Children’s Experiences of Learning Autonomy in Cognitive Acceleration (“Let’s Think”) in Maths Lessons

Luke Rolls, a primary school teacher and mathematics subject leader, investigated children’s experiences of the Cognitive Acceleration in Maths programme to evaluate what potential it had for developing the elusive concept of learning autonomy.  His research was conducted with a year four maths class in an outer-London school in an area of socio-economic disadvantage, using ‘Let’s Think’ as a means of developing problem-solving and conceptual approaches to learning mathematics, to counter cognitively-passive, procedurally-focussed lessons. The study researched pupils’ responses to the lessons and wider views they held about modes of teacher instruction and learning, and found evidence to support the contention that the teaching approach adopted promoted pupil autonomy—notwithstanding contextual factors such as the impact of classroom ethos and the effect of thinking skills.


DSC01760Cognitive Acceleration has been a pedagogical intervention of interest for many educators over the last thirty years or so in light of evidence to suggest that the approach can raise achievement as measured by both curriculum attainment measures and Piagetian development tasks. Whilst invaluable goals, these appear to have masked somewhat the complementary potential Cognitive Accelleration reportedly has for developing learning autonomy in pupils (James et al., 2007), a possibility this study sought to evaluate. The intervention, more recently known as ‘Let’s Think’, is of wider interest in its position as a ‘constructive critique of normal instruction’ (Shayer & Adhami, 2007), advocating a constructivist teaching model that uses ‘cognitive conflict’, ‘social construction’, ‘bridging’ and ‘metacognition’ as defining pillars.

DSC01745Qualitative data was collected over a period of six months whilst children engaged fortnightly in the ‘Let’s Think’ ‘thinking lessons’ and as the practitioner-researcher, I received the training of the ‘Let’s Think’ professional development programme. This meant that the content, structure and teacher-positioning in taught lessons shifted from common conventions of learning objectives, success criteria, and task-based differentiation, towards a role of orchestration on the part of the teacher, social construction for pupils and intriguingly, ‘differentiation by time’. Trends from the data showed that a majority of children showed a preference for the types of active and social learning contexts presented in ‘Let’s Think’ lessons in comparison with traditional teacher-led instruction. Many children used dialogic opportunities to debate ideas that arose from the presented ‘cognitive conflict’, and it was this combination of reasoning with broached ‘states of perplexity’ that appeared to associate with metacognitive-type thinking in students. Before targeted concept-attainment was reached towards the end of a lesson episode, an opportunity was invariably given for multiple representations and solutions from students around the task; a method that seemed to closely resonate with that of ‘productive failure’ (Kapur & Rimmel, 2011).

Over the course of the study, the developmentally challenging tasks of ‘Let’s Think’ seemed to serve well as stimuli and obstacles for which deeper reasoning, conjecture and reflection could take place.These in turn worked to promote co-operative learning as a mode of problem solving, autonomy of choice for students, and dialogic styles of learning as a means of refining ideas. Ultimately however, any subject-content learning was heavily dependent on implicit non-cognitive ‘learning how to learn’ skills. For the children, these represented the tools that they could use to gain specific conceptual understanding and wider connections in their thinking. In order to do so, it became evident that pupils had to realise the importance of group reciprocity and interdependence, engage in co-operative and magnanimous interactions, and personally adopt an openness towards new information that could contradict held ideas. While ‘Let’s Think’ lessons had many such aspects that associated positively with the concept of learning autonomy, these were not easily be untangled from the environment in which they were introduced.

As recognised by Cognitive Acceleration advocates, the mediatory context of the classroom—the individual pupil, the developing ethos and the skill of the teacher—all appear to have a pivotal influence on the effectiveness of the ‘Let’s Think’ pedagogy as promoting autonomy. With acknowledgement of this challenge, Cognitive Acceleration does appear to represent a pedagogical approach with real potential as a mode of instruction that encompasses a focus on the role of meta-learning skills.

SONY DSCAs children grow older, learner autonomy becomes about more than school: autonomous learners have the potential to contribute to critical and shaping interactions with their socio-political context (Ecclestone, 2002). In all the rhetoric around raising achievement in schools, it seems reasonable that we might consider such longer-term aims not as an alternative, but as a complement to the role of educators. In these terms, simplistically evaluating interventions in terms of their effect sizes seems to be somewhat limited. Rather, questions might perhaps arise around what the contextualised impact of the approaches we implement are, and how these challenges are faced. It is questionable whether the notion of learning autonomy is valued by our current education system in itself as an unmeasured outcome, and whether useful approaches such as ‘Let’s Think’, are critically evaluated in terms of their potential for developing non-cognitive skills. I conclude by arguing that it is only with such an intention of developing autonomous and socially-equipped lifelong learners in mind that as educators, we can start to make claim to ‘preparing our students for a world we cannot possibly imagine’ (Wiliam, 2011).

You can read Luke’s full dissertation here: Students, Learning Autonomy and Cognitive Acceleration in Maths


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