Cognitive acceleration

So far in this chapter we have described types of thinking, how thinking develops and offered some explanations about how the mind works. But we have said nothing about the main topic of this handbook: how do we get children to think better? What can we as teachers do to improve our pupils’ use of the schemata described above, or to improve the effectiveness of their working memory, or to promote the ‘natural’ process of cognitive development?
Here we will give only a brief overview of the main features of ‘cognitive acceleration — the process of promoting cognitive development — but each of these features will then be expanded in a subsequent chapter, together with plenty of practical examples of what they look like in the classroom. The methods we are advocating here are rooted in the psychologies of Jean Piaget (working in Geneva) and Lev Vygotsky (working in Moscow), are based on over 25 years of experience and have produced a great deal of sound empirical evidence for their effects on children. This evidence is summarised in Chapter 10.
The pillars of cognitive acceleration
There are three main features of cognitively stimulating classrooms. We sometimes call them the ‘pillars’ of cognitive acceleration.
1 Cognitive conflict
This means presenting children with something which is puzzling or unexpected perhaps, which makes them stop to think. It is not simply a matter of presenting difficult material, but rather of leading individuals to certain expectations which are then not met, so we have to ‘think again’. Jean Piaget sees cognitive conflict as one of the main drivers of cognitive development. If a child is always presented with work he or she can do easily, there is little stimulation of the mind. Lev Vygotsky talks of the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ – the difference between what a child can do unaided and what he or she can achieve with some leading questions and guidance from a teacher or another child. It is in this zone that the development of the mind occurs. In Chapter 2 we will describe this process in more practical detail with plenty of examples.
2 Social construction
In Thought and Language (1962), Vygotsky said:
Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first on the social level and later on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.
(Vygotsky, 1962)
Humans are social animals and our social activity includes learning together, making knowledge together. We can stimulate our pupils’ minds by encouraging them to explain things to one another, to listen and to argue constructively when they disagree or do not understand. Making one’s understanding public is one of the best ways of developing that understanding – as every teacher knows. Chapter 3 will be devoted to this pillar.
3 Metacognition
The third pillar of cognitive acceleration is the idea that children should come to think of themselves as ‘thinkers’ who have some control over their own thinking process. It is not easy or quick to develop this attitude and ability to think about their own thinking, but with persistence it can be done even with the youngest primary pupils. The ability – and the disposition – to reflect on how one has solved (or even failed to solve) a problem is a powerful tool which enables children to take more control of their own learning. We deal with metacognition in Chapter 4.
The three main pillars of cognitive acceleration described above can be seen within the context of the other pillars in Figure 1.3.


Figure 1.3: The six pillars of a cognitive acceleration lesson
(based on Adey, Shayer & Yates, 2001)

25 years of cognitive acceleration

These principles were first built into a programme of curriculum materials and teacher professional development in the mid-1980s, with the first Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE) project. CASE was aimed at Key Stage 3 (12- to 14-year-olds at the start of secondary school). CASE eventually showed some startling long-term effects on pupils’ cognitive development and on their academic examination successes, not only in science but in English as well. The development of better thinking in a science context seems to have transferred automatically to better thinking across the board.
CASE was soon followed by Cognitive Acceleration through Mathematics Education (CAME), the parallel programme in mathematics. CAME was filtered down into Years 5 and 6 in primary schools, and then in 1998 we started a new programme for Year 1 — what we now know as Let’s Think!. In spite of a nod in the direction of science, Let’s Think! was concerned essentially with some very general concrete schemata, but the materials that followed were linked to more specific subject areas: Let’s Think through Maths! for Years 1 and 2, and Let’s Think through Science! for Years 3 and 4. Altogether there now exist cognitive acceleration materials which can be used all the way through from Reception to Year 6. All of them rest on the three pillars of cognitive conflict, social construction and metacognition introduced above. All of them also focus on the general ways of thinking, the schemata, which can be widely applied, more or less directly, across the primary curriculum.
In the chapters that follow we will try to explain these principles in a very practical way and to exemplify them with activities taken from the published materials that we will describe.

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