Printer Friendly

Thinking Science Australia: a short history of how thirty science lessons transform learning and teaching.

Originally called Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education, Thinking Science is a program of 30 lessons, usually delivered in Years 7 and 8, that has been shown to improve learner outcomes in science, maths and English. Over recent years, it has grown in popularity in Australia and was the subject of an ARC-funded research project at the University of Western Australia. This article explains the rationale for the development of Thinking Science, its theory base, an outline of the pedagogical approach, some findings within the Australian context and a suggestion about a future for the program in Australia.


Students find many scientific concepts difficult to grasp. Defining accurately which scientific ideas are 'hard' also presents a challenge and educational experts have looked to theories in educational psychology about cognitive development for answers. Not surprisingly, Jean Piaget's ideas around the formation of thinking ability have been of particular interest to those seeking to better understand the development of children's intellectual abilities.

Reviewing research in science education over the last thirty years, it's clear that many researchers have asked some key questions about cognition and its development in children, but without a clear measure of cognitive development, it would be impossible to assign success or otherwise to any particular teaching style that might promote higher-order thinking. The theoretical basis of Thinking Science offered the much needed measures and constructs to assert that the program 'worked' (Adey & Shayer, 1990).

Cognitive Acceleration, the term coined by Philip Adey and Michael Shayer (Adey, Hewitt, Hewitt, & Landau, 2004; Adey & Shayer, 1994), has grown to be a robust theoretical and practical framework for intervening positively in the cognitive development of adolescents as it provides an evidence-based agenda for:

* the measurement of reasoning ability, which can be compared to established norms (albeit from a population of British children from the late 1970s) (Shayer, Kuchemann, & Wylam, 1976);

* intervention programs, which now span a range of subjects and target ages, based on a Piagetian idea of what should bring about cognitive stimulation (Adey & Shayer, 2002);

* the professional development of teachers (Adey et al., 2004).

The history of Thinking Science Australia (also known as Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education, or CASE) is presented in this article as well as a brief outline of the theoretical underpinnings of the pedagogical approach.


In order to make sense of the evidence that supports Cognitive Acceleration, it is necessary to first understand the work of Jean Piaget and his theory of cognitive development.

Piaget, a Swiss clinical psychologist, is perhaps best known as the founding pioneer of constructivism. His first works were published in the 1930s and were often written with his principal co-worker, Barbel Inhelder. They continued to publish for the next forty years. Translations of Piaget's publications were available from the 1940s but his work started to gain the attention of educationalists in the 1960s (Piaget & Inhelder, 1958). This was partly due to the trends in education during the 1940s and 1950s, which leaned towards the approaches of behavioural psychology. Learning, in the eye of the behavioural psychologists, consisted of providing a particular stimulus to provoke a response (rapid recitation of times tables is an example of behaviourism in the classroom). The main deficit of behaviourism is the absence of a mechanism for, and of, learning. A move away from behavioural psychology gave rise to a growing interest in cognitive psychology during the 1950s, paving the way for theories like Piaget's description of cognitive development, based on observations of, and interviews with, thousands of children.

Piaget described the development of children's cognitive ability in four operational stages. These stages had particular impact on science and mathematics education because of the overlap in cognitive ability descriptors and the science and mathematics curricula (Shayer, 2008). Piaget's stage theory of cognitive development is often a subject taught in pre-service teacher courses but, without experience in a practical setting, it is very difficult to attribute cognitive levels to observed student activity.

Piaget's levels of cognitive ability are:

Sensorimotor--observed in infants, this stage describes how young babies become aware of senses and the motor function of limbs. Typically, children pass this stage by the age of two and hence it is seldom used as a reference in 'school-aged' educational research.

Pre-operational thinking--between the ages of two and seven, children exhibit preoperational thinking. At this stage, children do not use logic and cannot transform, separate or combine ideas. An example of pre-operational thinking is a lack of understanding of conservation. Imagine, at tea time, twins are given biscuits; two biscuits to one child and one biscuit to the other child. When asked if the biscuits have been distributed fairly, one will certainly complain that her sister was given two while she was only given one. If fairness is restored by breaking the one biscuit in half so that each child has two biscuits (albeit one of them has two halves), preoperational thinking is present. If, however, they realise the deception and claim that by conservation the distribution is still unfair, they have progressed to Piaget's next stage: concrete operational thinking.

Concrete operational thinking--ability to conserve (as with biscuits) or realising that when liquids of equal volume pass between vessels of differing size or shape, the amount of fluid remains the same. This is typically observed in children aged between seven and twelve, although as recent Australian research has confirmed, many students in the early years of high school have not mastered this.

Formal operational thinking--children develop the ability to logically consider abstract ideas such as the setting up and testing of hypotheses, the control of variables, and ratio and proportion. Any problems requiring the deliberate manipulation of three or more variables will require formal operational thinking. Typically observed in twelve to seventeen year olds.

Upon closer examination of the science curriculum, it is interesting to note how many concepts, ideas and examples require formal operational thinking. When populations of Year 7 and 8 students are measured on the Piagetian reasoning scale, many have not reached the level of thinking to match the demands of the curriculum (Oliver & Venville, 2016). Michael Shayer suggested that we either adapt the curriculum or accelerate the thinking of students ("Watch Michael Shayer talking about the background to the Let's Think approach", 2014).

It seems hardly surprising therefore that children find science so challenging and why so many lose their abundant enthusiasm for the discipline by the end of Year 7 (if not earlier).

The early days of Cognitive Acceleration were focused on the key question with this paradox in mind: can the rate of progression between Piaget's stages of cognitive development be increased? Piaget himself was convinced it couldn't be and stated that any attempt would be doomed to failure (Adey & Shayer, 1993).


The original CASE project aimed to see if an intervention program would accelerate the cognitive development of secondary-aged children. It comprised 30 lessons, which were implemented in ten classes across seven schools in the United Kingdom over two academic years from 1985 to 1987 (Adey & Shayer, 1994). There were another ten classes who were used as controls where cognitive ability tests were carried out but with no intervention.

Data on cognitive levels were obtained before, during, and after the intervention and also at three points of follow-up after the experiment.

The immediate effects of the program showed that the intervention classes performed better in cognitive reasoning tests, but that there was no effect on science achievement. However, as time passed, the intervention groups started to outperform their controlled counterparts; one year on the intervention groups were better in achievement but the same in cognitive reasoning and three years on the intervention groups performed significantly better in science, mathematics and English in public examinations (Adey, 2005).

The intervention was trialled again using a slightly different design (it was deemed unethical to offer the program to one class in a certain school and not another, therefore whole school cohorts were used as controls) with similar results.

Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education became widely accepted in the United Kingdom and was republished in 2001 as Thinking Science, a package with the 30 lessons, Piagetian reasoning tasks and professional development materials for teachers.

Adey and Shayer's work on the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education project challenged Piaget's standpoint and offered compelling evidence, which has been replicated a number of times (Adey & Shayer, 2011), that intervention can indeed accelerate the development of cognition.


Speculation about the 'active ingredient', as well as the effect on general cognitive ability brought about by Thinking Science, is rife and the continued subject of research. Cognitive acceleration programs have some common characteristics, however, which may contribute to their overall effectiveness. For example:

* A theoretical model of cognitive stimulation, which is based on Piagetian ideas of cognitive conflict and the staged development of selected reasoning patterns. The theory also draws on Vygotskian ideas around social construction and metacognition.

* A set of resources which describe the theory and provide lesson plans (with equipment and set-up notes) with associated exemplar activities and digital worksheets which set out the contexts for cognitive conflict, social construction and metacognition.

* A program of professional development for teachers spread out over two years which includes coaching and mentoring as well as instruction in the specific cognitive acceleration pedagogies.

The 30 lessons of the Thinking Science program are built around five core principles, which are often referred to as the 'pillars of cognitive acceleration' (Adey & Shayer, 1994).

Concrete preparation--Involves the teacher establishing familiarity for the students so that they can consider and negotiate any associated ideas and terminology needed to understand the challenge presented in the lesson.

Cognitive conflict--Students' reasoning is stimulated by the addition of a surprising or dissonant observation during the challenges of the lesson. Students form expectations through the early stages of an activity, or from previous learning, and the surprise of the unexpected observation--the cognitive conflict--is a key part to every lesson in Thinking Science.

Social construction--From their experiences, learners actively process information to form their own understanding. This is called 'construction'. Thinking Science emphasises the shared development of explanations and understandings about the challenges and potential solutions. Teachers play a role in asking questions of students but not offering solutions.

Metacognition--Students reflect on their thinking and articulate the approaches taken to problem-solving. This stage enables students to find out about other ways of thinking and evaluating.

Bridging--Involves the student and teacher working together to apply the ideas developed in the lesson to other problems in the real world. Associated science lessons can be used to help reinforce and remind students about the range of problem-solving strategies and ways of thinking that they have developed.

Thinking Science lessons are usually delivered over two years when students are between the ages of 11 and 13. The lessons have been developed around specific reasoning patterns (or schemata) addressed through the activities including: controlling variables, ratio and proportionality, compensation and equilibrium to analyse process, using correlation, probability, classification, formal models of thinking and compound variables. Lessons spiral through increasing levels of complexity related to these reasoning patterns and many teachers report the effective sequencing of the lessons (Dullard & Oliver, 2012).

It is difficult (and perhaps impossible) to claim that it is either the theory base, the materials or the professional learning that makes Thinking Science effective, but it is apparent that the interlacing of the pedagogical ideas creates a change in the way teachers and students, and students and students, interact (Adey, Robertson, & Venville, 2002; Adey, 2005; McLellan, 2006; Oliver & Venville, 2016). The shift in teachers' perceptions of teaching and learning has been shown to bring about changes in the way they deliver all of their lessons and consequently the way in which students engage in science lessons per se (Adey et al., 2004). Many see this as one of the most important and beneficial aspects of being a Thinking Science school.


In 2000, Lorna Endler and Trevor Bond looked at the effects of CASE when implemented with three Year 8 classes in Townsville, Queensland. They reported extra cognitive growth between Years 8 and 10 and found significant correlation between cognitive development and scholastic achievement (Endler & Bond, 2000).

More recently, Grady Venville and Mary Oliver implemented the Thinking Science Australia ( au/tsa) project funded by the Australian Research Council, which was a medium-scale cognitive acceleration project using the Thinking Science materials. The project utilised six days of professional development for teachers over the two years, classroom visits, co-teaching, coaching, and tests of students' thinking at the start and end of the two-year program (Oliver, Venville, & Adey, 2010). John Hattie, a 'fan of Michael Shayer's work' (Personal Communication) has been supportive. What started as a pilot study in Pinjarra, Western Australia (Dullard & Oliver, 2012), has blossomed into a national initiative which has spawned regional hubs for professional learning (particularly in Queensland and Western Australia) as well as two national conferences with another planned for 2016 in Perth, Western Australia.

The recent studies carried out in Australia have shown that Thinking Science continues to have positive impact on cognitive development. Oliver & Venville (2016; 2015) both report that significant gains were observed in Western Australian schools with an overall effect size of d=0.56 and that academically selective schools noticed much higher effect sizes (d=l .0). Hattie (2009) points out that an effect size of 1.0 equates to 'advancing children's learning by two to three years'.

Australian research has also shown a positive correlation between a school's ICSEA (Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage) and Piagetian reasoning score (r=0.71) meaning that children from lower ICSEA areas are not able to reason as well as those from higher ICSEA areas (Oliver & Venville, 2016). Speculation about such an inequality in reasoning is difficult but might have more to do with teacher and population turnover in the more "disadvantaged" schools than on cognitive ability in learners.


There are many contemporary (and competing?) ideas about learning and how best to "add value", but relatively few interventions in education have the evidence to show that they really work (Hattie, 2009).

As educators at all levels look for programs and initiatives that make a resounding difference in student outcomes, looking to new, heavily marketed educational 'fads' is unlikely to yield a sustainable solution (if only because of 'change fatigue'). Subjecting an educational initiative to academic scrutiny takes time and, while we continually flip between ideas that might make a difference, perhaps we are missing the ones that actually improve learner outcomes. Like a fine wine, Thinking Science has matured over the last 40 years and now stands as one of the best examples of evidence-based practice in science education.

As Australia's STEM education policy advances, it is vitally important that the lessons learned through the development of Thinking Science do not go unnoticed. Cognitive Acceleration has shown that it can stand in the Australian context, and indeed, has become a defining theoretical framework for many science departments in a number of states.

Perhaps it's time for Thinking Science to take centre stage in Australia.


Adey, P. (2005). Issues arising from the long-term evaluation of cognitive acceleration programs. Research in Science Education, 35(1), 3-22.

Adey, P., Hewitt, G., Hewitt, J., & Landau, N. (2004). The professional development of teachers: Practice and theory. The Netherlands: Springer Science & Business Media.

Adey, P., Robertson, A., & Venville, G. (2002). Effects of a cognitive acceleration programme on Year I pupils. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72(1), 1-25.

Adey, P., & Shayer, M. (1990). Accelerating the development of formal thinking in middle and high school students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27(3), 267-285.

Adey, P., & Shayer, M. (1993). An exploration of long-term far-transfer effects following an extended intervention program in the high school science curriculum. Cognition and Instruction, 11(1), 1-29.

Adey, P., & Shayer, M. (1994). Really raising standards: Cognitive intervention and academic achievement. London: Routledge.

Adey, P., & Shayer, M. (2002). Cognitive Acceleration comes of age. In Learning Intelligence (pp. 1-17). Open University Press Buckingham.

Adey, P. & Shayer, M. (2011). The Effects of Cognitive Acceleration and speculation about causes of these effects. In AERA Research Conference, socializing intelligence through academic talk and dialogue Learning, Research and Development Centre, University of Pittsburgh.

Dullard, H., & Oliver, M. (2012). "I can feel it making my brain bigger": Thinking Science Australia. Teaching Science, 58(2), 7-11.

Endler, L. C., & Bond, T. (2000). Cognitive development in a secondary science setting. Research in Science Education, 30(4), 403-416.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.

McLellan, R. (2006). The Impact of Motivational "Worldview" on engagement in a cognitive acceleration programme. International Journal of Science Education, 28(7), 781-819.

Oliver, M., & Venville, G. (2016). Bringing CASE in from the cold: the teaching and learning of thinking. Research in Science Education, 1-18.

Oliver, M., Venville, G., & Adey, P. (2010). Thinking Science Australia: Improving teaching and learning through science activities and reasoning. In Australasian Science Education Research Association Annual Conference. Shoal Bay, NSW.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1958). The growth of logical thinking. Routledge.

Shayer, M., Kuchemann, D. E., & Wylam, H. (1976). The distribution of Piagetian stages of thinking in British middle and secondary school children. British Journal of Educational Psychology. 46(2), 164-173.

Shayer, M. (2008). Intelligence for education: As described by Piaget and measured by psychometrics. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(1), 1-29.

Venville, G., & Oliver, M. (2015). The impact of a cognitive acceleration programme in science on students in an academically selective high school. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 15. 48-60.

Watch Michael Shayer talking about the background to the Let's Think approach. (2014). Retrieved July 26, 2016, from

Tim Smith has been teaching Thinking Science since 2002 and is currently working with the Science of Learning Research Centre researching into the effects of the program on cognition.

Caption: Photo courtesy Mount Alvernia College.
COPYRIGHT 2016 Australian Science Teachers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Smith, Tim
Publication:Teaching Science
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 1, 2016
Previous Article:Photosynthesising in the classroom.
Next Article:Thinking science: a way to change teacher practice in order to raise students' ability to think.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters