Isn’t Cognitive Acceleration all about skills? Isn’t sticky knowledge more important?

Written by David Bailey

If I had a pound for every time I’d heard the Cognitive Acceleration approaches described as a ‘skills based curriculum’, I could have retired long ago. It is probably something I have been guilty of saying myself over the years, perpetuating a rather limited description of the approach. The risk with any kind of descriptor for anything is it that it oversimplifies the approach to a point that the subtlety and nuance is lost. In this blog, I aim to write a better description that clarifies this point.

 The reason for articulating this comes from a conscious educational drive in the UK to consider knowledge. This is exemplified by a speech from 2021 from the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister for Education, in which he draws on the work of Professor E. D. Hirsch, articulating that those furthest behind have larger gaps in their knowledge and so over time, the gap tends to grow (the Matthew Effect). He stresses the importance of trying to fill those gaps in all pupils.

 This isn’t the only place you might see this referred to. The work of Prof Hirsch as also been referred to in other Department for Education documents. The same thinking about knowledge and the importance of retaining it also appeared in the 2019 Ofsted Inspection Framework and is retained in the most recent (and current) update of the framework. The high stakes around Ofsted inspections for UK schools means that this is something that many schools are considering in their curriculum design.

In discussions that I have with school and curriculum leaders, this topic has come up again and again. The focus of their work is (almost) inevitably designing a well sequenced curriculum that helps build a bank of ‘sticky knowledge’, along with the favoured techniques of ‘spaced practice’ (spreading the learning out) and ‘retrieval’ (pulling the learning back from the memory of pupils).

So where do the Cognitive Acceleration approaches fit in to this? If you take Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE) for example, it can appear that it is a series of topics that although connected to each other through the CASE schema, are not designed to be connected to the rest of the curriculum. Does that therefore mess up the curriculum sequence? Also, CASE seems to be very focused on enabling students to become good scientific investigators, rather than learning the important sticky knowledge that is required in science like cells, particles and forces.

 I’ve had a few discussions with teachers and leaders that raise these points over the years and here are some of the things I would now say in response. 

In science, the curriculum knowledge that is required includes ‘Working Scientifically’ as a key component. You don’t need to take my word for this, this was very much the response of the Department for Education when working with them to establish a school improvement project in 2019. An analysis of the lessons and curriculum at the time indicated that the 30 CASE lessons cover approximately 18% of the UK National Curriculum for Science for Key Stage 3. A typical student will have over 300 science lessons in years 7 to 9 and so CASE would only need to cover around 10% to be ‘pulling its weight’ from a curriculum content perspective. Therefore, CASE teaches important knowledge in an efficient way.

Schools can sometimes struggle to identify a sequence that helps to teach ‘working scientifically’ well. It often presents more of a challenge that the more recognised content of biology, chemistry and physics. CASE is a well-sequenced curriculum for teaching this ‘working scientifically’ and associated knowledge. 

CASE lessons are designed to be spread out, with lessons consciously spaced out with perhaps a couple of weeks between them. It also incorporates recapping and retrieval of ideas from previous lessons, as well as the encouragement to apply these ideas outside of lessons. CASE was designed around the principles of ‘spaced learning’ and ‘retrieval practice’ to help embed important knowledge.

The learning processes that take place in CASE lessons help teachers assess the learning that pupils have recalled.  Knowledge is tested as students apply existing knowledge to novel contexts during CASE lessons. The focus on metacognition helps also assess the security of this knowledge and identify and resolve unhelpful preconceptions (misconceptions). CASE helps teachers and pupils work diagnostically to identify and fill knowledge gaps.

The lessons learnt from CASE seem particularly ‘sticky’. The idea is that the ‘active ingredient’ of cognitive conflict and the associated techniques of social construction (students building their own mental models) and metacognition (discussions around the process of learning) can help students test a previous unhelpful schema (mental model) to its limits and rebuild a better and more useful mental model. CASE helps teachers and pupils fill those gaps with the correct knowledge, and connect that knowledge in a useful way.

As teachers practice their techniques with classes, both teachers and students become more expert at using them in lessons. They are also likely to begin to transfer this thinking to their other lessons. This can help both teachers apply these approaches with their other lessons on biology, chemistry and physics content and the students with their other subjects, which can increase the chances of them learning more knowledge over time. CASE can help learners get better at retaining more useful knowledge beyond that which is taught in CASE lessons.

The reason I have introduced so many schools to CASE lessons is that time and time again, it has been a key component of school improvement in science, helping pupils attain better outcomes in ways as detailed above. CASE is not simply a skills based curriculum, it is very much a knowledge focused curriculum, using techniques which make sure important knowledge sticks over time and help learners become better at keeping a whole range of knowledge in their heads.