CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education) has been around for over 20 years and has a reasonably strong body of evidence to support it. The apparent effects on student progress are encouraging, but teaching CASE has also had an impact on my teaching. Teaching lessons planned by others has forced me to develop strategies in order to teach the lesson how it was meant to be taught, and reflect on my own teaching as a result.
Something to do with getting the kids to think
While studying for my PGCE, I observed a lesson as part of my preparation. My mentor told me it was “A CASE class. Something to do with getting the kids to think in Science.” I was interested, observed the lesson, paying particular attention as to how you could teach kids to think. They were sorting out cards, trying to discover who a murderer was given a selection of clues. I could see the students discussing, debating even, but I could not see them being challenged to think in a particular way. I was further confused when I realised there was not a right answer to the puzzle. I was not sold on CASE.
Fast-forward five years and I am now a new teacher in an international school. During my first week my Head of Department explained excitedly about CASE and I tried to hide the internal sigh. I did not want to teach murder mysteries as part of the Science course. However, as I started to look through the materials I realised something, what I had previously observed was not CASE. The teacher had just picked out an activity and labelled it ‘thinking skills’. Through teaching CASE was to discover that it is a hugely valuable programme. Not just for the students, plenty has been written about that. CASE has been hugely influential for me as a teacher.
What CASE has taught me
- Concrete Preparation
- Cognitive Conflict
Teaching, and subsequently reflecting on, each of these has significantly changed my teaching style. I must stress, when I started teaching the programme I was relatively inexperienced. Some might seem obvious to the experienced teacher, but I found it very useful to be reminded of these fortnightly, and force myself to think about them properly.
This is effectively making the vocabulary explicit so that the students can access the rest of the lesson. While this in itself has not had a huge effect on my practice, planning for it has made me aware of the importance of preparing accordingly for bilingual students.
For me, this is where a teacher can have the most fun. Cognitive conflict is that surprise the student experiences when the mental model they have constructed does not hold up to reality. It uses the idea of a zone of proximal development, setting problems which are just out of reach of the students and helping to structure their thinking in such a way as to guide them to the answer.
One activity, looking at control variables, asks the students to find out which factor affects the pitch made by a pipe. The students can pick up to two pipes to compare at any one time, but many fail to isolate the variables.
Now, an inexperienced teacher may be tempted to set the students on the right track, so they can happily carry on with the activity. The CASE programme encourages teachers to plan carefully probing questions to illuminate the flaws in reasoning; “how do you know it was the length and not the material?” “What tubes could you pick to see if it really is width?”. These type of questions inevitably lead to the ‘CASE face’ where a student slowly realises that the model they have been developing has been knocked down by a simple query.
Due to planning these questions, and spotting places where they may be needed in the lesson, I have learned the power that “cognitive hand grenades” can have. Simple questions which can blow apart a student’s model and force them to build up a new one. These are tremendously useful in science education.
Construction allows the students to rebuild their improved ideas from the rubble. This often takes place in a social context, usually group or class discussion. I have learned the importance of circling the classroom, listening carefully, and continuing to test any idea. I have also learned how carefully managed group and class discussions can bring those who are finding the ideas difficult forward. It also means that every student is responsible for the information in their groups, and must ensure that everybody is up to speed.
This word has become a bit of a fashion recently. Metacognition is effectively thinking about thinking; asking students how they arrived at an answer, what issues they faced and how they resolved them. Again, I had not realised how powerful this can be. Metacognition places the students in a position where they have to reflect on the process as well as the ideas. This is often stressed as the focus of the lesson in CASE, and asking kids to put their thinking into words is intentionally difficult, but often appears to have stronger links afterwards.
This focus on metacognition has helped me to develop my understanding of what metacognition is, and what it is not. I have learned to lift up the rock of student thinking and encourage them to look underneath, exposing any misconceptions which may be still lurking there.
This process is especially interesting to watch in bilingual students, who can often struggle to put their thinking into words in English.
Offering the students opportunities to link the topics to new ideas. Again, this is something that I had neglected in my teaching. More accurately, it is something that I had done for the students. Once students are more confident in the processes through which they arrived at a solution, they can often apply it to newer situations.
I have found the CASE programme to be considerably good training for me. It has put me in a position where I have had to consider student thinking and how the lesson design should spread from it. It taught me, as an inexperienced teacher, that getting the kids to think hard about a topic is a good thing. A new report is due next year on the effects of the programme on student learning, but I would encourage Heads of Science to consider the possible impacts on teacher, as well as student, development.