Science, maths and English results are said to be improved by between 10 and 20 per cent when teachers encourage pupils to think more deeply.
"Brain training" through science education in the first years of secondary leads to better exam performance two years later and is popular with pupils, advocates of cognitive acceleration claimed at a conference in Stirling.
Schools in Renfrewshire, Glasgow and South Lanarkshire are already experimenting with thinking skills approaches that have been pioneered in England over the past 10 years. Jim Podmore, principal teacher of biology at Castlehead High, Paisley, who has been using the methods for 18 months, said:
"This has enormous potential and it motivates children."
But he warned: "The workload is enormous. It takes a lot of organisation and preparation."
A study involving 4,500 pupils south of the border showed substantial improvements beyond the national average after pupils had taken part in brain training. Philip Adey, professor of cognition, science and education at King's College, London, said: "Some fundamental change has happened in their brains which makes them better learners."
Carolyn Yates, a researcher and consultant based in Castle Douglas, who organised the conference, the first of its kind in Scotland, said: "We are permanently helping children to restructure their thinking, to alter the way they process information in their brains and we do it through the vehicle of science education. But there is a maths project, some work in technology and geography. We have got a theory about how the brain works and we are trying it."
Ms Yates said lessons using CASE (cognitive acceleration through science education) last an hour and take place at most once a fortnight. "There is a careful structure to them and more importantly we have trained and developed teachers so that they are flexible with the material. If it became a recipe you would not have a thinking lesson any more," she explained.
Teachers use the materials for two years, in upper primary or early secondary, and benefits show through in S4 exams. But it was important teachers asked the right questions.
"Pupils are kind of set up. They go trundling along thinking they have got it cracked, playing around with things when suddenly they're hit with something they cannot reconcile unless they restructure the way they look at the problem," Ms Yates said.
Teachers and pupils had then to consider how they wove such thinking into other situations. "My experience is that children love it," Ms Yates said.
All Renfrewshire secondaries and one special school are involved.
Carolyn Yates can be contacted at 01556 503739.