All posts by Alex Black

Let’s Think, Retrieval Practice, Elaboration and Dialogue

My recent experiences in the classroom, reading research literature  and hearing other ideas  in the twitter environment has made me think a lot about how I should go about trying to link Let’s Think, Dialogical Education for concept development and the messages coming from the Learning Scientists

My goal is to get clear about how to use Concrete preparation combined with Retrieval Practice and immediately use metacognition discussions at the start and end of a Let’s Think or Dialogical Education style lesson. For clarification Let’s Think lessons have the immediate goal of cognitive acceleration: They are not teaching concept or content learning, whereas the ideas of Dialogic Education use the principles developed by Philosophy for Children, amongst other ideas,  in a subject based concept devleopment.

Quoting Dylan William in

“Frequent testing has an additional benefit, which is that successfully retrieving something from memory increases storage strength, and the harder something is to retrieve, the greater the increase in storage strength. The best time to do practice testing is just as students are beginning to forget things.”

The Learning Scientists have made accessible the efficacy of Retrieval practice and Elaboration as key learning factors. I am understanding “testing” in terms of individual silent oral or written recall then followed by groups combining this recall and elaborating on each others ideas. This needs strong teacher led guidlines . Testing will happen at many time during a lesson and this of course will help the focus on epistemic check points.

These may be epistemic dialogues such as :

OK what do we all agree on at this stage?

Why do I think this is the best inference to explain these observations?

What are are main open questions we have not agreed  on?

Do we agree that we disagree on why this happens?

Do we see there are two main theories about this?

I think this is where the concept of Epistmic Inquiry really has great efficacy.  This is where personal engagement and meaning really start to happen. However this does not mean we as Teachers are passive or only Guide on the side during the development and answering of these questions .

This group social construction will move into elaboration of the ideas covered so far again strongly teacher led. I am boring myself  and others maybe because many assume constructivism means something wishy washy. It is not and this is badly understood.

Social constructivism is strongly teacher led  and can combined many so called traditional teaching strategies.

For instance I can see also  many opportunities for dual coding in the bridging phases that LT suggest as a lesson flow. Group small whiteboard presentation, individual or group oral reporting back etc etc.

My overall  metacogniton questions are  about how to unify the vast insights that  Lipman, Piaget, Vygotsky, Mercer, Wegeriff and Phillipson  and the 6 principles that the Learning Scientists have given us. How do these suggest how they can be welded into lessons, units and curriculum structure that enhances all of the things we think we know about good learning?

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