The day I learnt how to think straight

A method of teaching science to 11- and 12-year-olds is achieving remarkable exam results. Paul Vallely went back to the school laboratory to see if he could finally learn to design a foolproof scientific experiment

Last week I went back to school. To learn to think. I was put in a class of 11-year-olds with a beaker full of tubes varying in width, length and material and told to work out what affected the pitch of the note I could make by blowing across the top of each tube.

"Now I want you to do four tests," said the teacher, Lisa Marsh, at Woolston School in Southampton. "But I'm not going to tell you which four pairs of tubes to test. You decide."

The first thing, of course, was for me and my 30 peers in Year Seven to see who could make the most piercing whistle from the array of short and long, wide and narrow, plastic and glass tubes before us. Next we developed elaborate rituals for dipping the tubes into the disinfectant provided to avoid transmitting germs. Then there was the discovery that if you blew really hard, you could make yourself dizzy.

That accomplished, most of those on my table seemed uncertain of the next move. No sign of Aim, Method and Conclusion here. So, reverting to a well-tried schoolboy technique, I peered across to see what they were doing at the next table.

It was the start of a CASE lesson. Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education was the jargon behind the acronym. Using it in a pilot programme, 4,500 pupils at 17 comprehensives, who were given 30 such lessons during their first two years at secondary school, achieved a dramatic improvement in GCSE performance. In CASE schools 20 per cent more pupils got Grade C or above in GCSE Science compared to their peers in non-CASE schools. Interestingly the scheme, which teaches pupils to think rather than merely to learn, saw improvements in maths and in English, too. Almost all pupils were thought to have improved their individual performance.

Miss Marsh had written a few pointers on the blackboard, drawn from questioning the class on the previous CASE lesson. Variables, it said. Input - the things we can alter. Outcome - the changes that are produced. Input: width, length and material. Outcome: is the note higher or lower?

On the next table David had begun. He romped through his four tests and concluded that pitch was affected by width. He rushed up to the teacher with his completed worksheet. At the next table Joanne was having difficulty working out which tubes to choose. "Explain to Joanne how you did it, David," the teacher suggested. His explanation only made his classmate more confused.

"Do you understand now?"

"I think so," she lied.

The teacher brought the class to order. David was asked to explain his answer to the whole class. "Brilliant method, David, but it's the wrong answer (width may affect volume, but not pitch). So let's look at it another way. How can we go about doing this? We have three variables? Is there a rule we can work out for three variables?"

"You keep two the same and just change one," said Ruth at the back.

"Why?"

"Because you can't tell which one you're testing if you change two or more."

We were all sent back to have another try.

"Cognitive mechanisms develop with age. It's not just a matter of becoming faster or more full of knowledge: at different times, we think differently," says Dr Philip Adey, director for the Advancement of Thinking at King's College, London, who is one of the team behind the CASE project. After 20 years studying the learning techniques of British schoolchildren, he concluded that by the age of 16 only 30 per cent had left behind concrete thinking and begun to think abstractly. The supposition was that most of them progressed no further in adulthood. "The question was: were they genetically incapable of anything better? Or had they a potential which was undeveloped because their cognitive development had been insufficiently stimulated?"

Dr Adey is a disciple of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the Russian educationalist Lev Vygotsky. Aware that such hypothesising is regarded with disdain by most Tory education ministers, Adey heads one section of his report on his successful standards-raising approach, "Barmy Theories".

From Vygotsky he takes the notion that children have a spectrum of half- formed or potential strategies which may be turned into complete thinking skills by co-operating with others. From Piaget he develops an analysis of what are the most effective times to intervene in this learning process.

Piaget concluded that there are five stages of human learning. In the "sensory" stage, babies learn how to modify their reflexes. In the "pre- operational", the child up to the age of seven develops mental imagery, including one-dimensional perceptions such as size and colour. In the "concrete operational" phase (age seven to 12), the beginnings of logic appear, along with classification of ideas, an understanding of time and number and, later, a notion of multiple classifications from which children build concepts from which they can learn to predict the world. Then, in the final "formal" stage - which occurs pretty much as they transfer from junior to senior school - children develop the ability to reason about the hypothetical world outside their direct range of experiences; they understand abstract concepts and their search for solutions becomes systematic.

It is on the borderlines between these phases, Dr Adey believes, that the greatest opportunities for accelerated development lie.

Back with Year Seven at Woolstone School, the bell is about to ring for break and Joseph is still perplexed. He keeps taking tubes up to Miss Marsh and asking, "Will these do to test for length?"

He holds out a tall, thin glass one and a short, fat plastic one. Joseph is a boy after my own heart. My science master once described an experiment as foolproof until I managed to make it explode, whereupon he rejoined that it was only fool-proof, not "bloody fool"-proof.

Miss Marsh does not try to explain. "No, get two others," she keeps saying. Finally he produces two the same length, and of the same width but of different materials.

"What's that a test for?" she asks.

"Length."

"Are they different lengths?"

"No, the same."

"If they made different notes, would it be because of the length?"

"No."

"Because of the width?"

"No."

"So because of what?"

"Because of the material."

"So what is that a test for?"

"The material."

"Good, now go and find two that will test length."

"Children must construct their own knowledge," argues Dr Adey. "We can provide bits of information and experiences, but in the end, if it is to register, they have to do it themselves."

The bell goes. Joanne drops her test tubes on the floor and they smash. But Joseph is still at it. This time he produces two which are the same in every respect but for width. Miss Marsh, despite being clearly drained by the demanding CASEload of the last 60 minutes, remains behind, eating into her precious 15-minute coffee break. Ten minutes later he has got it right. A slow smile of understanding and achievement steals across the boy's face. He leaves the classroom beaming.

Dr Adey's notion is that even if comprehension hadn't dawned, the experience would have been good for Joseph. "The lessons involve a lot of talking and they can be inconclusive and end with the kids going out slightly muddled," he admits, "which is why we'd never recommend giving over the whole of the curriculum to this. It's just one lesson every two weeks. But the cognitive conflict when a pupil encounters a problem which cannot be solved by using their existing ways of thinking, is what produces the results." The other key tool is metacognition - getting them to think about their only thinking, to deconstruct how they arrived at a conclusion. In CASE that process is more important than the conclusion itself.

Joseph certainly had a brainful of conflict that morning. "Teaching like this is exhausting," says Lisa Marsh. "But at the end of the day it is working. We can see it. Even if Joseph had left without getting it right, he'd have taken on board some of the process, which would be good for him."

In the classes that follow, the same conflict and metacognition processes are put to work. Oil will get thicker when it is heated, the class pronounce before the start of an experiment which proves the opposite. Then they compare the graph drawn from the results with the one they drew after testing how far a spring stretches as weight is added. At the end the 11-year-olds are groping after an understanding of which variables enable them to predict, and in what way.

The skills they learn take them outside the science lab. After variables CASE finds concrete entrances into the abstract mazes of ratio, proportionality, compensation, equilibrium, correlation and probability.

For the latter they make tea, sometimes putting the milk in first, sometimes after. How many times would someone have to guess correctly before you might suspect they were not guessing, but could tell by taste? Four or five, say most pupils. Then they do the test and compare the results across the class to discover that 20 per cent come out right by mere guesswork. They have begun on probability. It is not too long before they are on to smoking. Just because not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer does not mean that there is no significant statistical relationship between the two, they conclude. Not bad for 11- and 12-year-olds.

Did I learn to think? Not having spent a day in a classroom since I was an inmate of one, I certainly learned a new respect for the abilities of both pupils and teachers. The latent intelligence of the youngsters was impressive, even where they did not immediately seem particularly bright. And the energy, enthusiasm, commitment and dedication of the teachers were awe-inspiring both in class and in their after-hours analysis and preparation.

What I did learn is that when a child asks a question, the hardest thing for an unreconstructed adult is to keep his mouth shut and not immediately announce what the answer is. Learning that may have been enough of an achievement.

"Crystallised intelligence - wisdom - stays level on average until the age of 75. But fluid intelligence - the ability to be flexible - seems to peak from the age of 18 to 22. There is a decrease in the ability to form new concepts from the late twenties," says Dr Adey, "Some of us are just past it." Fortunately there is always a generation of youngsters out there who are not, and now there is a cohort of teachers with the skills to develop those children's talents to a greater potential than we previously realised was possible. There is always something to be learned by going back to school.

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