How Cognitive Acceleration originated in Israel

Written by Laurie Smith

At this time of conflict in Israel and Gaza, with terrible loss of life on both sides and the risk of more widespread war, I thought it might be helpful to recall that Cognitive Acceleration originated in Israel – that CA is an eventual outcome from a more hopeful period of Israel’s history. It feels relevant to remember that one of the world’s most effective educational programmes was originally created to raise the attainment of Arab children, though admittedly they were Jewish in religion.

Israel 1950s

The new State of Israel faced a particular educational problem in the 1950s and 60s. Under its ‘law of return’, Jews from any part of the world could become Israeli citizens and it was soon found that children of those from North Africa and the Middle East did much worse in school than those from Europe and North America. They were typically three years behind in their education and were subsequently much less successful as young adults competing for jobs.  

Israel was committed to educational equality for its immigrants and invested heavily in research on remediation. Reuven Feuerstein was appointed to lead a substantial team of clinical and educational psychologists, many with experience of treating children traumatised by the Holocaust, to tackle this problem. They decided to avoid school subjects as areas of past failure and devised a separate programme called Instrumental Enrichment (IE). This was designed to change, over a period of two or more years, the disadvantaged students’ idea of themselves as learners, their motivation and their ability to process information. 

The IE course was primarily designed for young adolescents. It consisted of thirteen sequences, each with 12 to 24 activities (instruments), intended to be taught for five hours per week over two years in parallel with the normal curriculum. An essential feature of the IE instruments is that they involve little use of language and therefore have the appearance of logic puzzles and non-verbal reasoning problems.

The reason for this was that the students’ mother tongue was usually Arabic and they were simultaneously having to learn Modern Hebrew (Ivrit) as the language of their new country.

The IE programme drew directly on Vygotsky’s work on how understanding is mediated by discussion and on Piaget’s work on how a child’s intelligence develops with age. Each activity involved discussion between teacher and students and between students to encourage them to think about strategies for solving the problem. As Philip Adey and Michael Shayer put it in Really Raising Standards, “IE aims to provide the necessary mental tools putting students in a position where they have to construct for themselves the higher-level thinking required” (page 46).

The IE programme was rigorously evaluated with controlled trials and found to be very effective. Significantly, two or more years after the intervention the students entered compulsory military training in the Israeli Army. On a test of general intelligence for all recruits derived from the American Army Alpha test, the IE group performed better than many others. Although they had typically been three years behind when entering school in Israel, they were now equal with others, for example, in promotion prospects.

An important feature of the programme was that, although it generally didn’t raise attainment immediately, evidently because of difficulties of accessing the mainstream curriculum while learning a new language, IE learners’ ability continued to develop after their participation in the programme had ended.  Their ability continued to rise on all the tests they took, including Army Entrance and for further and higher education so that, as adults, they suffered no disadvantage compared with the general population (Rand et al 1981). 

There was naturally a good deal of interest in IE and it was used experimentally in the USA, UK and elsewhere with positive effects on attainment. But it hasn’t been adopted widely, chiefly because of its deliberate separation from school subjects. Schools have understandably been reluctant to devote lesson and staff time to a programme without direct relevance to the rest of the curriculum.

England 1980s

Michael Shayer was one of the leaders of the Concepts in Secondary Mathematics and Science project (1974 – 1980), a large-scale government-funded project on how to improve the teaching of these subjects across the whole ability range in comprehensive schools. With Frances Beasley, Michael investigated IE closely and used it with a class of 20 Year 8 students with special needs classed at the time as moderate learning difficulties, with significant results (Shayer and Beasley 1987).

However, Michael, working now with Philip Adey, accepted that IE was inappropriate for mainstream schools with their curriculum pressures and developed a new programme to overcome IE’s limitations. Like IE, the new programme was based on research by Vygotsky and Piaget – it taught learners how to understand their own thinking processes and use them more effectively, and it assessed thinking in relation to Piaget’s stages of development. Unlike IE, it related directly to a school subject (Science) and, not being designed for immigrant children learning a new language, used open questions in English rather than diagrammatic problems. 

As we know, Michael and Philip called the programme Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE). It has several distinctive features – the use of Inhelder’s and Piaget’s cognitive schemas underlying scientific understanding as schemas for a programme of lessons, the design of each lesson on a consistent Vygotskyan basis and the requirement that staff are trained to deliver the lessons effectively. But Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment made a very great contribution to CASE, much greater than any of the other educational interventions of the time.


Unfinished business

As we know, CASE proved very successful in the 1980s to 2000s. It was taken up by a large number of secondary schools in England and abroad. Though delivered fortnightly in Years 7 and 8, the programme typically raised attainment in Science subjects three years later by 0.5 to 1 GCSE grades across the full ability range. This effect has been confirmed in more than 20 international trials.

Another effect similar to Feuerstein’s IE soon became apparent – that delivering CASE in Years 7 and 8 raised attainment more widely. It had been repeatedly observed with IE that learners’ cognitive abilities continued to increase for several years after the IE lessons had ended. It was noted that students who were taught the CASE lessons achieved higher GCSE grades in Mathematics and English as well as in Science (Really Raising Standards, pages 99 – 106). 

In due course a trial was held involving over 2000 pupils in 11 schools whose teachers were trained to deliver CASE in 1994 to 1996. In 1999 the students’ GCSE results were compared with those of 16 comparable schools which had had no experience of CASE. It was found that students in the CASE schools achieved an average of 1.05 GCSE grade higher than the non-CASE schools in Science, 0.95 grade higher in Mathematics and 0.90 grade higher in English (Learning Intelligence, pages 9 – 11).

This is a remarkable result which, if it had become widely known, might have been subjected to further research and, if confirmed, actively supported by Government, so that Cognitive Acceleration might well have become national policy in Britain and elsewhere. In the event, many schools in England discontinued CASE during the 2000s owing to Government policies which were incompatible with it, chiefly the National Strategies and Ofsted requiring evidence of detailed repeated assessment to track learners’ progress. 

Both these policies have now been abandoned as ineffective and others, such as knowledge-based curriculum and teacher-led instruction, have taken their place. If these also prove insufficiently effective, interest may return to Cognitive Acceleration and its remarkable results. If so, we should remember its origins in the outstanding pioneering work of Feuerstein and his co-workers in Israel’s early years. 



Feuerstein, R, Rand, Y, Hoffman, M and Miller, M (1980) – Instrumental Enrichment: Intervention Programme for Cognitive Modifiability. Baltimore: University Park Press.


Rand, Y, Mintzker, R, Hoffman, M B and Friedlander, Y (1981) – The Instrumental Enrichment programme: immediate and long-term effects. In Mittler, P (ed) Frontiers of Knowledge: Mental Retardation, Vol 1. Baltimore: University Park Press.

Shayer, M and Beasley, F (1987) – Does instrumental enrichment work? British Educational Research Journal, 13, 2, 101-119.