Exploring the Use of Cognitive Apprenticeship for Teachers and Students in Science Classrooms

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The primary goal of this dissertation is to explore the use of cognitive apprenticeship (CA) with teachers and students in science classrooms. In particular, studies that make up this dissertation explore ways that teachers can improve the quality of students’ written scientific explanations and the supports that teachers need in order to promote such growth in their students. CA is a complex instructional model that is challenging for both teachers and students to use, especially in secondary classrooms. Other reports indicate the potential of CA for teaching disciplinary literacy in history classrooms, but this approach has not often been used to teach scientific writing. This project explores that, in inclusive settings with heterogeneous learners, and in an afterschool program, with students with learning disabilities (LD) and those who are English learners (ELs).

The first part of the work reported here involved a systematic review of the literature on science writing instruction with these populations and with struggling learners. A total of 14 studies (three randomized control trials, nine quasi-experimental, and two single case design studies) that met established criteria as high quality studies were identified and examined to determine whether researchers were including instructional elements that have been found to be effective for these learners (e.g., cognitive and linguistic supports) and to determine learning and writing outcomes that resulted from the science writing interventions.

The next project focused on an in-depth study of two middle school science teachers who participated in PD that was focused on science writing, culminating in the implementation of a CA on constructing and critiquing explanations for scientific phenomena in writing. The goal in this work was to examine how doing so impacted the teachers’ beliefs and their subsequent choice of writing tasks for their science instruction. After this PD, both teachers expressed changes in their beliefs about learners that had lasting effects on their subsequent teaching. They also believed the CA led to improved writing in their students, including their ability to engage in argumentative reasoning. This realization led to changes in other beliefs about their students in general, and about the importance of incorporating writing instruction in class. Ultimately, these changes may have affected the types of tasks they assigned in class. Prior to implementing CA, they assigned writing tasks that were close-ended, but after, they assigned analytical writing tasks like a Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning (CER) that promoted scientific reasoning.

The third project in this dissertation was an intervention study (using single-case design methodology) that focused on teaching middle school students with LD and who are EL to write scientific explanations. The intervention provided cognitive supports such as procedural facilitators to guide students’ thinking. In addition, linguistic supports, such as the use of contextualized instruction on text structure, vocabulary, and grammar, and instruction on how language is used in a science was also provided to meet the needs of the sixth- and seventh-grade participants. After delivering instruction using CA (and four weeks later), students produced explanations that were rated as higher in overall quality, grammatical and lexical sophistication, and in the length of their writing. Of importance, they also made substantial gain in causal and mechanistic reasoning, which is central to good scientific writing.

These findings lead us to believe that middle school science teachers who work with students with LD and those who are EL may underestimate their students’ ability to write. Contrary to their beliefs, findings from these projects suggest otherwise. Given sufficient and appropriate support such as those afforded by CA, our findings provide tentative support for the conjecture that all students, regardless of their disability status or language needs may be able to improve their reasoning and writing skills in science. CAs can be a powerful vehicle that can transform both teacher practices and student learning outcome.