‘An indelible mark’: Cognitive Acceleration teaches us lessons that stick

Written by David Bailey

Cognitive acceleration as a teacher


When I trained to be a teacher in the mid 1990s, I trained in what was then a traditional route – a degree and a PGCE at a university. My choice of university would be one that led towards experiencing Cognitive Acceleration at a very early stage in my career. My PGCE tutor at Durham University, Dr Marion Jones, had previously worked in Sunderland as an Adviser. She included some of the Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education (CASE) activities in the practical sessions that we experienced. We also have a visit from one of the teachers from Sunderland, Alan Edmiston, who talked about his experience of introducing CASE into his schools. It is one of the few sessions I can still remember quite clearly. In the session, Alan spoke with passion about the difference that CASE had made to his pupils and also to the way he taught. I was intrigued.

My first job was in a school where CASE had been recently introduced. The Head of Department asked me if I would like to go on a CASE training course that the local authority was running. It was considered unusual for a very recently qualified teacher to participate in the training: normally teachers would have been teaching a few years first. The trainer said something along the lines of ‘You won’t know what normal teaching is like, and perhaps you never will”. He was right.

Having a full timetable, CASE lessons were taught regularly. It wasn’t long before I had taught most of the early lessons many times over and had also started to work through some of the later lessons too. I had plenty of opportunity to practice. I also noticed some of the approaches I’d been using in CASE lessons making their way into other lessons, such as questioning, group discussions and taking advantage of surprising situations. These were things that help pupils both engage and think in my lessons. It really seemed to help shift some of the unhelpful preconceptions that children brought with them. It seemed to work.

Cognitive Acceleration thinking in teacher training

In 2005 I began delivering a few physics sessions a year to Initial Teacher Trainees at Durham University. Looking back now, there were elements of the professional development programme that you would recognise in CASE lessons, such as understanding where a participant was in terms of their development of a schema, a scenario where counter-intuitive thinking was required, peer group discussion and metacognitive thinking. This type of practice was deeply ingrained into the way I was working with adults.

In 2012, I took up a role at the Science Learning Centre North East in Durham. Alongside this, I was working with Let’s Think on a science programme. This drew upon my teaching of CASE and enabled me to support others to embed this in their practice. I found that those same features from my CASE lessons were present in the work I was doing with adults even when I wasn’t working with CASE. What was interesting is that it was helping teachers think about their practice, and shifting preconceptions that you might argue were unhelpful. This is the same as what happens with pupils in CASE lessons.

Cognitive Acceleration thinking embedded into school improvement

Additional school improvement roles meant I moved from in-school leadership, to working with leaders outside of my own setting.

During this time, I found myself working with a range of different schools, some of which needed significant support. Having watched the approaches of the schools over time, it became obvious that many of the approaches that they were using seemed very sensible, however often these were counterproductive.

One example is that teachers who were struggling were often observed and monitored regularly. Over time this had the effect of reducing their confidence, decision making ability and agency. When this ‘support’ didn’t lead to pupils doing better (which happened far too often) leaders tended to increase the frequency or intensity of observations, thinking that they hadn’t done enough and that more of the same was required. Cognitive dissonance had set in.

I quickly realised that established leaders had developed ideas of what leadership should look like, yet this wasn’t leading to the improvements they had hoped for. Their thinking was being reinforced at the time by a system-wide push for individual accountability and higher pupil progress.

Supporting schools in this situation meant moving their thinking. Fortunately, by this point, I had practised this over and over with thousands of children over the previous 15 or so years. I had also practised this with adults and recognised that shift was possible, even in experienced colleagues. This meant that working in this way was like second nature.

I found myself using the same ‘active ingredients’ of CASE:

  • metacognition;
  • scenarios that highlighted the issue that might be commonly understood;
  • cognitive conflict – using the scenario to discuss with leaders;
  • an understanding of where the (adult) learners were in terms of their stage of development and their schema development;
  • consideration of the (adult) learners Zone of Proximal Development and the role of social construction in supporting them;
  • supporting the idea that it was okay to change your mind and consider counter-intuitive practice;
  • using evidence to support the changing of thinking and keeping it that way.

This really helped leaders both leaders and teachers change their minds, even when previous practices had been deeply ingrained.


  • CASE lessons are really helpful in changing the way pupils think about the world around them and about science.
  • The ‘active ingredients of CASE’ can transfer to other elements of your thinking and practice.
  • Once these approaches are embedded into other areas of your work, it is difficult to imagine working in a different way.
  • Once you have been taught Cognitive Acceleration approaches, your new thinking  is likely to leave an indelible mark on your practice.

And finally…

From time to time, I come across leaders and teachers I worked with years ago. There are plenty of examples of those where they have made changes that have lasted the test of time. The schools that they are working in or leading have sustained improvements in pupil outcomes.

Not only were these lasting changes, but the changes also that teachers and leaders have made to their practice has made a positive and lasting difference to the many pupils that have been in their care.