Social interaction combined with mixed ability teaching can produce large cognitive gains – an accidental breakthrough

Roger Titcombe's picture

Shortly to be published research by Professor Michael Shayer reveals an accidental breakthrough in how highly significant cognitive development in school students can be contagious through student and staff social interaction, but only where mixed ability teaching takes place. Whereas comprehensive schools have been criticised by the political right for allegedly allowing social interaction with less able students to stunt the attainment of the most able, this breakthrough study shows that the opposite is the case: it is selectively streamed schools that limit cognitive growth for students of all abilities.

This was an accidental outcome of research designed to replicate earlier studies that found that Shayer and Adey’s Cognitive Acceleration through Science/Maths  Education (CASE/CAME) could permanently boost general intelligence. Shayer’s (et al) paper – CASE and CAME replicated in Finland: a randomised, longitudinal and single-blind study of the simultaneous testing of two cognitive acceleration programs has been submitted to the journalLearning and Instruction.

This study replicated in Vihti province Finland, two studies CASE,and CAME, designed to accelerate the development of general intelligence in British school children aged 12 to 14. Replication should be a necessary test in psychology, but is not often achieved and reported.  Two well-researched intervention programs, namely Cognitive Acceleration Through Science Education, CASE (Adey, Shayer & Yates, 1995) and Cognitive Acceleration In Mathematics Education, CAME (Adhami, Johnson & Shayer, 1998) were selected for replication in a double intervention study in Finnish schools.

Michael Shayer has a long-standing relationship with Finnish teachers and educational academics. Unlike the UK, Finland has long been receptive to co-operative learning approaches. Also, unlike the UK, Finland has been a consistently high performer in the international PISA tests of national education systems.

However, to the initial shock of Michael Shayer and his Finnish co-workers, no difference was found between controls and experimentals at Post-tests, suggesting that the CASE and CAME interventions had no effect, and the interventions had therefore failed.

Vihti province is right on the national average (49th percentile) of national educational attainment. At the end of primary school, when both the control’s and the experimental groups’ results were compared with the national average, it was found that they had both significantly increased the proportion of students that had attained Piagetian Formal Operational thinking. They had progressed from the 49th to the 80th percentile.

Astonishingly, the performance of both groups of students (experimentals and control) then continued to increase at an accelerated rate right through secondary education, but only in the school that practised mixed ability teaching.

All the children in the 14 Vihti primary schools continue in their education in two secondary schools, from where most of the data were collected. In the Finnish system primary education ends at age 12, a year later than in the UK. At entry to Class 7 (age 12)  in the secondary school the average of all groups for the onset of Formal Operational thinking was 36% which is more than double that of the Vihti average. This accelerated development continued during Class 7 (our Y8), increasing to 50% (80th percentile) compared with the expected 19%. Finally, three years later, age 16,  at the end of Class 9 (our Y11) both experimental and control groups had progressed to the 85th percentile, but only in the secondary school where there was mixed ability teaching throughout. In the other secondary school, which taught throughout in groups selected by ability, while the primary school gains were maintained during the first yearthere was no subsequent cognitive growth. In fact there was a regression to the 70th percentile.

In Vygotsky’s description of social processes in cognitive development it is taken for granted that there are children of a higher level of development present to give behaviours that benefit the less developed students in the class. With mixed ability teaching this is always the caseIf the school selects the higher ability students into their own classes, the lower ability classes will lack the presence of those students that might have stimulated the less cognitively developed to higher levels of performance.  Hence the restricted gain in development of the students in the streamed school between 14 and 16. But contrary to the claims of supporters of streaming, It seems that the higher ability students in the ‘top’ classes also failed to develop. Perhaps this was because of the lack of lower ability students within a co-operative learning culture, raising issues that they did not see for themselves.

It was actually even worse than that – the students in the streamed school regressed during the equivalent of our KS4, a well recognised pattern in the English education system, whereas the students in the mixed ability school continued on their higher cognitive growth trajectory.

The success of this Finnish replication of CASE and CAME has shown that its methods, when utilised by a competent teacher, can have the same effects in Finland as in Britain, and hence presumably in any Western country.  Consistently, year by year, it has delivered twice as many students as the national average, able to think at the formal level , and hence able to process much of the agenda of secondary school science and mathematics (and other school subjects), with the expected successes in national examinations as shown earlier in England.

Such results depend on adequate professional development of the teachers who use these programmes in schools. This was guaranteed in this Finnish trial. It does not imply that teachers using only the published CASE and CAME materials would succeed in generating comparable effects. Read more about this here.

The Finnish results show once again, as Adey et al (2007) have shown in a massive study, that it is necessary to completely reject the implications of previous views on the constancy of IQ, for example those of Herrnstein and Murray in the Bell Curve. It is becoming increasingly clear that ‘fluid’, or ‘plastic’ intelligence is a measurable ability that can grow year by year, in my view extending into adulthood and old age, as shown by the work of David Eagleman. This is also strong evidence to support the ‘National Education Service’ proposed by the Labour Opposition.

The conduct of CASE and CAME lessons make the most of a mixed-ability situation by the mediation of an experienced teacher who, at every point in the lessons, evokes attention on peer/peer interaction, so that students come to realize that their collaboration is a major cause of their learning. So if the mixed-ability distribution when the children enter the secondary school is removed and also the style of teaching that utilizes it, the expected growth of intelligence barely develops.

Shayer’s paper does not go into detail about the social mechanisms by which the enhanced mindset of the group that experienced the CASE/CAME intervention came to ‘infect’ their year group peers over a period of years in the mixed ability secondary school. I have written previously about my headship experience in which such positive social contagion resulted from our ‘School Council’ driven culture. This can only be replicated where student/student, student/teacher and teacher/teacher relationships are of the highest quality. Finnish schools appear to prioritise such strong social relationships, whereas English schools are being pushed in the opposite direction by many Multi Academy Trusts, with the ideological support of the government.

I do hope that those on the left, who continue to reject the concept of general intelligence, may now have reason to reconsider, given that its basis provides powerful new theoretical support for comprehensive education that includes a significant degree of mixed ability teaching and the rejection of the Hirsch ‘knowledge-based’, behaviourist model of abusive, ‘zero tolerance’ disciplinarianism led by the marketisation/Academisation model that is corrupting our education system and stunting the cognitive development of our students.

As well as providing further support for the concept of plastic general intelligence and the efficacy of the CASE/CAME approaches to increasing it, this study provides powerful evidence for the need for the right kind of mixed ability teaching if the potential of plastic intelligence is to be realised.

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John Bajina's picture
Sun, 26/08/2018 - 13:10

Once one reads this, it is no brainer. Even as an adult one finds mixed ability, gender and diverse company a lot more stimulating than mongenous company.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 26/08/2018 - 17:01

John, you make a strong case for commonsense and experience to supplement the powerful evidential findings highlighted in Roger's article. Our problem today lies in the rejection of all three of these ingredients in the face of political bloodymindedness. My solution is to remove  education from overall control of the politicians of all flavours. In spite of the specifics of Labour's proposals, I have a problem with their plans to establish a 'National Education Service' if elected into power.

My problem with this is, were Labour to be elected in 2022 and implement such a  plan, what is there to stop another party on coming into power at a subsequent general election from abandoning it in favour of its own preferred solution? The fact is, there is nothing to stop such a move. We are presently witnessing the decision taken decades ago to introduce nationwide comprehensive secondary education being undermined in favour of allowing existing grammar schools to expand under rules that fly in the face of common sense because it suits this government to allow it.

Roger's article outlines a stark choice for our society and the future of our young people in the face of very considerable challenges, the likes of which we have never known before. Either we continue with the carefully calculated deliberate policy of privatising education, which can only lead to beneifts for those currently lining up to 'cash-in' on the opportunities such a move would invariably provide, or we take seriously the message coming out of Michael Shayer's research as outlined here.

My own experience of working with primary aged pupils to develop Philosophy for Children (based on the work of Matthew Lipman) convinces me that dialogic teaching, peer-suppoprted learning and teaching for cognitive development offer better solutions to the problems facing us in educating all young people to take their place in an uncertain future.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 29/08/2018 - 10:54

John - I am sure you are right about P4C. It is very clearly within the Shayer & Adey cognitive develoment paradigm. It has the other advantage of largely avoiding the 'general intelligence' tag that upsets so many educationalists of the left. My problem with them is not that I disagree with them, but that they choose to ignore rather than to debate. Note the deafening silence in response to this article about the Michael Shayer 'breakthrought'.

The strange thing about 'general intelligence' is that it is universally accepted and uncontroversial everywhere except in the field of education, where it is obviously most relevant. A current example is yesterday's media story about Chinese research into the damaging cumulative effects of air pollution on general intelligence. While there has been justified debate about the methodology and reliability of the conclusions, given their dire implications, nobody has questioned the validity of general intelligence upon which the research is based. The same applied to the vital research a few decades ago into the damaging cognitive consequences of leaded petrol .

The serious problem with much of the 'sociological' left is its refusal to engage with those that it disagrees with. I have still had no reponse from Dr Montacute, or her employer and publisher, the Sutton Trust. Instead, we see 'deplatforming' in the media and even in the very insitutions (our universities), whose fundamental purpose is the search for truth and wisdom, however much that has been corrupted by commercialisation and the shameless pursuit of 'bums on seats'.

I have been accused by a university academic of 'supporting eugenics' just for recognising the fundamental truth of 'general intelligence' and the desirability of increasing it in individuals and society as a whole, as if the mere recognition of the concept implies state directed 'selective breeding'.


agov's picture
Wed, 29/08/2018 - 12:43

"The serious problem with much of the 'sociological' left is its refusal to engage with those that it disagrees with. "

Remind me of your reaction when I pointed out the obvious disastrous financial consequences of implementing the economic agenda of the eco-loons you find so beguiling: tu quoque much?

"I have been accused by a university academic of 'supporting eugenics' just for recognising the fundamental truth of 'general intelligence' and the desirability of increasing it in individuals and society as a whole, as if the mere recognition of the concept implies state directed 'selective breeding'."

Warned you. This agenda you are following is seriously misplaced and incapable of achieving anything except perhaps getting you (two) imprisoned for using hurty words. There is a very long way to go before obtaining any such restoration of sanity. One of the minimum conditions for any such change is the removal of the Jew-hating, terrorist sympathising, German empire loving, ideologically obsessed, degenerate and disgraced remnants of what used to be the Labour party (- good luck discussing that at your next Branch meeting). But don't take my word for it - wait and see.

John Bajina's picture
Wed, 29/08/2018 - 14:50

John M & Roger,
I see we agree in general principles. So to pick at concerns:
There does continue to be the carefully calculated deliberate policy of privatising education with many worrying aspects. Standards being primary. I also worry at the degrees to which the Civil Service colludes with dogma. Surely it is not the place of the Civil Service........
I am a bit more sanguine Labour's proposal to establish a 'National Education Service' because we know (because we see for ourselves) Corby and the power house of Momentum will not act on anything without a majority party backing. This of course does not mean you may not highlight early concerns, it is right to do so and most probably helpful to policy makers as it evolves.
I do cry at the attack on the nationwide comprehensive secondary education being undermined in favour of allowing existing grammar schools to expand and the rules are a sham.

Agov, I got your 'you quibble' comment, but unfortunately am lost with 'left not engaging', 'selective breeding' and 'Jew-hating'+. I freely admit it is me and not you, I have changed recently, I noticed I cannot comprehend simple ideas since I stopped reading certain newspapers. My bad.

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 05/09/2018 - 13:34

John, your comment about the collusion of key civil servants in promoting the privatisation of education is spot-on. Surely, our democracy needs the impartiality of the civil service rather than blanket support for dogmatic policy.
I stick with my view about what I see as the limitations of our political system. Allowing short-term party politics to dictate the direction of change in an area such as national education policy has caused, and still does cause havoc, affecting the lives of students and our capacity as a society to plan effectively for the future.
Finally, you ought not to look to yourself for the confusion in comprehending Agov's comments.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 08/09/2018 - 13:27

On 7 September this 'News Alert' was posted by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

We have updated our popular Teaching and Learning Toolkit – used by up to two-thirds of all schools – to reflect better the existing research on grouping pupils by attainment. This includes a revised strand on ‘setting or streaming’ and a new strand on ‘within-class attainment grouping’.

For some years now the EEF Toolkit has condemned 'setting and streaming' as having a negative overall impact on student progress.

Five reports were published by EEF in July 2017. The first two were found to have a positive effect on student progress.

Dialogic Teaching

“Dialogic Teaching aims to improve pupil engagement and attainment by improving the quality of classroom talk. Teachers are trained in strategies that enable pupils to reason, discuss, argue and explain rather than merely respond, in order to develop higher order thinking and articulacy. The programme uses video review, print materials and in-school mentoring to support teachers’ practice across English, maths and science lessons.

This trial found consistent, positive effects in English, science and maths for all children in Year 5, equivalent to about 2 months additional progress.”

This is consistent with other EEF trials focusing on cognitively challenging talk, such as ‘Philosophy for Children’, and ‘Thinking, Doing, Talking Science’. The consistent results across subjects and the lack of any subject specific content in the training suggest that the approach may improve children’s overall thinking and learning skills rather than their knowledge in a given topic.”

This EEF conclusion is important as it recognises that the approach is not based on the learning of factual content but on stimulating and supporting the development of cognitive ability. Put simply, the pupils made more progress because the teaching and learning methods used made them cleverer. It is important to note that pupil’s confidence and performance improved in all subjects, not just the ones directly relevant to what the ‘classroom talk’ was about. This is the claim of the long-standing ‘cognitive acceleration‘ movement led by Michael Shayer and the late Philip Adey, backed by a huge amount of peer reviewed research.

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science (TDTS) is a programme that aims to make science lessons in primary schools more practical, creative and challenging. Teachers are trained in a repertoire of strategies that aim to encourage pupils to use higher order thinking skills. For example, pupils are posed ‘Big Questions’, such as ‘How do you know that the earth is a sphere?’ that are used to stimulate discussion about scientific topics and the principles of scientific enquiry.”

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science appeared to have a positive impact on the attainment of pupils in science. Overall, Year 5 pupils in schools using the approach made approximately three additional months’ progress.”

This too was an initiative based not on ‘telling by the teacher and listening by the pupils’, but on the development of general cognitive ability through metacognition, pupil to pupil and pupil to teacher debate.

The remaing three initiatives were found to be without merit. I discuss the implications of these findings in this article.

What EEF have actually found is that initiatives that exploit the key features of Shayer and Adey's Cognitive Acceleration approach all produce positive outcomes and those that don't, generally don't. You can read about the principles of Cognitive Acceleration here.

But the most powerful and compelling evidence of all is found in this very article where Michael Shayer et al found enormous progress in mixed ability schools where experimental groups made astonishing progress. I sent this article to EEF, but received no acknowledgent or comment. It makes sense of all the separate EEF findings, were EEF fails to make the obvious connections.

These are that mixed ability teaching is necessary in order to realise the maximum benefits from the Cognitive Accelation approach. However, on its own this is not enough. The right kind of teaching approach by trained teachers is also necessary.

If only parts of the cognitive acceleration approach are used then worthwhile extra progress is achieved. However with the  'full on real thing' the progress is astounding.

When is EEF going to spot the pattern?


John Mountford's picture
Sat, 08/09/2018 - 19:21

EEF isn't alone in failing to spot the pattern, Roger. Policy makers have set out the present excessive testing regime in the expectation that this will raise standards. Schools have responded by skewing teaching to prepare children for the tests because their fate depends on the results. Both have failed our children, young and old because this narrowing of the curriculum and the fact that this approach retards cognitive growth reduces enthusiasm for learning for many and makes them duller in the process. Added to this is a reluctance on the part of many in academia to engage with policy makers and professionals to explore how teaching for cognitive growth can transform teaching and learning to the huge benefit of both students and society.

The decisions by academics and politicians (left and right) to disregard the importance of teaching for cognitive growth has added greatly to this toxic mix. The fear that fuels this refusal to engage with anything remotely perceived to connect IQ and cognitive capacity is crippling debate about what policies are needed to challenge this approach. The findings from Professor Michael Shayers work in Finland presents us with the ideal platform to open up the debate about creating education policy that can change the future educational opportunities for all.

Maybe this interview between Meeri Kim and Dr Vivian Tseng offers us a chance to alter the relationship between policy makers and professionals. There is currently a deep divide in education reform between those who set the policy agenda and those responsible for its implementation. Too often, this results in changes that either bring too little benefit to the target group or actually produce harmful outcomes for too many. It is my hope, Roger, that EEF and The Sutton Trust get behind you in your drive to bring about the changes you are seeking.

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