Has it really been three decades? Revisiting CASE* in 2020

Written by Alan Edmiston

* CASE stands for Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education and is an enrichment programme that includes a series of 30 lessons that develop scientific reasoning in Key Stage 3.

Recently I have been supporting twelve schools across the Tees Valley to use CASE.  In all of the schools I was able to work with someone who was just like me, when I started using CASE all those years ago in 1992. The whole experience has been very powerful, for teaching in so many different schools has afforded me some significant insights into the thinking of students and their cognitive needs at the start of their secondary school career. In this blog I will pick out a couple of recent episodes that can be used to highlight the continuing role that CASE has to play in the cognitive development of adolescents.

Very early on in my own CASE teaching, I came to realise that the words students use to describe their ideas (ratio will be used here as an example) in response to CASE lessons afford you a window into how good their thinking is, and therefore how well students might do in a formal written assessment. This in turn should inform the planning of a sequence of activities, which can support the gaps that may emerge as a consequence. A key feature of CASE is the notion of cognitive conflict: giving the students a problem that cannot easily be solved by any one individual with their current level of thinking. The lesson in question was concerned with proportion as a special case of ratio, that requires the students to be able to see a common ratio regardless of the individual sizes involved.  The students were challenged to work out how it is possible to calculate how tall someone is from their forearm length (the actual ratio involved is 1:6 for humans). Behind me two girls were arguing because one of them felt that although her friend got “times by six” it would be different for her because she is much taller. In CASE the teacher takes on the role of a facilitator so rather than jumping in, they orchestrate the feedback, enabling the idea of “we are all times by 6” to emerge naturally. Students realise that this is because the relationship between arm length and height, in humans, is a constant one.

CASE uses a Piagetian analysis of demand to highlight the steps that could be taken as students develop their understanding of ratio beyond simple multiplications towards; proportion, scale, compound variables and even equilibria systems. In Piagetian terms many students as they start secondary school are ‘concrete’ thinkers.  Their thinking is linked to the context in which they first encounter the idea. What higher level GCSE performance requires, is for students to be able to apply the concept into new and unfamiliar contexts, so their thinking about ratio is a tool that can be used to model, compare and explore a whole range of different relationships. When looking at the lessons with one group of teachers, we used a thinking scale with statements on proportional reasoning showing increasing complexity of thought.  The scale was developed from Shayer and Adey’s (1981) Towards a Science of Science Teaching and the idea is to map out the development of thinking in relation to proportional reasoning from the most simple (concrete operational thinking) to the most complex (termed formal operational thinking).

The teachers easily saw how a particular CASE lesson could support the development of thinking but it was the table that triggered the most reflection. Half of those in the room started to realise why so many of their KS4 classes were struggling with the demands of the GCSE.  From the statements, they were able to see that many of these students were thinking in very concrete ways. The GCSE curriculum they had to ‘cover’ required a certain level of thinking that these students were struggling with. One teacher suggested that they might use the CASE lessons to support the thinking of older students, as a way to help them begin to grasp the fact that a sense of ratio allows them to balance equations and also work out the scaling questions they are always asked in Biology.

It is worth pointing out that these schools are not alone in their growing realisation of how CASE can help students in secondary science.  Many teachers are revisiting CASE and CAME, in response to a curriculum that favours a linear model of progression that does not take students’ actual cognitive levels into account.

Shayer, M. and Adey, P., 1981. Towards a science of science teaching: Cognitive development and curriculum demand. Heinemann.