Philip Adey, one of the original proponents of CASE (cognitive acceleration through science education), reviews developments in the approach and critically examines its use in schools
There are some ideas in education which have real ‘legs’ – they just go on running as a hailstorm of fashions, fads, strategies, and initiatives are pelted at schools by well-meaning governments, gurus, and less well-meaning snake oil salesmen. Examples include learning by enquiry, constructivism (students need to take an active role in their learning), the use of well-distributed open questioning, and cognitive acceleration. It is no more ‘stuckist’ to recognise the continuing value of these ideas than it is to recognise the value of Vermeer and Van Gogh while trying to come to terms with Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. Cognitive acceleration (hereafter CA) is in a somewhat different category from the other examples in that it is (a) a portmanteau of pedagogical techniques which act together and (b) rather more closely specified – and tied to underlying psychological models – than the others. In this update on the current state of play of CA in the national education system I will recapitulate the origins of the idea, its psychological principles, pedagogical ‘pillars’, and some of the research evidence of the effects of CA on student achievement.
Original flavour CASE
CA started as cognitive acceleration through science education (CASE) in the early 1980s. It arose from a concern that science curricula inherited from the days of O-levels and grammar schools were too demanding for the majority of students in comprehensive schools, and it offered a robust psychological model – Piaget’s cognitive development – which both explained the underlying nature of the difficulty and pointed the way towards a resolution. Instead of reducing the demands of the curriculum, why could we not raise the general levels of thinking of the school population? Thirty years later this remains a radical idea which many educators, reared to the notion of intelligence as something fixed, that you were born with, find difficult to take on board. And yet the evidence is clear that intelligence – by which I mean the general ability to think well in all subject areas – is plastic, and is amenable to appropriate stimulation. That’s what CA is all about. How do we stimulate general thinking ability? There are three main ‘pillars’ to the method. The first is cognitive conflict. This means providing students with challenging activities which are just beyond their current capabilities but which, with appropriate support from the teacher and more able peers, ‘stretch the mind’. The second is social construction which comes from Vygotsky’s notion that we build knowledge together, as a social process. In CA lessons students are encouraged to explain their thinking to each other, to argue and to seek from each other justifications for their conclusions. The third is metacognition, or becoming conscious of one’s own thinking. CA teachers will ask ‘How did you do that?… what were you thinking… how did you recover from any wrong lines of thinking you took?’ If students see themselves as thinkers, and explicate their thinking on one occasion, they are more likely to be both motivated and able to use that sort of thinking again. These pillars were built into a set of 30 activities called Thinking Science, designed to be used in science departments in Years 7 and 8 which were trialled in 10 schools in 1984-87. The activities are used at the rate of about one every two weeks instead of a regular science lesson. In each school we identified CASE and control classes, and then followed up these students for five years until they sat their GCSE examinations. CASE students outperformed controls in measures of cognitive development immediately at the end of the two-year programme. One year later (with no more CA intervention meanwhile) the ex-CASE students were scoring significantly higher on science tests than controls. Another two years later, those students who had experienced CA when they were in Years 7 and 8 now scored higher grades than controls not only in science, but also in mathematics and English. When this long-term far-transfer effect was published in 1991, we received a flood of requests from schools who wanted to introduce the programme, and since then we have established a rolling programme of professional development for schools, run by a number of independent trainers and science learning centres. In 1996 and 1999 we were able to replicate the original research results by comparing the value added from Year 7 cognitive levels to GCSE grades for groups of CASE and non-CASE schools. The results remained substantial, consistent, and convincing.
New subject areas, new age groups
With the success of CASE established, a parallel programme in mathematics was developed called, of course, CAME. CAME may now be even larger than CASE in terms of the number of schools using the materials and participating in the relevant professional development. On a somewhat smaller scale is CATE (technology), developed by Tony Hamaker. The most recent addition to the secondary CA stable is the Think Ahead! series for the arts (visual, drama, and music) developed by Carolyn Yates (who was on the original CASE team) and Ken Gouge. We should also mention a comparable series of curriculum materials published as Thinking Through Geography, Thinking Through History, and Thinking Through RE developed by David Leat, Vivienne Baumfield, and others at Newcastle University. Although completely independent of the CA stable, the Thinking Through series shares the aim of developing general thinking capabilities, working through specific content areas. In 1999 we were approached by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, who had won a single regeneration budget for work in one particularly deprived district. They wished us to introduce cognitive acceleration into the 10 primary schools there in the hopes that raising the general intellectual ability of children from an early age would give them one more weapon with which to fend off the effects of social deprivation. We worked initially in Year 1, developing a pedagogy and material published as Let’s Think! and this was followed by a series of projects developing CA materials in maths and science for the whole primary age range. An important aspect of this spread of the CA idea from its origins in secondary science across the curriculum and down the age range is that any subject matter can, in principle, be used as a gateway into the development of general intellectual ability. There is no school subject which cannot be used as a vehicle for the provision of cognitive challenge, as an opportunity for social construction, and about whose learning students cannot be encouraged to reflect. But the development of activities in new subject areas is not a trivial matter. It requires the cooperation of a subject specialist who has thought deeply about the intellectual structure of their subject and the characteristic thought patterns it requires, and someone very familiar with the principles of cognitive acceleration and its ‘pillars’.
Fitting it in
Schools are under greater pressure than ever before to deliver examination results, and at the same time to respond to a plethora of initiatives, many of which are deemed by inspectors to be ‘good’ by definition, and therefore become virtually obligatory. How does CA fit with thinking skills in the National Curriculum, with the KS3 strategies, with specified learning outcomes for every lesson, with learning styles, with personalised learning, with restructuring, and with whatever the next great buzz idea will be? I could provide moderately detailed answers to each of these (except the last, for which I lack the crystal ball) but it would take far more space than I have available here. Instead, it can be claimed the CA is one of those fundamental ideas which underpins so much of what we do in the educational process that its individual interaction with one initiative after another just needs a little thinking time for adjustment and reflection on how the accommodation can be achieved. It is as though CA were a floor, on to which we keep moving new bits of furniture. We have to think where each piece fits, what to do with it when it falls apart or becomes unfashionable, but we don’t need to do much to the floor except possibly to sand or stain it or put a carpet on it to suit the new arrangement.
The professional development issue
Teaching for cognitive acceleration is not easy. It can be claimed that it is, by definition, an advanced teaching skill. The problem is that a good CA lesson can look very different from a good lesson whose aim is the development of conceptual knowledge. In CA we are not focused on specific learning outcomes, we never know quite where it is going, we cannot at the end point to a bit of the curriculum which has been ‘delivered’, and the students may feel a little confused. In a CA lesson, as long as they have struggled actively with a problem, discussed it usefully within their group and across groups, and reflected on their learning process then its purpose has been achieved. This means that even very good teachers need guidance and ongoing support in order to learn how, as it were, to feel comfortable wearing a different hat on the occasions when they have a CA lesson. In practice the PD programme for cognitive acceleration is run over two years, is addressed to a whole department, and includes up to seven Inset days and four or five coaching visits by the tutor to the school. Thus it requires quite a commitment on behalf of the school and in particular, the support of the leadership team in releasing individuals for the Inset days and providing in-school Inset time to the department for reflection and sharing of experiences.
Summarising the pluses and minuses
I started this piece by claiming that cognitive acceleration was a big idea, and big ideas don’t come cheap. For a school to adopt CA fully, a minimum requirement is a shared vision by, typically, the headteacher and the head of the relevant department and a realisation that taking on CA can be a bumpy ride. For example, more instrumentalist members of a department are required to question some of their deeply in-built assumptions about just how learning occurs, and all members of the department suspend, at least once a fortnight, the feeling engendered by examination pressure that every minute of ‘delivering’ content is vital. The pluses are far wider than the probability of improved GCSE grades. They include a rethinking by the whole department, and often by the whole staff, of the nature of teaching and learning, of the purposes of education, and perhaps also some encouragement to question government policies designed not by educators, but by politicians whose claim to expertise is that they once went to school. This last section explains, perhaps, why CA has not had an even bigger impact than it has, why it has not been adopted as DfES policy, in spite of the clear evidence that it really does lead to raised standards across a wide range of school types. Teaching for cognitive acceleration cannot be encapsulated in a simple set of rules and procedures, or in a model of the ‘correct’ template for a lesson. It depends on developing the professionalism of teachers so that they feel comfortable starting a lesson with little idea where it is going to go, but some sound understanding of underlying principles to guide them at every move. It is not a strategy. For more information:
www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/sspp/education/research/projects/pcp.html – general overview and tutors
www.caaweb.co.uk – especially for CA mathematics
www.ca-convention.co.uk – for the June 2007 CA Convention, Hull