What is it about CASE that engages pupils quite so well...?

Written by David Bailey

One thing that has always intrigued me about the Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education (CASE) is its uncanny ability to take even the most challenging, persistent non-engaged pupils and help them become deeply involved with science. The second thing that never ceases to amaze me is the transferability of the approach to other teachers, who can in turn engage their students deeply with real science.

Our local success…

There are many examples of successfully using CASE, but one really stood out. This was in a secondary school that drew from an area of Middlesbrough. The school had a large proportion of children where English was an additional language. At the time, pupil behaviour in the school was often challenging, even with pupils in Year 7. I was working as a Science Consultant with a Local Authority led Achievement Partnership to support this school and was in the school 1-2 days per week. Partly due to capacity and partly due to concerns that teaching CASE would mean sacrificing time for teaching content, we decided to do this as a trial with only half the year group. The second half of the year group would receive the lessons later. This left us with a mini-trial:

Group 1 – 3 classes receiving 9 lessons of case in place of 9 normal science lessons

Group 2 – 3 classes receiving normal science lessons

We carried out a reasoning test (Science Reasoning Task II) before and after the intervention for both groups. Read about the trial in more detail.

Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash

The headlines…

The average science reasoning scores for the cohort (aged 11 years old) at the start were comparable to those of typical 6 or 7 year old child. The intervention group (group 1) had an average increase in cognitive scores equivalent to about 8 months (in a 4 month period), compared to the control group who improved 2 months (in the same 4 month period). There were no significant differences in science test scores between the two groups, despite the intervention group receiving 9 fewer science lessons.

In short, it seemed to work really well.

Beyond the headlines…

As part of this, I was involved in teaching one of the groups and this is the story I really want to use to illustrate the idea of genuine and deep engagement. The group I was co-teaching had 27 pupils. I was sharing the group with an NQT, teaching about 50% of the CASE lessons each, but co-planning each one carefully. They were mixed ability and engagement was low, particularly as I initially had no relationship with the group.

In the first lesson, there were three pupils that engaged well (and 23 who didn’t). Undeterred, we worked with the four engaged pupils and managed the other 24, some of whom tried desperately to get out of their science lesson (as they did every lesson) by misbehaving. Those three pupils worked really well and enjoyed a meaningful practical activity, developed their thinking and discussed ideas around variables and values by looking at some laboratory glassware.

After the second and third lessons, things weren’t much better. A couple of extra children had started to engage having looked at the group who were and realising that things seemed quite interesting. Gradually though, over the next few lessons, more and more pupils were involving themselves so that by lesson six more than half the group were engaging throughout the lesson.

Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

Eventually came lesson nine. When we got there, the NQT was due to deliver but was ill on the day so I agreed to step in. The lesson was about inverse proportionality, so in the spirit of practical work, we had a lab full of parts of trees that we were busy measuring. Although the first 15 minutes or so was focused on getting them started with the task, when that was underway, I was able to step back and watch the impact of the work we had been doing.

The impact…

Having watched for a few minutes, I realised a couple of things.

1) All 27 children were present

2) All 27 were fully engaged with the activity, discussion and remained so until the end. This included the children who had previously wanted to ‘escape’ their science lessons.

Then came the discussion, eliciting the idea of the inverse relationship, a concept many students who were much older would really struggle with… At that point, in walked the head of Year 7, checking to see if everything was okay. Despite her best efforts to disguise her expression, she was clearly taken aback by what they saw.

In the class were 27 students, all listening intently to their teacher asking questions about tree branches and mathematical relationships. Children who were often seen sat outside or inside her office contributing high quality answers to this discussion. Children were using a sketch graph that we had drawn on the board to both interpolate and extrapolate from the relationship to give plausible answers to questions about how thick the intermediate branches might be and what the tenth branch up might look like.

Needless to say, this was the result of eight other lessons of challenge and determined effort, but it had paid off and the success was palpable.

What happened next….

After that, this success was shared with all teachers as part of a sequence of professional development activities, both in science and beyond. The school has since extended its work to include the equivalent mathematics programme CAME. The school’s performance is now average, when previously it had very low progress and attainment statistics. The school also went on to support other STEM related activities, including engagement with the STEM ambassador programme.

Although this is all good, the human story is probably the most interesting part. I was able to follow up some of the pupils as part of a focus group a couple of years later. One girl from this teaching group stood out. In Year 7, I had asked her about her future aspirations and she really wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but didn’t mind as long as it wasn’t science. In the teaching group she started as one of the most disengaged pupils (and I gathered was at high risk of exclusion), although she was on board by lesson five. At the end, she stood out as clearly a very bright individual who found her previous experience with science just not that interesting.

Her response in the Year 9 focus group was fascinating… “I want to be a paediatrician”, and I thoroughly believed she would be exactly that!

In summary…

What is really interesting about this, is that in CASE, the science itself is the motivator. There aren’t the whizzes and bangs that you associate with engagement, just really interesting things to look at and really deep questions to make you wonder why. This is a very human story, in which CASE played a small but significant part in changing the lives of children, reducing the risk of exclusion and improving their engagement with society in a positive way.