Editor's Comment: Two great educationalists leave us

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 Creative Teaching and Learning, vol. 4.4

Professor Reuven Feuerstein and Professor Bob Burden, who were both very instrumental in establishing this journal and who had a huge impact on children’s education and welfare across the world, have sadly died in the past weeks.

Bob Burden is probably the better known to English teachers – something he would have found a little ironic. He considered Feuerstein the greatest of all contributors to education in the recent period and he constantly railed against his lack of recognition as lesser figures built their powerful learning empires on his unacknowledged ideas.

Bob would never have dreamed of such an offence. He had enormous integrity and commitment to children, and saw himself more as an academic activist than a great original thinker. Having discovered the ideas of Feuerstein, he tried tirelessly to get them embedded into the English education system under the rubric of thinking skills. He was an early member of the Department of Education and Science’s Thinking Skills Group in the 1980s and continued pressing Feuerstein’s insights into the way children learn, and fail to learn, through his articles and academic work.

After Bob and I met at one of Feuerstein’s training fortnights in Israel, a plan was hatched to create the journal that eventually became Creative Teaching and Learning and he was an active founder member of the board.

Bob made some important connections between Feuerstein’s ideas and the treatment of Dyslexia and as a result, the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) has since become a firm advocate of some of the key principles and intervention methodologies that Feuerstein proposed.

His research also included the development of the ‘Myself as a Learner Scale’ (MALS), designed to assess the self-concept of pupils in their roles as learners. Imaginative Minds are the proud publishers of MALS and Bob approved a new updated and extended age version shortly before he died.

MALS has literally gone round the world – it is used as widely in Mongolia as it is in the UK – and this ubiquity is a reflection of the power of this simple way of establishing some of the emotive blocks to learning, so that they can then be challenged. Bob’s book, ‘Dyslexia and Self-Concept’ (2005), is also regarded as a classic text.

As Head of the School of Education at the University of Exeter and then Emeritus Professor of Applied Educational Psychology, Bob set up the Thinking Schools movement – a system of accreditation for schools pursuing a serious thinking skills strategy.

Bob still had many projects underway when he died, not least of which was an adaptation of Feuerstein’s diagnostic tool to measure learning propensity, it was to be used in the classroom by ordinary teachers to uncover a child’s untapped potential and to isolate the missing elements that could release a higher order of cognitive functioning. He was also planning to write an article on the new MALS for CTL and the achievement of the Thinking Schools that had gained the award he had devised.

It is hard to know where to begin with the achievements of Reuven Feuerstein. Many of the ideas that teachers now take for granted – that intelligence is a set of improvable skills not a fixed hereditary endowment, that cognition is a structure and can be impaired, and repaired, if an element is missing, that the brain is plastic and can be modified by teaching and environments – all stem from him. He seeded the idea that learning dispositions are critical to higher-order thinking and academic, or indeed life, success, and showed how only certain types of interaction between children and adults, and children and other children, are critical to laying down cognitive structures.

Some of the insights, like the importance of oracy and dialogue in cognitive development, have been around since the time of Plato and Socrates but Feuerstein developed a theory of how and why they were so important.

He also theorised the role of parent and teacher in child development that went far beyond the stages theory of Piaget. This is His theory of Mediated Learning, like all great theories, it is devastatingly simple – even obvious to us now – and states that parents, siblings and teachers stand between the child and the incomprehensible world and, by filtering stimuli, shape the child’s world according to their cultural pre-dispositions.

In this way, Feuerstein could show how interaction with mediators, or the lack of it, could create small but important cognitive deficiencies and how whole cultures reproduced themselves.

We will be coming back to the importance of Feuerstein in later editions of this journal. He was in his nineties and his death is only sad in that a great mind and a great presence has passed from us. Bob’s death is more of a tragedy – he was relatively young and had much, much more to contribute.


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