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Teaching beyond the basics: young children participate in a cognitive apprenticeship.

Community members have a variety of funds of knowledge they could contribute as specialists in collaborative experiences with teachers. Yet, despite having such invaluable culture capital, specialists are seldom incorporated into the classroom (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). Research suggests that parents tend to be more involved in their child's learning at home rather than at school (Anderson & Minke, 2007; Green, Walker, Hoover-Dempsey, & Sandier, 2007). Furthermore, educators experience many challenges as well as benefits when they collaborate with community members to develop and facilitate lessons with shared responsibility (Mediratta & Fruchter, 2001). Yet, these partnerships between community members and school teachers may help young children to learn new skills and develop appreciative dispositions about the content being taught in cognitive apprenticeships (Epstein & Sanders, 2000).

Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) described cognition as situated "a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used" (p. 32)--and outlined the cognitive apprenticeship approach to teach "what" something is, as well as "how" knowledge can be used in order to help children create their own understanding. Similar to an emergent curriculum (Cassidy, Mims, Rucker, & Boone, 2003), cognitive apprenticeships also provide a context-rich scenario to study a topic in-depth, while teaching the various content area standards. Children have opportunities to learn about areas of expertise that may be new to them and/or in which they have not developed any interest yet.

This article explores whether cognitive apprenticeships can be created with experts in the community and how they might look in a preschool classroom. Using the example of what a curriculum developer, a classroom teacher, and an expert architect accomplished, I will attempt to lay out the teaching strategies that were used to implement a cognitive apprenticeship for 3-to 5-year-old children, followed by a description of a co-teaching partnership between a teacher and a specialist. Practical implications for educators are also discussed.

Initiating the Development of a Cognitive Apprenticeship

Russell, a graduate student in architecture and a student-volunteer, and I, a curriculum developer and researcher, created an architecture apprenticeship. The classroom teacher, Lauren, was not available because the time this process required was beyond her working hours, which she must strictly adhere to as a university graduate assistant. Therefore, Russell and I created the cognitive apprenticeship and presented it to Lauren for any changes she deemed necessary.

We mutually agreed on our main goal: to develop a cognitive apprenticeship curriculum to help children learn about architecture. Russell's secondary goals were to learn more about what children appreciate about architecture as well as to develop teaching skills for working with young children. I set out to learn about the dynamics in the collaboration process between the two participants: a teacher (Lauren) and a specialist (Russell), while investigating its impact on this cognitive apprenticeship. To achieve the latter goal, I interviewed Russell and Lauren separately about their co-teaching experience, conducted observations, and collected video and picture artifacts of the lessons.

Our first step was to meet and develop the curriculum before we helped the teacher implement it. From January through May, Russell and I met seven times, for approximately two hours each visit, and discussed possible lessons. Mutual respect for each other's area of specialization served as a foundation in the co-planning experience. While Russell was predominantly the expert on architecture, I served as the teacher/ researcher to provide ideas for scaffolding very young children's knowledge.

Combining our skills was essential in developing this cognitive apprenticeship. Throughout the planning process, Russell was teaching me the abbreviated version of "architecture 101," which made me wonder about my own education: Why didn't my teachers introduce me to concepts in math, vocabulary, and science by using architectural examples and experiences? The more I learned about architecture, the more convinced I became of the need for collaboration with community members to provide the best opportunities for children to learn. This question further encouraged me to contribute to the successful implementation of the cognitive apprenticeship approach. In the next section, the curriculum is discussed in the way it was finally carried out in the classroom.

Teaching Strategies Designed for the Cognitive Apprenticeship

"The second step was to carry out the apprenticeship. During a six-week summer semester program, 3- to 4-year-old students in a preschool classroom began the apprenticeship by listening and responding to children's books about architecture, such as: Houses and Homes (Around the World Series) (Morris, 1992), Iggy Peck, Architect (Beaty, 2007), Amazing Buildings (Hayden, 2003), and Roberto, the Insect Architect (Laden. 2000). These books exposed them to introductory architectural vocabulary, including words about building materials, such as concrete, steel, brick, stone, wood, and glass. The apprenticeship was initiated by discussing pictures of architecture in their community: the university buildings, nearby bridges, and the students' pictures of their homes. This teaching strategy was used to activate students' prior knowledge about architecture. By creating connections to a child's familiar environment, this introduction inspired children's positive dispositions toward learning about architecture.

Next, the children created models of 11 geographically, architecturally, and historically diverse and famous buildings: the Chrysler Building, the New York City TWA Terminal, Machu Picchu, Fogong Temple, the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, stained glass from the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Pyramids at Giza, Burj al Arab, and the Sydney Opera House. By using a variety of manipulatives, students were able to address the models through hands-on trial and error, as they followed the problem-solving instructions provided through the cognitive apprenticeship. For example, the children learned basic concepts of multiplication by choosing which foam core pieces to stack in order to construct their pyramids (Clements, 2001). This math mini-lesson used a tactile vocabulary development teaching strategy (National Center on Educational Outcomes [NCEO], 2002); the children were able connect their understanding of the concept of multiplication to this hands-on experience.

The lessons were enhanced with mini-lessons from a variety of subjects, thus allowing for cross-disciplinary teaching. For example, history mini-lessons introduced the famous places and buildings in chronological order --starting with the oldest location and progressing to the newest place, Pictures of each famous place affixed to a picture timeline were employed with the teaching strategy called daily re-looping of previously learned material (NCEO, 2002).

In addition, as a daily geography mini-lesson, each famous place was marked on a world map. Music was played from the country of each location to encourage students' music appreciation. Books about the famous places in different countries enhanced children's understanding of the diverse characteristics of the given countries. By making books available, we encouraged the children to build simple reference skills as modeled by the teachers. In order to avoid distractions, the classroom contained only those items pertaining to the cognitive apprenticeship architecture theme; other preschool toys were located in a separate classroom.

After every lesson, the architecture specialist took a picture of the structure that children created; he printed the picture and discussed it with children. The children completed a response journal entry in which they often made a drawing or attempted to write something that they had seen in the books or pictures. The response journal strategy encouraged students to have discussions with their parents about what they had created each day. These home discussions enhanced children's skills in retelling school experiences. If a child experienced difficulty reflecting on the experience, the pictures in the journal helped stimulate communication. With this strategy, the teachers offered an opportunity for parent communication about the learning in the classroom.

Other authentic learning experiences emerged as Russell, the architect, pointed to a model and explained some architectural vocabulary. Rather than planning out each word ahead of time and asking the teacher to memorize the words and definitions, Russell participated in the teaching process; he used the words in authentic and explicit or implicit ways. For example, he explicitly said they created a tower and discussed the traits of a tower as he pointed to an example in one model. At another point, he implicitly taught the word function when he demonstrated how a door will function if it has a hinge. If the students did not understand the expert's words, the teacher had an opportunity to use adjusted speech: using speech that may scaffold, paraphrase, and/or highlight the main point being expressed.

Russell also conducted demonstrations, such as using a saw in a safe way. The classroom teacher, Lauren, followed up by articulating students' actions, such as "you are sawing the wood," to implicitly teach key verbs in architecture vocabulary. Numerous vocabulary words related to geometry, forces, materials, drawings, and occupations were incorporated into the lessons. In this way, vocabulary words used in a context-rich environment provided a comprehensible input--essential for all students, which was especially important when teaching vocabulary for English language learners (Szecsi & Giambo, 2004).

Finally, the children were able to use their newly developed skills and individual creativity to design their own innovative structure. In a lesson titled "Creating My Own Famous Place in the Future," the children built a structure using a wide variety of provided materials: blocks, paper towel tubes, chip board, plexiglass, window paint, cardboard, styrofoam, popsicle sticks, duct tape, markers, rocks, clay, pipe cleaners, foam balls, aluminum foil, and more.

Teacher-Specialist Collaboration Strategies

Russell and Lauren took time to review the lesson plans together before each school day, because they wanted to understand how the other person envisioned the lesson that day. Since Lauren was in charge of the classroom curriculum implementation, she was free to make changes to the plans as she deemed necessary. She commented that she added brief mini-lessons and utilized teaching strategies as she judged appropriate, but didn't find a need to make any major changes. However, Lauren also remarked that co-planning "took a bit longer because we would have to explain things that the other one didn't understand." For example, she discussed the amount of time it would take for children to complete something, while Russell explained the background (structure and function) of the architecture. Lauren explained that it was challenging to find the time it took to work with someone to provide enough feedback for their first teaching experience. Lauren was involved in the day-to-day planning, rather than the initial planning, yet was still affected by time constraints in light of her many other classroom responsibilities. Ultimately, time may be considered a major challenge in implementing a cognitive apprenticeship. Although Lauren found planning to be more time-consuming than her typical preparation, careful groundwork allowed them to co-teach highly successful lessons.

The efficient exchange of knowledge and skills between Russell and the students was facilitated by Lauren's ability to recognize and respond when the students needed scaffolding. For example, when Russell mentioned a word the children did not know, she helped to clarify it. Russell commented that Lauren's support during co-teaching made it a more flexible, functional, and enjoyable experience for him. In terms of conveying the architectural knowledge to the children, their dependence on each other required them to be available and to share responsibility throughout the co-teaching experience. When discussing the benefits of a teacher-specialist's collaboration, Lauren stated, "One of the amazing pros would be that children would get the great firsthand experience from someone in the field with knowledge. Russell gave the students an experience that I, alone, would be unable to provide for them." Reflecting on the large amount of new materials, concepts, and teaching ideas that she gained from the experience, Lauren commented on how Russell provided a model of how to use architectural tools safely: "Before [Russell] came into the classroom, I was afraid to work with the woodworking table, and after watching him with the students, I am no longer nervous to do so." She also commented on a notable shift in her teaching philosophy and student expectations: "I also realized how much the children are capable of understanding. Before [this experience], I was holding them to a lower standard, but after completing this project with them I've realized where to set the bar."

Practical Implications for Educators

Across cultures, research suggests that community members increase their involvement when a child's teacher invites them into the classroom (Anderson & Minke, 2007; Hoover-Dempsey et ah, 2005). From the teacher's perspective, however, welcoming adults into the classroom may be stressful, due to the current pressure for teachers to perform. Before introducing the topic of architecture to the children, Lauren and Russell had contrasting feelings about working with each other. Specifically, Russell said, "I wouldn't he able to do it alone.... I felt very comfortable with the idea of working with a teacher before meeting [Lauren]." On the other hand, Lauren discussed how she was initially "nervous about not understanding the content." Later, however, she expressed excitement about having this opportunity.

Each teacher may examine their own dialogue about learning when they are in an environment that supports and encourages critical reflection (Lowenstein, 2009). The expectation for teachers to know all and do all, in order to educate all, is simply unachievable. This unachievable expectation may be the reason that many teachers in the United States express "nervousness" about welcoming others into their practice. If teachers feel harshly criticized about their own knowledge base, how can they feel comfortable role-modeling a commitment to and an enjoyment of the lifelong learning process? Does this threat of criticism hamper their ability to model inquiry in their pedagogy? Administrators and policymakers may encourage community partnerships by creating reasonable expectations of teachers' knowledge and skills, supporting collaborative opportunities for reachers, and allowing the additional planning time it rakes to create cognitive apprenticeships. Teachers are not replaceable by specialists, unless the specialist also understands how each student learns best. Early childhood educators and specialists are both critical to the successful partnerships in building and conducting cognitive apprenticeships.

Author Note:

I would like to express my gratitude to the teacher, specialist, students, and parents who partook in this experience. Appreciation also goes out to my mentors Dr. Tunde Szecsi and Dr. James Hootfriends and now colleagues who have provided endless support and inspiration.


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Tunde Szecsi, Editor

by Jessica N. Essary, Assistant Professor, Zayed University, Dubai Campus, United Arab Emirates
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Title Annotation:Teaching Strategies
Author:Essary, Jessica N.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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