through science education
The CASE for thinking through science
the university of nottingham
the university of western australia
The purpose of this chapter is to review the literature on cognitive acceleration with a view
to unravelling potential theoretical explanations for the success of the intervention. Cognitive
Acceleration through Science Education (CASE) was rst of the cognitive acceleration (CA)
suite of programmes developed at King’s College, London to improve students’ abilities to rea-
son and think. Published as Thinking Science (Adey, Shayer & Yates, 2003), the school science
intervention programme has accumulated evidence on the eects, both on students’ cognitive
development and school achievement. Drawing from Piagetian developmental psychology and
socio-cultural Vygotskian psychology, the CA programmes are accompanied by a long term
professional development programme for teachers.
This chapter comprises two major sections. The first section maps out the background litera-
ture on cognitive acceleration including an examination of the pillars of the cognitive accelera-
tion pedagogy and the professional development programme. The second section looks more
closely at the detailed findings of more recent literature and explores possible theoretical expla-
nations including the sociocultural aspects of the pedagogy, metacognition and how recent
advances in neuroscience may provide physiological explanations for what happens in the brain
during cognitive development.
Background literature and overview of cognitive acceleration
Thinking lessons and activities developed within the context of science and designed to stim-
ulate cognition were piloted in junior high school classes with students aged 11–13, with
long-term eects on students’ thinking and achievement with evidence of transfer across the
curriculum. The most accessible summaries of the impact of CASE on students are provided
The CASE for thinking through science
in Shayer (1999) and Adey and Shayer (1994). The original CASE experiment was conducted
from 1984 to 1987 with an experimental/control pre-test, post-test and delayed post-test
design. The ndings showed both immediate and long term accelerated cognitive development.
Most impressive of the results was that three years after the end of the intervention participat-
ing students showed improvements in their GCSE (the UK General Certicate of Secondary
Education) grades not only in science but also in mathematics and English. The original experi-
ment included only a small number of students (approximately 130 students in the experimental
and control groups) but subsequent experiments with successive cohorts of schools since the
1990s included over 2000 students from 11 schools provide similar ndings. These data are,
perhaps controversially, indicative of some fundamental changes in student’s reasoning abili-
ties (Adey & Shayer, 2002). Adey and Shayer (2002) argued that rather than students learning
science content and processes through cognitive acceleration lessons, the fundamental way the
participating students process information is changed. This means they have gained long term
access to ways of thinking, such as being able to understand models, that impacts their learning
across the curriculum.
More than ten years ago, Adey and Shayer (2002) wrote that cognitive acceleration ‘has come
of age in the sense of growing out from its roots in secondary school science into all areas of the
curriculum and across the school age range’ (p. 1). Today, this ‘coming of age’ is continuing with
the teaching of thinking becoming more evident in school curricula internationally. For example,
there have been two recent studies in Ireland using the CASE curriculum materials, one at the
primary to secondary school transition (McCormack, 2009) and one in the early years of primary
school (Gallagher, 2008). Science curricula across the world generally state an expectation that
students are able to set up and carry out a ‘fair test’ in their science investigations. This forms one
part of the development of scientific reasoning in students and these sorts of thinking skills typi-
cally form part of the ‘inquiry’, ‘working scientifically’, or ‘investigating’ components of a science
curriculum. Along with the need to promote critical and creative, or higher order thinking in
students, school curricula specify subject specific content coverage and more generalised skills and
Following the evident impact on students of the original CASE, a number of other cognitive
acceleration programmes were developed for young children (Adey, Robertson & Venville,
2002; Shayer & Adey, 2002; Venville, Adey, Larkin & Robertson, 2003), in mathematics
(Shayer & Adhami, 2007, 2010), technology (Backwell & Hamaker, 2004) and the arts (Gouge
& Yates, 2002). Recognised as powerful ‘thinking skills’ programmes, the suite of cognitive
acceleration programmes was reported in a meta-analysis to show a mean effect size of 0.61
(Trickey & Topping, 2004, in Higgins et al., 2005, p. 31). Cognitive acceleration programmes
also have been successfully adapted and trialled in other places in the world including China (Lin,
Hu, Adey & Shen, 2003), Malawi (Mbano, 2003), Finland (Hautamäki, Kuusela & Wikström,
2002), Oregon (USA) (Endler & Bond, 2008), Pakistan (Iqbal & Shayer, 2000) and Australia
(Oliver, Venville & Adey, 2012). Even a short intervention using a small number of the CASE
materials in Israel was effective in promoting Year 9 students’ ‘reasoning abilities and attainment
in science, particularly in regard to the control of variables’ (Babai & Levit-Dori, 2009, p. 445).
These studies across the world and at different levels of schooling show that reasoning can be
improved as a result of such interventions, to good effect, chiming with what we know about
neuroplasticity (Oliver, 2011) a relationship we explore in more detail later in this chapter.
The particular ‘thinking’ lessons that are the foundation of cognitive acceleration pro-
grammes are taught separately from the normal school curriculum. These lessons include one
or two short activities for students and a detailed lesson plan, which offers guidance and rec-
ommendations to the teachers and is particularly helpful as teachers become familiar with the
Mary Oliver and Grady Venville
principles of CA. The full programme of CASE includes 30 ‘thinking’ lessons delivered over
two years, usually about one ‘thinking’ lesson every two weeks during school term. Lessons are
constructed around reasoning patterns (or schemata) specifically addressed through the lesson
activities including controlling variables, ratio and proportionality, compensation and equilib-
rium to analyse process, using correlation, probability, classification, formal models of thinking
and compound variables. The reasoning patterns, first described by Inhelder and Piaget in 1958,
as ‘underlying formal operational thinking’ (Adey, 1988, p. 123) have been used in the CA
programmes to construct activities, which stimulate the development of thinking. The lessons
within each of the cognitive acceleration programmes spiral through increasing levels of com-
plexity related to the reasoning patterns. In Thinking Science, for example, the first five lessons
have a focus on the control of variables.
The pillars of cognitive acceleration
Each of the CA lessons has ve central stages or pillars: 1. concrete preparation, 2. cognitive
conict, 3. social construction, 4. metacognition and 5. bridging (Shayer, 2003). Concrete prepa-
ration involves the teacher establishing the nature of the activity, the associated vocabulary and
the problem for the students to consider. During concrete preparation, the teacher and students
negotiate any ideas associated with the lesson. Students and teachers often refer to this as the
‘doing’ part of the lesson, where data are collected. The cognitive conict of the lesson, draws on
the Piagetian idea of equilibration and the Vygotskian idea of a zone of proximal development
(ZPD). In this case, cognition is stimulated by the ‘presentation of intellectual challenges of
moderate diculty that must be accompanied by support (or scaolding) to discuss, question,
suggest and problem solve’ (Oliver, Venville & Adey, 2012 p. 1397). Students may report ‘this
doesn’t make sense’ and this is the driver of cognitive development, as students need to discuss
the problem, data or develop an explanation. This social construction occurs as students work
together in groups, sharing the development of explanations and understandings. The lesson
activities contain questions on the worksheets that students work through, which arise from
each activity and directly target explanations. Teachers play a key role in establishing good
group work, encouraging students to think about and consider a range of possible explanations
for the problem. During this stage, the teacher’s role is to listen to the discussion in each group,
without interacting with them except to ask a prompting question, such as ‘see if you can nd
a pattern in the data you have collected’, ‘what that might tell you?’ or ‘how could you explain
those results?’ The metacognition stage of each CA lesson enables students to articulate and ‘hear’
each other’s solutions to the problem solving and reasoning and once again depends on the skills
of the teacher to stimulate and give time for this sort of thinking. For teachers inexperienced
to these lessons, it ‘feels’ rather laborious, probing students and asking them for their ideas and
explanations but is considered essential as all students contribute their groups’ ideas to the gen-
eral discussion. Skilful teachers, having heard pivotal ideas emerge in the construction phase of
the lesson, will be able to judiciously select students or groups to respond to questions in this
phase, to elicit answers to the questions from the most concrete to the more sophisticated levels
of thinking. In this way, not only are all students’ ideas welcomed, shared and heard, but they
are also all able to hear how dierent answers and explanations vary with dierent levels of
thinking and their own thinking can be claried or modied (Larkin, 2006). Finally, bridging,
involves applying the ideas developed to other problems in ‘normal’ science lessons or the real
‘Normal’ science lessons are opportunities to draw upon the range of problem-solving strate-
gies and ways of thinking developed during the CA lessons. For example, having completed the
The CASE for thinking through science
first five of the CASE lessons, students have developed a sound understanding of the control
of variables, perform better on a school examination and developed their prowess in thinking
with more students using formal operational thinking than in a control group (Babai & Levit-
Tori, 2009); in classroom terms, this means that students are able to identify variables as being
dependent or independent, describe the relationship between them (positive, inverse, curvilin-
ear), the need to control all variables except one independent variable in order to carry out an
It may appear that these pillars of cognitive acceleration follow a linear sequence throughout
the lesson. In the reality of a classroom, however, teachers move between the different pillars of
concrete preparation, activities, small group and whole class thinking, questioning, metacogni-
tion and bridging. Some teachers see the different parts of the lessons as ‘acts’ with quite differ-
ent roles for teachers as students are ‘asked to go beyond their present thinking’ (Shayer, 2003,
p. 482). Inevitably, teachers relinquish a traditional approach to the classroom, as they support
students’ resolving the conflict inherent in the activities, manage the sharing of ideas from all
groups and question to clarify meaning and understanding. Teachers involved in the Cognitive
Acceleration through Mathematics Education (CAME) project identified changes in ‘classroom
processes and dispositional changes in’ students (Goulding, 2002, p. 117) which may account
for the improvements in performance of students on standardised tests.
Studies looking at the issue of dierent results from dierent schools participating in the same
CA programme have described the complexity of the schools and how the most successful (in
terms of students’ cognitive gains) operate in particular ways: school leaders and administrators
support the intervention through enabling teachers to work collaboratively and cooperatively,
to develop their knowledge and understanding of the theoretical basis for the intervention
(Adey & Shayer, 1990, 1993; Shayer, 2000). Integral to the CA programmes is the ongoing
professional development (or learning). Over the two-year programme of CASE, for example,
teachers are provided with six days away from school and participate in professional develop-
ment associated with the preparation, implementation and evaluation of the programme. Time
is given to teachers for classroom coaching and participating teachers have a sense of ownership
and commitment. The extensive professional development over the period of the intervention
provides for teacher learning, reection and planning (Wilson, 2013).
Exploring possible explanations for the effects of CASE
Data from the cognitive acceleration programmes have been examined, with suggestions that
the science curriculum be redesigned to include the ‘procedural knowledge’ as content and
to use the CASE methodology as part of the suite of teaching techniques in everyday use
(Jones & Gott, 1998). This position certainly needs to be considered. Is the CA pedagogy
just a change in teaching style? Is it the teacher’s approach to questioning or the peer-to-peer
mediation that is eective? With evidence of consistent and qualitative improvements in stu-
dents’ thinking as a result of the CA programmes, greater support for teacher development
seems warranted. Critics of the CA programe include those who question the nature of a
‘general processing ability’, whether this can indeed be modied through a targeted interven-
tion programme and whether what is measured in terms of cognitive gains can reasonably
be attributed to the intervention programme (Jones & Gott, 1998). These authors argue
that there may be other factor/s that could account for the data that the repeated cognitive
Mary Oliver and Grady Venville
acceleration studies have shown.
It is unlikely that there is one explanation for the effects of the CA programmes on students’
thinking. Nevertheless, the data prompt us to seek explanations. This section includes a discus-
sion of questions that have been asked of the programme and some of the possible explanations
that have been advanced including the issue of student motivation as well as socio-cultural the-
ory, dialogical talk and metacognition as the key pillars of cognitive acceleration that stimulate
cognition. Finally, we draw upon insights from neuroscience that have the potential to explain
the success of the CA programmes based around the notion that intelligence arises as the brain
reasons, plans and solves problems.
Leo and Galloway (1995) argued that there is an absence of a ‘theoretical framework’ to
explain the cognitive acceleration research findings. They raised an alternative (or perhaps addi-
tional) explanation in terms of students’ motivation to learn. The notion that cognitive accel-
eration pedagogy may preferentially suit students with a particular motivational style was put
forward to explain why some students show greater cognitive gains than their peers in the same
classroom environment (Leo & Galloway, 1995). This claim has not been tested and Adey
(1996) argued that Leo and Galloway failed to adequately argue for motivation style as an expla-
nation of the CASE results because it is not easy to operationalise and not easily tested. Shayer
(2003) disputed the lack of theoretical framework arguing that the pillars of cognitive conflict,
social construction and metacognition were deeply embedded in a constructivist epistemology
and research in this paradigm offered theoretical explanations for the findings. In research that
brought both the constructivist and motivation theoretical claims to bear, McLellan (2006)
found that the cognitive gains are also matched by gains in motivation exhibited by most stu-
dents, which augur well for both scholastic achievement and attitudes to school. However, the
relationship between motivation and cognitive gains is more complex than a simple one-way
relationship, with those making the greatest cognitive gains also showing a decrease in motiva-
tion. This apparent motivation ‘trade-off’ at the top end of the cognitive spectrum is of concern
and warrants greater research (McLellan, 2006).
The Vygotskian theory that underpinned the development of the suite of CA interventions
resulted in the incorporation of ‘social construction’ in the form of group work into the CA
pedagogy. Sociocultural theory provides a strong potential explanation for why the research
around the CA interventions has demonstrated intellectual growth. Much research has been
conducted in recent years from a sociocultural perspective that emphasises the importance of
language as a cultural and psychological tool that can inuence the development of children’s
reasoning (Mercer, 2010). For example Mercer and Littleton (2007) draw on extensive research
to argue that classroom talk is critical to children’s intellectual development during the school
years. Further, they argue that information about how to create situations that stimulate quality
talk is of enormous practical value to teachers. Mercer and Littleton’s own data show that ‘when
teachers focus on the development of children’s language as a tool for reasoning, this can lead to
signicant improvements in the quality of children’s problem solving and academic attainment’
(p. 3). This sort of classroom dialogue is a central component of the CA programmes.
There has been little qualitative research on the nature of the discourse and interaction
between students while they are engaged in cognitive acceleration activities. One study (Venville
et al., 2003), found that students participating in thinking lessons specifically designed from the
CASE methodology for Year 1 (5 and 6 year old students) compared with regular curriculum
lessons on a similar subject were more frequently involved in: explaining their ideas and other
The CASE for thinking through science
students’ ideas; highlighting discrepancies between group members’ ideas; adopting or changing
their own ideas when a better idea is presented by another group member; making suggestions
for solving problems; and, building on other student’s ideas.
Wall (2002) explored 5 to 6 year olds’ perceptions of the group work of the CASE inter-
vention and found that CASE groups, compared with non-CASE groups of students more
frequently mentioned thinking and discussion-type behaviours and more frequently used terms
related to thinking, sharing, listening and working together. Further, many of the comments on
communication indicated the CASE students perceived these activities in terms of social, rather
than task or work orientations. These findings resonate with those of Mercer and Littleton
(2007) who reported ‘indicator’ words that showed how participating children’s talk changed
after a programme, called Thinking Together, to teach them how to use high quality talk in
groups. The key terms were those that qualitative analysis had shown were associated with the
use of exploratory talk and included ‘because/cos’ ‘agree’ and ‘I think’. The group work in the
CASE intervention and the Thinking Together intervention can both potentially be explained
by the notion of exploratory talk (Wegerif, Mercer & Dawes, 1999) because group members
engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas (Mercer & Littleton, 2007). In both
programmes, students, even very young students, are able to listen to and critique each other’s
ideas and engage with the process of collective problem solving. They are able to do this because
they are explicitly taught how to do it, their teachers are pedagogically able to do it and they
are involved in group activities that were designed to encourage cognition (Mercer & Littleton,
2007; Shayer & Adey, 2002).
Mercer and Littleton (2007) claim the collective results from a number of their colleagues’
studies ‘provide evidence of change in both group and individual reasoning’. They argue, there-
fore, that these data ‘provide further and stronger support for the sociocultural hypothesis that
using language as a tool for reasoning collectively can influence the development of individual
thinking and learning’ (p. 93). The analysis of the Thinking Together programme provides
evidence to support Vygotsky’s theorised relationship between language use, social interaction
and intellectual development (Mercer & Littleton, 2007) and supports a sociocultural explana-
tion for CA interventions. There is considerable scope for more research in this area around the
construction zone during the group work of CA lessons.
Metacognition is another pillar of the CA methodology that provides a possible theoretical
explanation for the ndings of the suite of CA research projects. It was included as an original
pillar for the CASE pedagogy because Adey and Shayer considered metacognition ‘a feature of
the development of higher order thinking which seems to carry almost universal support from
cognitive psychologists’ (Adey & Shayer, 1994, p. 67) and, therefore, likely to be an essential
element of any programme for developing thinking skills. Larkin (2010) points out that meta-
cognition remains a construct that is largely studied by psychologists rather than by educational
theorists and that there is little systematic research on the complex interactions that specically
impact on metacognitive development. However, a number of researchers have indicated con-
nections between metacognition and critical thinking (Magno, 2010), problem solving (Lai,
2011), and persistence (Martinez, 2006) all of which suggest that metacognition is an important
contributor to the success of CASE.
Larkin (2002) investigated the metacognitive experiences of the 5 and 6 year old children
participating in CASE programme for Year 1s. Her analysis showed that the CASE lessons
included more metacognitive activity and metacognitive activity of a qualitatively different type
Mary Oliver and Grady Venville
compared with control lessons on a similar mathematical concept. In the CASE activities, the
focus was on the problem solving process; and in the control lessons, the focus was on the suc-
cessful calculation of number. In the CASE lesson the teacher modelled the language of learn-
ing including explaining thinking and engaging in planning and evaluating strategies by asking
questions such as, ‘What do you think we’re going to have to think about?’ ‘How do you know
that?’ and, ‘What could you do if you’ve got problems?’
Larkin (2010) argued, particularly in the case of young children, that metacognition is devel-
oped through collaboration on a joint task. She provided examples where the teachers participat-
ing in her study fostered skills in their students including thinking about themselves as thinkers and
ruminating about the nature of knowledge and evidence. These skills are particularly important
for scientific thinking. ‘Understanding the need to provide plausible explanations for phenomena
and to rate and compare explanations are foundation stones of science’ (p. 53). Larkin concluded
after more than 70 hours of observation over one year, that the CASE research programme pro-
vided a wealth of examples of young children engaging in metacognitive dialogues while work-
ing through challenging group tasks. She contended that metacognition is constructed socially
through engagement on the task and not simply through reflection after completion of the task.
Larkin (2010) explained that inhibitory control, an executive control mechanism in the pre-
frontal cortex of the brain, is responsible for metacognition. She speculated that being able to
inhibit our initial response is important in many areas of learning, in particular conceptual change,
because we need to be able to inhibit our naïve ideas and accept the plausibility and fruitfulness
of new, more powerful ideas. Being able to inhibit our initial response enables effective planning
rather than jumping straight in; to consider whether our answers are appropriate; and allow us to
think of the sources of knowledge and evidence we are being presented with. All these ideas point
to the pillar of metacognition as an important factor in the success of the CA suite of programmes.
A neuroscience perspective
While the data suggest that the cognitive acceleration programmes exert both a long term and
transfer eect, explanations for these impacts are less tangible: perhaps students have become
more motivated over the intervention period, more comfortable with dealing with uncertainty,
more condent in their own thinking.
More tangible potential explanations come from recent developments in neuroscience which
confirm that our understandings of the workings of the brain can inform teaching and learn-
ing (Dubinsky, Roehrig & Varma, 2013). Since the development of the first CA programmes,
there are now greater understandings of the ways that the brain develops and the implications
that these understandings have for pedagogy. Dubinsky et al. (2013) listed the core neurosci-
ence concepts and each core concept’s general implications for teaching and learning. These
core concepts are very interesting when considered within the context of cognitive accelera-
tion programmes and the underpinning theory. For example, one of the core concepts is that
neurons communicate using both electrical and chemical signals. The implication of this core
concept is the notion of plasticity, the cellular basis for learning and memory. It implies that
communication between the neurons is strengthened and weakened when we use them more
or less frequently. We can extrapolate this simple core concept of neuroscience to support the
notion that practicing the schema in CASE lessons possibly strengthens neuronal pathways that
enable students to better think in sophisticated, schema-based ways such as inverse proportional-
ity and equilibration. Plasticity describes the physical synaptic strengthening as learning occurs
with repeated use of neuronal pathways. Students knowing about neural plasticity appear to be
‘prepared to struggle to learn difficult content’ (Dubinsky et al., 2013, p. 319; Oliver, 2011).
The CASE for thinking through science
Teachers using CASE in schools report a similar finding, allowing ‘students to struggle with an
explanation’ (Dullard & Oliver, 2012, p. 10).
Another important core concept from neuroscience that is consistent with the findings of
CASE is that ‘intelligence arises as the brain reasons, plans and solves problems’ (Dubinsky
et al., 2013, p. 318). This core concept is argued to account for intelligence, or the accumu-
lated history of activity in the brain synapses. ‘In other words, practicing creative or deductive
thinking facilitates further use of these strategies’ (Dubinsky et al., 2013, p. 218.) Adey and
Shayer (e.g. 2002) have long argued that their findings support the notion of a general proces-
sor or general intelligence that has wide ranging influence on academic achievement.
One of the most interesting core concepts from neuroscience is that ‘the brain makes it possible
to communicate knowledge through language’ (Dubinsky et al., 2013, p. 318). It could be argued
that the promotion of communication in groups through the social construction pillar of the CA
pedagogy fosters the exchange of information and creative thought by exercising and developing
neural pathways. The wide-ranging findings from the emerging field of neuroscience offer much
potential for physiological explanations for the findings of the CA programmes and also potential
to improve and refine the CA pedagogies.
Recent research shows that the cognitive level of students is, in general, lower now than a gen-
eration ago (Shayer, Ginsburg & Roe, 2007; Shayer & Ginsburg, 2009). It appears unlikely that
large numbers of students are cognitively ready and thus able to engage with the demands of the
science curriculum. The problem of a curriculum out of step with the levels of thinking of the
student population can only lead to further disengagement or compromising the curriculum by
reducing the cognitive demands of the curriculum. There is a need to bring to the attention of
policy makers, these sorts of education interventions that have long lasting impact on students’
learning. The long term costs of lower educational standards are well reported (OECD, 2010).
There is, of course, another solution that involves cognitive acceleration.
This chapter has provided an overview of the literature that forms the research tradition
of cognitive acceleration. The findings from this research tradition show that the cognitive
acceleration pedagogy impacts positively on student cognition and academic achievement. The
pedagogical pillars of the original cognitive acceleration programmes including social construc-
tion and metacognition provide compelling theoretical explanations for the success of the CA
interventions. Findings from the emerging field of neuroscience provide potential physiological
explanations about how the theoretical constructs that inform the CA pedagogy may have real
impact on students through development of neuronal pathways in the brain.
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