David Leat reflects on the contribution of cognitive acceleration through science education (CASE) and the way in which initiatives such as this can contribute to thinking communities

AAlthough I am not a scientist, Philip Adey’s work on CASE inspired me in the early 1990s when I was a PGCE tutor. Three things mark out his work for me:

  1. The practical application, through CASE, of powerful ideas about thinking and learning.
  2. The focus on professional development or teacher learning issues in making CASE work.
  3. Its illuminating common sense about raising attainment – we need to do something different not more of the same.

It is not uncommon to hear a teacher say ‘we have done thinking skills’. I wince inwardly. I find the statement a real shock, so let me think through that reaction. Firstly I am puzzled by what that means – it could mean that we have had a training day, or that some teachers have used some thinking approaches in their teaching, or that the school has had teaching thinking as a priority and has now moved on to another priority. All of these scenarios leave so much unsaid. Secondly I just cannot understand how a school can have ‘done’ thinking skills in the sense that you can finish dealing with thinking. In my mind, if once you start ‘doing’ thinking skills you would never finish, because it is so much bound up in a philosophy of education and a state of mind.

Happily however, there are also many occasions when I meet teachers who light up when they tell of their experiences of engaging in teaching thinking – how much they enjoyed it and how it created a real buzz with pupils, often relatively low-achieving pupils who struggle with a curriculum which has a nasty habit of teaching them that they are failures, or, as they often see it, ‘thick’.

One of the most challenging things about thinking skills lessons, when they are good, is that learning outcomes are likely to be very varied and I think that this is magnified in more mixed classes (gender, achievement, ethnicity/culture, experience). Furthermore outcomes are not neat; there are doubts, new inklings, unanswered questions, mental itches… they are the start of things. For example, there is an apocryphal story of boy, who said after a CAME (cognitive acceleration through maths education) lesson: ‘I hate these thinking lessons, you think about them all day.’ (Makes you wonder how you would react to this if you were the teacher taking his next lesson?)

Another illustration comes from an inner-city Newcastle school where I interviewed pupils after they had done a series of thinking lessons. They had spent two lessons doing a ‘Mystery’ on floods in Bangladesh. A Mystery is focused round an open question, which pupils tackle by making sense of 15-30 data items, all on separate slips of paper. Not all the information is necessarily relevant and students are encouraged to arrange the slips of paper in a way that reflects their reasoning. The following are some paraphrases of what some pupils said that they had ‘learned’:

  • It made me think for myself, I usually just copy off other people.
  • We got into why things happen, I have never really thought that much about that before.
  • I normally just do my own work and working with X he had other ideas and I changed my mind.
  • It helped me with my writing as I knew what had to be in a paragraph.
  • I learned about the floods in Bangladesh.
  • We had to sort the information, so working out what was relevant and what was a red herring was really good, some things don’t seem important at first but gradually you see how they are a part of it.
  • It is so much better working with a group, you learn so much more because you talk about it.

The first thing to note here is that much of the above was not represented in the lesson objectives, which underlines the point that if you create a rich learning experience then you cannot predict all the consequences. Furthermore, if you accept that learning is not confined to knowledge, understanding and psychomotor skills, then it is almost inevitable that learning will be taking place that teachers are not aware of, and some of it ‘slow burn’, little embers just smouldering, ready to catch light at some future date.

The more diffuse outcomes from these lessons, and perhaps the most significant, such as the first three and the last two, are the product of working together, with powerful talk being the medium for learning. They develop over time, helped by developing a language for talking about thinking and learning and a teacher who can draw thoughts out and connect them up. It also requires trust, as pupils need to feel safe in exposing their ideas and thoughts and have them respected. This does not mean that ‘anything goes’, that any answer is as good as any other – instead there is a constant search for good thinking, better solutions and truth. These conditions might be understood as a thinking community, and such communities can exist in a single class. Philosophy for Children is a particularly good approach to developing such communities, although they are readily achieved through thoughtful teaching with attention to ground rules for talk and working together.

At which point we can return to the notion of ‘we have done thinking skills’. One of the distressing things about working in this field is that although individual teachers and groups of teachers do some fantastic work, it is very hard for this work to be spread, embedded and sustained within the fabric of curriculum and pedagogy. There are thinking communities in individual classrooms but how many thinking schools do we really have?