Cognitive apprenticeship and the myth of “natural ability”

As students of pedagogy, we all occupy a somewhat unique space in which we are able to test out the waters on either side of the classroom experience. Personally, I’ve noticed that my tendency to reorganize the weekly reading assignments is indicative of this dual role, both because it allows me to keep like ideas together (or to transition more cohesively from one idea to the next) and because it provides an opportunity for me to reflect on the original order of the readings in an attempt to recognize the logic or the pattern intended by the professor. After scanning through the pieces assigned for the week, I decided to read them in the following order: Rabinowitz, Linkon (Making Critical Cultural Reading Visible), Linkon (Developing Critical Reading), Collins, Showalter, and Fish. In ordering them this way, I felt I was better able to trace the development of the idea, from general theorizing on audiences to more practical classroom approaches to teaching literature and finally into a specific genre, poetry.

I was struck by two main ideas that were present in all of the pieces to varying degrees: first, that reading and writing are dependent upon culture for their meaning and interpretation; and second, that cognitive modeling can help students develop the cultural and intellectual skills needed to successfully navigate texts. The ideas are closely related but, despite my familiarity with the former concept, I had never considered the latter. Because my own development of literary skills was largely unconscious, I have struggled with teaching the skills to students. Learning about the learning process has been of limited value since so many of the readings describe the stages without offering any real suggestions about how a proficient reader can harness their own abilities in their attempts to teach others.

The discussions of cognitive apprenticeship and its focus on making thinking visible were eye-opening. I realized long ago that students who seem to develop critical thinking and reading skills “naturally” are actually just those who are better able to follow and internalize the steps and strategies of their teachers, family members, or other models. Without explicit instruction and modeling, students who are less observant have little opportunity to develop the same skills. This is largely reflective of Bourdieu’s insight that: “By doing away with giving explicitly to everyone what it implicitly demands of everyone, the educational system demands of everyone alike that they have what it does not give” (Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture). I have to admit that I am embarrassed by my own failure to recognize the obvious solution to this problem. Make it visible. Make it explicit. Doing so not only gives every student the opportunity to develop the strategies implicitly demanded of them, it also allows teachers to remove the veil of mysticism surrounding the myth of “natural ability.”