All posts by Alex Black

Evidence for social constructivist pedagogy

Steven Cooke @SteveTeachPhys and I started a discussion after he tweeted 

“Some interesting blogs from Alex here, a constructivist antidote to the CLT that normally fills my timeline!”

Extracts of our discussion

“Hi Steven what do you mean by CLT. Piaget and Vygotsky got a lot of bad rap by being falsely appropriated by wishy washy stuff. Concluding that teacher led is bad because nonsense etc etc. Let’s Think (CASE and CAME as teacher led interventions have about the soundest evidence base as anything in education and they are through and through Piaget Vygotsky)”

“The failure of Let’s Think Science’s EEF trial rather dented CASE’s credentials don’t you think?”

“No but that this is a very long story of bad EEF design. Far and long transfer ignored as outcomes, control of Treatment compared to control lack of training etc etc”

“This needs to be an open discussion about whether RCT is the only way anyway”

“Yeah but the pre existing evidence was mostly generated by the original authors, failure to replicate – Popper would have us walk away”

“I think that there is a huge amount of evidence compared to EEF. As a follower of Philosophy of Science I would tip Kuhn over Popper lets get discussing.”


Is this replication or not? Original Authors or not?

Mary Oliver in Thinking Science Australia

In Chinese primary schools Philip  Adey and Weiping Hu developed a Learn to think curriculum they found far and long transfer in Maths and Chinese.

In Finland  Hautamäki, Kuusela and  Wikström (2002)  in one of the first Randomised Controlled Trials  ever done in Education, found large gains in Maths and Science.

Then there is all the CAME data especially in primary schools in Hammersmith, Fulham and Bournemouth U.K. Shayer and Adhami (20110), Ireland McCormack (2009),  Pakistan Iqbal and Shayer (2000) , Israel and in Tonga Finau et al (2016)  also replicated.


Finau, Teukava & Treagust, David & Won, Mihye & L. Chandrasegaran, A. (2016). Effects of a Mathematics Cognitive Acceleration Program on Student Achievement and Motivation. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education. . 10.1007/s10763-016-9763-5. 

Hautamäki, J., Kuusela, J., & Wikström, J. (2002). CASE and CAME in Finland: “The second wave”. Paper presented at 10th International Conference on thinking. Harrogate.

Hu, W., Adey, P., Jia, X., Liu, J., Zhang, L., Li, J., Dong, X., (2011)  Effects of a “Learn to Think” intervention programme on primary school students: Effects of “Learn to Think” intervention programme. British Journal of Educational Psychology 81, 531–557. doi:10.1348/2044-8279.002007

Iqbal,H and  Shayer, M (2000) Accelerating the Development of Formal Thinking in Pakistan Secondary School Students: Achievement Effects and Professional Development Issues

McCormack, Lorraine (2009) Cognitive acceleration across the primary-second level transition. PhD thesis, Dublin City University.

Shayer,M and Adhami,M (2010)Realising the cognitive potential of Children 5 to 7 with a mathematics focus:Effects of a two-year intervention, Piaget is dead, Vygotsky is still alive, or? Finnish Educational Research Associaition, Helsinki

The nature of School Science Knowledge

Some of the discussion going on in twitter started by Adam Boxer @adamboxer1 and Rosalind Walker @Rosalindphys and her very interesting blog at

The nature of school science knowledge…

Reminded me of research I did in Physics education 25 years ago on the nature of school science and how it effects learning of Ohm’s Law and its applications. Thomas Kuhn and his discussion of  f=ma as a law sketch in his  Structure of Scientific revolutions was a major influence on me then as it still is . What especially reminded me was the way Kuhn discusses how a student comes to understand the law sketch and its application with what Rosalind would call “shed loads of practice” of application in different problem situations. I also thought that this would be  hugely complimented by what Neil Phillipson @Phillipson70 and Rupert Weegerif explain in Dialogical Education. I think School Science can recreate the essential elements of what Kuhn calls “a group licensed tried and tested way of knowing”.

Knowledge and how best to teach it

I was reminded of the absolute need for us to make clear the connections and distinctions between ideas by a recent post written by Neil Phillipson

The very clear distinction between what is to be learned and how best to learn it is one of the most important things we all must get clear.

I must declare my biases that the book Dialogic Education: Mastering core concepts through thinking togetherNeil and Rupert Wegerif wrote has influenced my thinking enormously in the last weeks. Also as a Science and Theory of Knowledge teacher I am obviously drawn in this direction.

Neil makes very clear that if Knowledge is dialogical, as generally claimed by influential Philosophers such as Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos etc then dialogical education might well be a good idea to deliver an understanding of this knowledge. However, this reminds me of many discussion about constructivism as an understanding of how knowledge is created and how it should be taught. For some constructivism has become a dirty word associated with discovery learning and many other things. I think Neill has put forward the idea that dialogue has led to the best that has been produced so far and there are different pedagogical routes to learn this but to really grasp this knowledge that some form of involvement in dialogue will be needed. I always thought the same that social constructivist methods would be the best ways of supporting learning as individual constructivism was never a viable option given the extensive literature about the development of misconceptions in many conceptual domains.

Concreteness fading

I would like to thank Blake Harvard @effortfuleduktr who discusses the concept of concreteness fading where he explains and quotes how
“Dr. Kuepper-Tetzel provided some information that took my understanding of concrete examples to another level.  She explained:”
“The crucial point about concrete examples is that you need to make sure that you carefully transition to more abstract ideas…this is called concreteness fading. Don’t get stuck with concrete examples only.”

This reminded me of a big break through moment for all of our teachers during our Let’s Think in English training by Michael Walsh @mikefnw75.  It was after a lesson observation where Michael led a discussion about teacher mediation. He made us aware of the difference between discussing and thinking around issues raised in the text that was used as the stimulus for the lesson. Then he showed us how we could move up a meta-level to the reasoning that was taking place. This move is exactly the idea of concreteness fading into the metacognition and bridging phases of the LT methodology.
Thanks Blake for extending my awareness how the multiplicity of ways in which this move can be applied.

Finding your own voice through dialogue

James Wertsch (1993), who is claimed to have brought Vygotsky back into western academic  discourse, puts forward the idea that people find their own voice when they “appropriate” the voices of others.

Here Wertsch is using the idea of “appropriation” in a very different sense than having. If we look at the idea of ideas and concepts as socio-cultural tools then the use of these tools is more important than the having of them. This was a breakthrough moment for me in understanding what knowledge and concept acquisition means when teaching students, especially through dialogue as outline by Phillipson and Wegerif (2017 p. 7)

“Dialogic education involves teaching children how to ask questions, think critically and explore a range of different ways of seeing things. It is possible that all of this could be interpreted as offering a model of how to be a successful student. That is true, but in addition, beyond this socialisation function, dialogic education is about opening up a space of possibilities within which and out of which children are able to articulate their own unique response and so find their own unique voice.

Teachers have a crucial role in teaching children about the dialogue so far, about what we think we know in science, mathematics, history, the arts and so on. But children cannot join the dialogue as passive recipients of all this information. To join the dialogue, to really understand core concepts in curriculum areas for example, they need to be active and engaged and ask questions and think for themselves. So as well as teaching children about the dialogue so far we also need to teach in a way that enables each child to find his or her own voice within this ongoing dialogue.”

I thought that when teaching Let’s Think lessons in English and Science that as the aim of these lessons is to develop thinking (reasoning patterns or Piagetian schemas) not teach concepts directly then only enough knowledge and concepts are needed to do the reasoning. I believed that  the concrete preparation phase  would allow the  self contained knowledge to be available to all students. This would allow them to proceed into the cognitive conflict and social construction phases . They would all have a common focus within which each could contribute and refine their own voice.

This clarity probably explains why Let’s Think (CASE AND  CAME) have been so effective.

However I have been trying to develop lessons along these 5 principles of cognitive acceleration over the last 20 years to teach the content and concepts of the normal curriculum. Teaching thinking schemas indirectly through the pedagogy of Let’s Think is made much more complex when trying to use it to teach content and concepts.

Now I know why my classes spent so much more time on discussion and dialogue as I had initially  planned. Students do not really possess a concept until they can use it in a very wide and diverse way. I had always known from the constructivist misconceptions literature that scientific concepts have been “appropriated” in very different ways. This is well known with concepts such as force, energy, light and vision etc. Students saying the same things did not mean they had the same voice. Many will have appropriated energy for instance to mean something an object only has when it is moving. I do not want to retreat to the wooly “everyone is unique” and “learns in different ways” school of thought. Knowing that concept formation is very messy is not enough. I now know that I must get my  pedagogy coherently aligned with these competing aims between clarity about thinking and conept formation. My intuition is that the extended use of dialogical techniques plus the use of well designed phenomena/stimuli could reveal the answer.


Phillipson, N and Wegerif, R (2017). Dialogic Education: Mastering core concepts through thinking together. London and New York, Routledge

Wertsch, J.V  (1993) Voices of the Mind: Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA





Clarity of Concept formation as a key methodology of teaching through dialogue

Many concepts in education are often so vaguely formulated that they can be easily conflated. Phillipson and Wegerif (2017) claim that

“To understand any concept means to distinguish it from other concepts, and that requires holding different points of view together in thought, and contrasting them.”

This often leads to the lack of any need to have a dialogue with others as no cognitive conflict occurs and we agree on an unproductive surface level. “Science is all about inquiry so science  teaching should also help students in  inquiry.” Who would not agree?  However when we start to critically examine what inquiry, science and teaching mean then we must confront some conflicts.

The ideas of Neil Phillipson and Rupert Wegerif in their book Dialogic Education:

Mastering core concepts through thinking together gave  me many valuable insights into my own ideas and practice. I had thought that the methodology and practice of programmes such as C.A.S.E (now renamed as Let’s Think), Philosophy for Children and the conceptual change methods developed over decades by constructivists such as Rosalind Driver, Phil Scott, Ken Tobin, Peter Fensham,  Richard Gunstone could easily combined into a personal pedagogy.

Especially the principles put forward by Posner, Strike, Gerzog and Hewson in their Accomodation of a Scientific Conception:Towards a Theory of Conceptual Change  had been a major guide in my thinking as a teacher.

To briefly summarise their theory it states that Learners need to:

  • be aware of their own concepts
  • to become disssatisfied with their own ideas

And then be presented with

  • intelligible and
  • fruitful alternatives.

I had used these ideas and the 5 pillars of Cognitive acceleration and often found a tension which usually was based on an understanding of my own concept  of what I wanted to achieve as a teacher.

Did I actually want the students to explore the epistemic issue of how scientists knew or what they decided they knew (as a best explanation of the available data)

So an example in teaching enzymes in IB Biology,  I had to decide if my key goal was to explore that the lock and key model of enzyme activity  was very useful, but inferior in its  powers to the induced fit model to account for observations and explain the lowering of activation energy. I also had to ,for this discussion,  put the purely descriptive and declarative objectives to one side. This is a typical scenario in many science curricula. So a clear dialogue about what had to be” learned” and what had to be understood had to continually take place. I have tried to persuade many student s that both re-inforce each other and will help them in resonding to the command terms of the extended written response questions. Teaching to the test is here teaching for a good understanding of the nature of science.

Using these idea over many years has consistently reminded me of how massive an undertaking developing concepts is, especially taking in  the various accounts of how long conceptual development took in the history of scientific development.

So I took some of the ideas Neil Phillipson and Rupert Wegerif used to explore whether my own understanding of how Dialogical Education, Cognitive Acceleration, Conceptual change theory and Philosophy for Children was coherent and differentiated

I replaced force with inquiry pedagogy and tried to adress some of the claims in Dialogical Education.

“When we say that a child understands something, a concept like ‘force’, for example, we mean that they know how to use the word ‘force’ appropriately.3

So when a teacher says I am teaching students to inquire they may claim I am clear that this means they need some tools that will help them choose what is worth inquiring into and how they might plan how to do this. A dialogical opponent may ask “how did you guide them to what was worth inquiring into?”  If I have a strong concept of inquiry pedadagogy would I not ask this question myself?

“They can answer unexpected questions about force and forces that we ask them in different contexts, and they can apply the concept of force to problems in a range of situations

So given important educational goals such as learning fixed declarative goals e.g various “facts”, number systems, conventions and other symbolic systems, they will still be able to ask students to explore  why did we agree on these facts rather than others, what advantages do these systems have ? Again a dialogical understanding/opponent would ask how can this intellectual activity be explored without robbing the security of “factness”?

“Dialogue, or some form of question and answer, is essential to assessing mastery in the use of a concept. Dialogue is also essential to acquiring that mastery in the first place.”

Dialogue however is very demanding of self knowledge and demands a very good knowledge of the students one is engaging in dialogue. Interestingly it is the optimum method (regradless of the hard intellectual work involved) to achieve both.

Implication for teaching to the test

“If we want to teach children how to be better at thinking when they are faced by a challenge on their own, perhaps the challenge of an individual test, then, paradoxically, the best way to do this is to teach them how to be better at dialogues.”


3 Lemke, J. L. (1990). Talking Science: Language, Learning and Values. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Phillipson, N and Wegerif, R (2017). Dialogic Education: Mastering core concepts through thinking together. London and New York, Routledge

To target or not to target that is the question?

This video about combining Bloom and Vygotsky is a helpful set of ideas of how to create thinking lessons. The need for concrete preparation and social construction cycles at various stages of a lesson are well described.
To target or not to target that is the question?

Good thinking lessons often create a tension over whether to state clear learning objectives or targets at the start of a lesson or not. Sometimes we want these to be co constructed as the learning progresses. To make the targets too explicit at the start might well reduce the thinking challenges. This video about combining Bloom and Vygotsky is a helpful set of ideas of how to create thinking lessons and address this tension. The need for concrete preparation and social construction cycles at various stages of a lesson are well described.


Assessment conversations

A thought came to me after writing the last post about the positive effects that Furtak and Ruiz-Primo (2006) attributed to the idea of assessment conversations, especially using the ESRU model. Elicit, Student responds, Teacher Recognises and Teacher Uses the ideas in the response.

I thought that if this model is successful when teacher directed then there must be similar conversational models that would help student self and peer assessment. I have used LOL and OMG (inspired by youth textspeak) and also based on the SOLO taxonomy of Biggs.

LOL is List Order Link and OMG is Order Master Generalise. I use LOL consistently in my Diploma Biology classes and MYP sciences. Especially when students are preparing for self tests and summative tests. Firstly alone, then in pair work as a review of vocabulary, meaning and application. Then the more advanced conceptual understandings are self assessed using OMG. The ESRU model I thought could be modified in this way so student to student assessment conversations can be aided.

My idea is DRAW. Draw out Respond Add and Widen. So students working in a small group one student would use a stimulus like a diagram, graph, concept map, multi choice question, statements etc to Draw out the ideas of their partner(s), then they would hear and recognise the response and add to it and try to widen. Of course they can use LOL and OMG in any of the stages as a sub routine to structure thinking. These behaviours would obviously need to be trained and given as models by the teacher.
Codifying self and peer assesment conversations

Teacher led epistemic inquiry has the most effect

Epistemic inquiry involves exploring questions such as:

How do I know this? How strong is the evidence? How valid are alternative explanations? Why do we need several perspectives? etc etc

Furtak et al. (2009) explored the huge literature dealing with inquiry based learning. The codification of styles of inquiry into procedural, social, conceptual and epistemic.

They were also able to measure the degree of teacher mediation in this model. They found that teacher led inquiry where the epistemic facet was stressed had the most positive effects on student learning.

“The purpose of this meta-analysis was to determine the impact of variations of inquiry-based teaching and learning on student achievement in experimental and quasi-experimental studies published in the ten years following release of the National Science Education Standards (1996). The study presented a new four-faceted model for inquiry and applied it to the sample of studies identified for inclusion in this meta-analysis. Results of the meta-analysis indicate the studies meeting the stringent inclusion criteria had a mean effect size larger than those previously reported. Furthermore, the subset of studies that emphasized epistemic facets of inquiry had higher effect sizes, and studies with a longer duration had a larger positive effect on student learning.

An example of looking for and codifying expert practice at a very micro level was explored by Furtak and Ruiz-Primo (2006).

“ Can different levels of informal assessment practices be related to levels of student learning? This study addresses these issues by exploring how 4 middle school science teachers used questions as a method of informal formative assessment, and compares those practices to measures of student learning. The approach to exploring each teacher’s questioning practices is based on viewing whole-class discussions as assessment conversations in which the teacher has the opportunity to draw out and act on students’ evolving understanding. Assessment conversations are described as consisting of four-step cycles, where the teacher elicits a question, the student responds, the teacher recognizes the student’s response, and then uses the information collected to further student learning. Our results indicate that the teachers whose enactment of informal formative assessment was more consistent with this model had students with higher performance on embedded assessments. This trend was also reflected in the posttest scores. In addition, we found that teachers focused more on epistemic, rather than conceptual, features of scientific inquiry in their discussions. The study underlines the importance of informal formative assessment during scientific inquiry discussions for teacher training and professional development as a way to increase student learning. We adopted the term assessment conversation to refer to these daily instructional dialogues that embed assessment into an activity already occurring in the classroom. In contrast to initiation–response–evaluation (IRE) sequences that involve the teacher initiating a query, the student responding, and the teacher evaluating the student’s contribution. …. assessment conversations permit teachers to gather information about the status of students’ conceptions, mental models, strategies, language use, or communication skills to guide instruction. “

References Furtak, E.M, Seidel, T, Iverson,H and Briggs, D (2009) RECENT EXPERIMENTAL STUDIES OF INQUIRY-BASED TEACHING: A META-ANALYSIS AND REVIEW, Paper Presented at the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction, August 25-29, 2009, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Furtak, E.M and Ruiz-Primo M.A (2006), Informal Formative Assessment and Scientific Inquiry: Exploring Teachers’ Practices and Student Learning EDUCATIONAL ASSESSMENT, 11 (3 & 4), 205–235