EEF science recommendations apply far beyond science

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published a seven part guide to improving secondary science teaching.

It is excellent, and draws heavily from Shayer and Adey’s Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE).

I will concentrate my comments on the first part from the EEF guidance (in italics) because it is so counter intuitive. The six sections that follow are also sound, but are likely to be more familiar.

PART 1 Preconceptions: build on the ideas that pupils bring to lessons

Pupils construct their own explanations for phenomena and these ideas may differ from scientific explanations.

Cognitive conflict is an effective way of moving on pupils’ thinking, helping them to reconstruct their existing ideas

Misconceptions can be difficult to shift, but doing so can lead to big gains in learning, particularly for threshold concepts.

Cognitive conflict is at the core of the CASE approach. It is counter-intuitive because it discomforts the learner and the resulting dissonance, if not skilfully handled, can result in alienation and rejection of the entire subject and its teacher. A re-adjustment of the learning culture of the whole school, not just the science department, may be required if the potential gains are to be maximised.

The creation and encouragement  of cognitive conflict involves the selective substitution of  ‘small steps’, ‘practising’, ‘memorising’ and ‘revision’ based approaches, by the ‘mistakes-making’, ‘metacognitive’ and ‘social learning’ approaches needed for cognitive development. This is discussed here.

It is significant that the former ‘small steps’ approaches are often associated with the term ‘skills’ and this too can cause confusion that I discuss in this article.

While scientific concepts are often complex and cognitively challenging, the vital initial barrier for the learner is often that of a subconscious  ‘personal belief’. Newtonian dynamics abounds in examples. A footballer ‘feels’ that ‘impetus’ is being imparted to the ball when it is kicked. That fact that the ball may subsequently slow down seems ‘natural’ on account of the ‘fading’ of this impetus. The footballer may even have the skill to  impart ‘curvature impetus’ in order to ‘bend it like Beckham’. These deeply held beliefs in ‘agency’ may be very hard to shift and may seriously inhibit the understanding of the true links between force, energy and motion set out in Newton’s 1st Law of Motion.

The following is extracted from ‘A Taxonomy of Misconceptions‘ by by David Hestenes, Malcolm Wells, and Gregg Swackhamer.

The term ‘impetus’ dates back to pre-Galilean times before the concept was discredited scientifically. Of course, students never use the word ‘impetus – they might use any of a number of terms, but ‘force’ is perhaps the most common. Impetus is conceived to be an inanimate ‘motive power’or ‘intrinsic force’ that keeps things moving. This, of course, contradicts Newton’s First Law. Evidence that a student believes in some kind of impetus is therefore evidence that the First Law is not understood [my bold].

The ‘linear air track’ is an essential piece of science kit that fascinates pupils in demonstrating that moving objects ‘do not slow down’ of their own accord. This First Law is the threshold concept for accessing a huge chunk of inter-related physics. (An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.) Newton’s 2nd and 3rd Laws are more intuitively ‘believable’.

The necessary understanding cannot be ‘taught’ at all – it must ’emerge’ in an individual, personal, cognitive breakthrough – a ‘Eureka’ moment that is immensely satisfying and pleasurable. Well taught science students should be experiencing more ‘Eureka’ type pleasure than they do cognitive dissonance, while also coming to realise that the former is still usually preceded by plenty of the latter: no cognitive pain – no cognitive gain. The gain/pain ratio can be effectively mediated through co-operative ‘social learning’. The Nobel science laureate Richard Feynman described this process as ‘the pleasure of finding things out‘.

Parts 2-7 of the EEF guide provide more excellent discussion and suggestions for how teachers can help their students attain their own Feynman and Archimedes type ‘Eureka’ moments.

I now come to my criticism of the EEF publication. It is not that there is anything wrong with it – quite the reverse. But the seven points don’t just apply to science. The links to maths are obvious, but also to the rest of the curriculum including the arts and the humanities. For example, Chapter 8 of ‘Learning Intelligence’ edited by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey is entitled, ‘Creating a CA programme in the Arts: the Wigan LEA Arts project’.

Moreover, there are interventions praised in the EEF toolkit that are not subject specific that find their way into the Science Teaching Recommendations, for example, Collaborative learning, Metacognition and Self Regulation.

I suspect that EEF is itself becoming aware of the limitations of the ‘Toolkit’. On 26 April 2018, EEF published its seven part guide to metacognition, which is also excellent.

In my view the problem with the ‘Tookit’ is the ‘scoring’ of the interventions in terms of ‘extra months of progress achieved’. We are back within the ‘skills’ paradigm, where any progress is expected to be gradual and steady. But such progress can be permanently blocked as a result of subconscious personal belief trumping any amount of ‘telling and explaining’ by the teacher and ‘listening and practising’ by the learner. The personal cognitive breakthroughs achievable by the skilled mediation of cognitive dissonance by an expert teacher can overcome cognitive barriers that can otherwise block floods of understanding measured in the years of ‘not getting’ maths and science so often boasted about by the non-scientific component of C P Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’, that still dominates journalism, literature and the arts.

Having spent a large part of my teaching career at The Bosworth College, close to the Bosworth Battlefield in Leicestershire, for me one of the most astounding examples of a cognitive breakthough resulting from decades of metacognition, cognitive conflict, debate and the joy of confirmation through experimentation/excavation, has to be the finding of the body of Richard III under a car park in the City of Leicester. This astonishing event, which it has to be admitted also involved a huge amount of luck, has released a flood of new understanding of that critical period of English history that has in turn ignited further debate amongst Shakespearian scholars, not to mention fierce controversy over whether ‘Richard of York’ should have been interred in York rather than Leicester.

I am not knocking the parallel slow and steady acquisition of skills through example and practise across the full range of a broad and balanced secondary school curriculum. This is also obviously important for scientists, where practical experimental skills are usually essential.

The point I am trying to make in this article is that the teaching methods for deep understanding recommended for science teaching by EEF, are as powerful in history and archaeology as they are in physics and in all cognitively challenging subjects, as repeatedly demonstrated during the research careers of Professors Michael Shayer, Philip Adey and others in the Cognitive Acceleration movement.

It is a pity that EEF does not appear to have recognised this.

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