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

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 journal, Learning 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 year, there 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 case. If 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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