’t wait!!!

I know I’m not the only one. Most of you are parents or teachers, and you know there’s nothing that satisfies like seeing a child learn something you taught. They may be proud of their new skill, but you are equally pleased that you were able to teach them effectively! Today, I want to share one of the most effective methods of teaching/learning I know: The Apprenticeship Model of Learning. I think the term hearkens back to the days when a blacksmith would take on an apprentice and train him up through a process of showing, guiding, and eventually working on his own.

There are a lot of ways to teach, and the method you employ at any given time depends both on who you’re teaching and what you’re teaching. Sometimes it is appropriate to let students fumble through something and learn on their own. Sometimes it’s better to let them observe their peers and gradually catch on. Other times, though, it’s best to teach with direct instruction, offering a straightforward and clear model of how it should be done, then coaching them to independence.

The five steps

I find that when I’m teaching a new skill or strategy, I often use the last approach. I like to offer my students a clear example of what I want them to learn, and then I guide them in practicing it until they master the skill and can do it on their own. This is called The Apprenticeship Model of Instruction and the way I do it boils down to five major steps:

1. Model: Offer a clear, uninterrupted example of the new skill.

2. Shared Practice: Try out the new skill together, with you leading the way while allowing the student to participate.

3. Guided Practice: Let the student try the skill out, coaching her and offering tips so she can do it better.

4. Independent Practice: Allow the student to work on the new skill independently.

5. Give Immediate Feedback: Evaluate the student’s progress and offer feedback. The sooner, the better.

You can just take these five steps and run with it, but I think there are certain ways to achieve optimal results.

An example of a lesson in action

First, here’s an example of how a lesson might look using the apprenticeship model:

Me: Today, we’re going to talk about making predictions while we read. A prediction is guessing what’s going to happen next. We do this all the time. When I wake up in the morning, I look out the window to guess what the weather will be like so I dress appropriately for the day. You all make predictions all the time, too. If you see a package of spaghetti on the counter at home, you might predict that you’ll have spaghetti and meatballs for dinner! If you are playing a game of soccer, you might try to predict who will win the game. We are always predicting in real life.

Good readers are also always predicting what will happen next while they’re reading. Today, I’m going to read a book called Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg. Just looking at the front cover, I already have a prediction. I see apes in a kitchen, so I think there will be animals involved. The girl here also looks surprised and a little unhappy, so I think they’re causing some trouble. Let’s start reading:

“Now remember,” Mother said, “your father and I are bringing some guests by after the opera, so please keep the house neat.”

“Quite so,” added Father, tucking his scarf inside his coat.

Mother peered into the hall mirror and carefully pinned her hat in place, then knelt and kissed both children good-bye.

Ooh, I have another prediction. I think that the house will become a mess! I know all stories have a good problem, and it seems like one thing the parents really care about is a neat house and having things in place, so having a messy house would be a real problem! Let’s keep reading.

I continue reading, offering a couple more predictions and modeling how to give support for my predictions. Then I invite students to participate and offer their own predictions. This is our shared practice:

Me: Hmm… does anyone have a prediction for what might happen next?

(15 hands immediately shoot up straight in the air. They’ve had predictions bubbling along ever since I gave the first example, and are itching to share their guesses!)

Okay, Greg?

Greg: I think they’re going to start playing the game!

Me: What makes you think that?

Greg: Well, they already read the directions and it’s opened up, so why not?

Me: Good point. Other predictions? Wendy?

Wendy: I think they won’t get to finish their game, because the front cover shows monkeys in the kitchen.

Me: Interesttting… so you think maybe the monkeys will interrupt their game and they won’t get to finish?

(Wendy nods)

I see. I like how you had a reason to support your prediction! Most good predictions have a reason to support it. Okay, let’s keep going.

I continue reading, pausing every so often to take more predictions. When I’m about halfway through the book, at a very exciting part, I pause and turn to the students to give them a chance to engage in guided practice:

Me: OOH. This is getting exciting. DOES ANYBODY HAVE ANY PREDICTIONS?

(Almost every child is raising their hand. Everyone thinks they know what will happen next. Everyone is itching to share their idea. Good. That’s what I was planning for).

Okay, turn to the person next to you and share your prediction!

(The room is abuzz with excited chatter. I eavesdrop here and there, checking in to be sure they’re really making predictions– they all are.)

All right. Let’s keep going!

Notice that with shared practice earlier, everyone heard every prediction and also heard my thoughts and feedback on it. They were learning from the prediction and also learning from my responses. With guided practice, they all have a chance to practice it, but I am letting them do more and more on their own.

Once I feel confident that they all have a solid understanding of what it means to make a prediction, I send them off to their seats to work on it on their own. I pause at another exciting point in the story:

Me: All right, I’m going to PAUSE here for now (protests. Serious protests.) I knowww I know, this is so cruel. I PROMISE I will finish it before recess. But right now, who has a prediction for what will happen next? (Again, plenty of hands go up). Great. I want you to go back to your seat and write me a paragraph sharing what your prediction is and one reason to support it. Once you’re done with your paragraph, you can continue with independent reading.

While it may seem like I’ve reached step 4, and am now letting them work independently, this is actually all part of a greater process of scaffolding. I am letting them make predictions about our shared text independently, but if you take a step back, you can also think of it as shared practice, since it is a shared text that we are all thinking about together.

What I’m really working towards is eventually having the students write me paragraphs sharing predictions about the texts they are reading on their own. However, they won’t be ready for that for at least a few days, so until then, I will continue to scaffold the process, giving them a little more to do on their own each day until I feel confident that they can do it well independently, with their own texts.

Evaluate, then take action

After I’ve taken my students through one iteration of the first four steps (model, shared practice, guided practice, independent work), I evaluate how it’s going and make a decision. In the example above, evaluation is as simple as skimming each of their paragraphs and offering a quick star if they get it, or a quick coaching conversation if needed. You can evaluate through simple conversations and observations– it doesn’t always have to be a full on test.

If they learned it well, then hooray! We are ready to move on to the next thing! If they’re still a little shaky, then I would add in a few more examples to work through together with shared practice or guided practice, depending on how well they seem to understand it. If it’s a disaster and the student completely does not seem to understand it, then I would hope to either go back to step one and start afresh with modeling (with a new text, perhaps), or… dig deeper and see if the child needs to master an even more basic skill before working on this one.

Let’s be real, though. One unfortunate thing about public education and testing is that teachers can’t always be very thorough with this last step. They are often required to evaluate (i.e. test) children, point out what needs to be worked on (i.e. report cards), and then… move on to the next skill.

Wait. What?? Shouldn’t you go back and spend more time doing guided practice if they don’t have it quite down yet? Didn’t you just say you might need to dig deeper and see if they need to master even more basic skills?

Yes. In a perfect world. Where the student-teacher ratio is something closer to 15:1 and/or we had fewer standards teach in a school year and/or we had more time in a year and/or… oh wait. What was I talking about? Perfect worlds?

Right. Back to this one. Since it’s possible that your child may need more shared or guided practice (or even a fresh new lesson), at least now you can use this model of instruction to help them!

Model when it’s time to model

Before we jump into it, a word on the first step: Model. Model when it’s time to model, and invite participation when it’s time to invite participation. I know it seems obvious, but it’s worth mentioning, and is easier said than done, at least for me. You see, I have a tendency to invite participation all the time, even when I should simply be modeling the new strategy or skill. It’s built into my M.O. because it’s one way I’ve learned to keep students engaged. But it’s not necessary. Kids are usually quite focused when you are teaching a new skill. It’s like they can sense that their brains are about to get some new wrinkles, and you have their undivided attention for a few minutes.

So I’ve learned to try to avoid interruptions during the modeling phase of my lesson to keep it short, sweet, and memorable. When I forget to stick to modeling and invite student participation, a number of undesirable things happen. First of all, it drags out the lesson. What should have been a 6-7 minute presentation drags out to 20 minutes, and then I really start to lose students’ attention, because it seems that most 8-10 year olds can only offer focused attention for about 15 minutes at a time. Less for younger kids.

Another thing that happens when I invite participation too early is that sometimes volunteers offer the wrong answers and then everybody learns it wrong. You see, I think the time when you first introduce a new skill is a crucial, impressionable time. We’ve all had the experience of learning something incorrectly, then having to unlearn it before learning it correctly. It’s a pain, right? And it’s something that sometimes never gets fixed. Well, same goes for teaching children. Sometimes, a wrong example offered early on will stick in their heads and who knows how long it will take for them to unlearn it!

I’ve seen this happen a lot. Maybe I slip up while teaching a math lesson and during modeling phase, I invite participation. The whole class is wondering what the next step is, a student incorrectly guesses it, and even though I say it’s wrong and finish it correctly, a few students still have the wrong step stuck in their heads. Those students will probably practice it incorrectly several times before I figure out who has got it wrong and attempt to go back and reteach. Well, that’s unfortunate.

This can be prevented, my friend. Model when it’s time to model, and show it correctly the first time around. You will have plenty of opportunities to invite participation later!

Try it!

So the next time you have a new skill or strategy to teach your child, consider using this method! Whether it’s learning how to shoot a layup, how to not interrupt, or how to label a fraction, a simple session of modeling, shared/guided practice, and independent practice (with feedback!) is often all it takes.


Allsburg, Chris Van. Jumanji. New York: Scholastic, 1988. Print.

2 responses to “The Apprenticeship Model of Learning”

  1. Elizabeth Zirkle says:

    I’ve often thought that training a child is like opening up your head and dumping all the contents into their head. Not that it’s a one time thing, it’s just that you realize they need you to teach them EVERYTHING. We take so much for granted. “Why do we need shoes?”, “What is a lawyer?”, “Why is the lady crying, I thought she was happy” and one of my favorites, “Are there more people than ducks, or more ducks than people?” It takes a lot of patience, but you realize just how much you are molding this little person. My daughter is 15 now. She tells ME stuff now 😉

    • joellen says:

      “Are there more people than ducks, or more ducks than people?” LOL that is priceless!
      Aww I bet those 15 years just flew by =))

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