Cognitive Acceleration

Please note: this guide was written before the 2014 National Curriculum and some of the advice may no longer be relevant.
For more up-to-date guidance see:

Cognitive Acceleration in History Education (CACHE): a learning theory

by Jon Nichol

What is CACHE about? It is about interactive, exciting teaching which stimulates and develops children's thinking, and which both teachers and pupils enjoy. It is an enrichment approach embodying intelligence-in-action.

The teaching of all children reflects our beliefs about how they learn and mentally develop. What learning theories does cognitive acceleration draw upon?

Cognitive Acceleration: a learning theory

Cognitive Acceleration in Science Education (CASE) emerged in the early 1990s and reported impressive gains in pupils' learning (Shayer and Adey, 2002). CASE has six principles; CACHE has adopted these six principles and added two more: Teacher Mediation and Mastery Learning. See below.

Cognitive Acceleration is a teaching intervention strategy which aims to have a long-term impact upon improving pupil learning. It is largely based upon the work of two developmental psychologists, Piaget and Vygotsky, and on the work of Bloom. Piaget researched into how children's mental tools - their schema - develop; Vygotsky's focus was on social learning and language; while Bloom developed the theory of Mastery Learning

Cognitive Acceleration theory argues that we have a single, general cognitive processor that underpins our cognitive development. Factors affecting the development of the general cognitive processor are as follows.

1. Schema

Cognitive development involves the production of schema which develop in response to environmental stimuli. Schema are the ‘tools' that underpin our thinking and provide us with a mental toolkit. Concept maps and writing frames are schema.


2. Concrete preparation

The pupils need to know: the context or situation; the vocabulary they need to think and talk about it; the procedures they can follow; and the skills and concepts that they will use and develop in their schema. Learning has to build upon secure, established foundations.


3. Cognitive conflict

The mind develops in response to challenge - so you should continually face the children with challenges or problems to solve. Problems are best solved in collaboration with others. This leads to the next factor: social learning.


4. Social learning

Pupils have to solve problems through working with other pupils. Social learning depends upon a socially cohesive, non-threatening, supportive, and co-operative environment. Here there is freedom to discuss, debate and to work together as a pair, group or team - with or without teacher support.

Such teamwork has to have clear goals, rules and regulations. Central to co-operative learning is the idea that children have complementary roles, all of which are needed to solve the problem. In this way they can move towards a common solution beyond their individual capacities, thus solving the problem as a group.


5. Metacognition

Pupils should develop the ability to think-about-thinking. To be metacognitive, the children need to have both the vocabulary and the training to think metacognitively. It is what I think we now call ‘reflection', to be able to articulate, rationalise and analyse what problem-solving involves, and to think explicitly how the ideas can be applied in the future.


6. Bridging

Pupils should be able to transfer and apply their newly-developed problem-solving skills both within history, and across a range of other subjects and situations. This means transferability: the ‘new thought processes must be made available across a wide range of contexts' (Shayer and Adey, 2002).


7. Teacher mediation

The teacher provides information, suggestions, structures, scaffolds and supports at each stage of the problem-solving. The teacher works closely and continually with the pupils to support the learning, providing training in skills and procedures as and when necessary. This is guided learning. The teacher's role is central and constant.


8. Mastery Learning

Children's engagement on any task should last as long as it takes for them to master that task. While Bloom's idea at one level is laughably obvious and simple, it is a very, very profound idea in practice.

Cognitive acceleration in practice

In CACHE, we build our teaching around Nuffield Key Primary History Principles, and cognitive acceleration theory.
CACHE underpins the Missing Cake Mystery at both KS1 and KS2.


Shayer, M and Adey, P (2002) Learning Intelligence, Open University

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