Cognitive Acceleration

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Cognitive acceleration describes a lesson style originally developed by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey at King's College London which is designed to promote student's thinking from "concrete" to "formal", abstract thinking.

The first series used a secondary science context: CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education). Students experienced 16 Cognitive Acceleration lessons per year for two years. These replaced some of their normal sciences lessons, they were not extra lessons. As a comparison, a similar "control" group did not experience the CASE lessons, but had their usual conventional science lessons instead.

Compared to the control group, the CASE students not only scored about one grade better in their GCSE science, but their Maths and English GCSE grades were also improved by about the same amount. <ref>Adey, P. S..(1993). Accelerating the development of formal thinking in Middle and High school students IV: three years on after a two-year intervention . Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 30, 4, 351-366. </ref> It is very rare to see such ‘transfer’ of learning to other subjects in educational research which suggests that something very deep is happening. Cognitive Acceleration appears to ‘teach intelligence’.

More recent developments have used primary and secondary Maths (CAME), with similarly successful research evidence. These resources are: Thinking Maths (KS3), Primary CAME (Cognitive Acceleration in Maths Education) for years 5 and 6, and Let's Think! resources for Early Years to Year 5.

Resources have also been produced for technology (CATE), Literacy, Art, Drama and Music.

Structure of the lessons

CA acknowledges that there are a set of subskills which underpin abstract thinking. Early lessons focus on these 'schemata' which vary for subjects and age ranges.

While facts and descriptions can be learned, CA shares with Constructivism the view that concepts cannot be learned in the same way. The learner needs to "construct" the meaning for themselves. CA lessons centre on a challenge which can only be explained through an abstract idea.

The role of the Mediator.

If the learner is simply given the challenge they will probably fail. If the teacher simply gives the answer, the learner can only take it in as a fact to be learned. Understanding does not automatically occur. An Instructor tells the learners what he thinks they ought to know. A Mediator sets up a good learning-context and intervenes only to guide the learners toward the learning goal (a touch on the tiller). The mediator asks probing questions: "What do you think?", "Which one is a more likely solution?" "What do you think about Fred's idea?" gradually leading the learner to discover the answer themselves. They can also offer clues which send the learner off in the right direction, improving the chance of successful thinking.

Lessons which develop abstract thinking directly have the following structure:

  1. An introduction which sets the scene (concrete preparation)
  2. A puzzle or challenge which needs to be solved (cognitive conflict)
  3. Group-work and discussion where pupils share ideas for solutions (social construction)
  4. Explaining the thinking which gave the answer (metacognition)
  5. Making links to everyday applications of the ideas discussed (bridging)

Setting the Scene

"Concrete preparation" serves a similar purpose to the final "bridging" section: it links the activity to current knowledge, explains the task and checks vocabulary.

The Challenge

This must be set just above the current level of secure knowledge - hard enough to be a challenge, but not so hard as would make the learners "switch off". In a science lesson this can take the form of a demonstration with an unexpected effect. In English it could be reading a text which has an implied meaning.


Clearly the classroom teacher cannot be the Mediator for every child in the class. If pupils work in groups and discuss their ideas (social construction) there are several benefits:

  1. group members act as mediators for each other, suggesting solutions, trying out ideas.
  2. individuals feel less vulnerable and more able to participate.
  3. random ideas from group-members act as the clues offered by the mediator.

Once the groups have discussed their answers, the class is brought together to share their ideas. Again the teacher does not give the answer. They ask one group for their solution, then ask another if they agree or disagree and why. The discussion continues until there is wide agreement in the group. the teacher leads the group towards the answer through questioning.


During group-work and discussions, the teacher (mediator) asks questions designed to reveal the thinking process. This process - metacognition - has been shown to be highly effective in securing the knowledge. The learner has to put into words the line of thinking - which makes the process more available both to others listening and the learner.


Knowledge learned in isolation from the learner's secure knowledge is usually lost. The learner needs to link (bridge) the new learning to existing experiences. CA lessons conclude with a discussion about where these ideas could be used in everyday life. (This is the same as the concept of "scaffolding" in constructivism.)

Theoretical background

The approach builds on work by Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Reuven Feuerstein and takes a constructivist approach.

From Piaget, CA recognises that there are stages in intellectual development. At school the most important transition is from concrete thinking - which deals with facts and descriptions, to abstract thinking - any thinking which involves a mental process.

From Vygotsky, CA takes the concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help.

From Feuerstein CA takes the concept that intelligence is not fixed, but is plastic and can be developed. This requires the help of a Mediator: someone who asks questions and allows "guided self-discovery". This mediation can often be done better by peers than by a teacher and so promotes the idea of pupils working in groups to solve a problem.




  • Adey, P. & Shayer, M. (1994) Really Raising Standards. London: Routledge
  • Adey, P. (Ed.) (2008, forthcoming). Let's Think! Handbook: A Guide to Cognitive Acceleration in the Primary School. London: GL Assessment
  • Shayer, M. & Adey, P.S, (2002) (eds.). Learning Intelligence: Cognitive Acceleration across the curriculum from 5 to 15 years. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.


  • Adey, P. S..(1993). Accelerating the development of formal thinking in Middle and High school students IV: three years on after a two-year intervention . Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 30, 4, 351-366.
  • Shayer, M., (1999). Cognitive acceleration through science education II: its effects and scope. International Journal of Science Education, 21, (8), 883-902.
  • Adey, P.S., Shayer, M. & Yates, C.(1989). Thinking Science: Student and Teachers' materials for the CASE intervention. London: Macmillan


  • Adhami, M., Johnson, D.C. & Shayer, M. (1995). Thinking Maths: The curriculum materials of the Cognitive Acceleration through Mathematics Education (CAME) project - Teacher's Guide. London: CAME Project/King's College.
  • Adhami, M., Robertson, A., & Shayer, M.(2004). Let's Think Through Maths!: Developing thinking in mathematics with five and six-year-olds. London: nferNelson
  • Adhami, M., Shayer, M., & Twiss, S.(2005). Let's Think through Maths! 6-9. London: nferNelson

External links

  • The website for CAME (Cognitive Acceleration in Maths Education) and CA in other subjects. Information on theoretical and research background, resources for KS 1-3, teacher and student responses, and professional development courses.