PDT Special Issue - Unlocking learning potential: Feuerstein’s Legacy

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 In this special issue of Professional Development Today, Judy Silver and editor Graham Handscomb bring together contributions of leading experts from around the world in this commemorative issue to explore the work of Reuven Feuerstein and its transforming benefits for children, teachers and families.



Preface – Encountering Feuerstein


Feuerstein is both highly acclaimed and under-appreciated.  For many people he was one of our era’s greatest educational thinkers who has had an influence on developments in a wide range of fields, not least in teaching and learning and transforming aspirations for children. Certainly for this publishing house his influence has been pivotal, providing the inspiration behind the launch of the original magazines in the Imaginative Minds stable. Nevertheless it is also the case that Feuerstein remains undiscovered by many teachers and does not figure prominently in the outlook of some influential educationalists. This special issue of Professional Development Today aims to go some way to redressing this. In it Judy Silver and Graham Handscomb have assembled contributions from around the world to illustrate the richness of Feuerstein’s work, its wide range of application and the profound difference he has made to children.

The following reflection is very much a personal one and is intended to give a flavor of how Feuerstein’s contribution has made such a difference to my outlook and also to that of many others.  I had the great privilege to meet Feuerstein and to see him at work over an extended period of time.  My first encounter was on a journalistic expedition to Israel in 1984. I had been intrigued by his work being recommended as enormously important by the psychologist Andrew Sutton.  Sutton was an authority on Vygotsky and the Russian school of Psychology and he pointed out the links between Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the central concept of Dynamic Potential in Feuerstein’s work. I wanted to know more.

Feuerstein was wonderful to observe in action. He would introduce you to a child in his study and show you a psychologist’s report saying the child was either totally or virtually ‘uneducable’ – a term in common use in those days.

‘Utter nonsense’ he would contemptuously exclaim.  He would put the child at ease and then diagnose the child with his Learning Potential Assessment Device – conducted in a test –teach- test routine. In the teaching part he would show the child, what strategies they might use to solve problems and with a little instruction and practice the child would be able to give the sort of intellectual  performance that the psychologist’s report on the desk had judged not to be possible.  It was really quite shocking.

Feuerstein’s pioneering work disrupted and challenged much conventional thinking and has left its mark on many educational developments with which teachers will be familiar. So, for instance, he was, along with the founder of Philosophy For Children, Mathew Lipman, the main driving force behind a dramatic re-orientation in the practice and purpose of teaching. Most teachers today would know it as Thinking Skills Movement and would have been touched by it in some way.

Feuerstein had been in the forefront, from the 1950’s onwards, of disputing the nature of intelligence as being a fixed genetic endowment, measurable by the dismal science of psychometrics.  By the 1970’s this static notion of children’s ability and potential had been challenged enough in the UK to question the 11 plus examination and to auger in the era of Comprehensivisation. Feuerstein’s theories not only promoted the big idea that children had potential unrecognized by the fixed endowment notions of intelligence but, more importantly, showed practical ways in which this could be demonstrated and  altered.

As the articles that follow show Feuerstein theories made a seminal contribution to our understanding, in very concrete ways, of the process by which deprivation and its consequences, in terms of cultural impoverishment, could adversely affect parents’ ability to transmit cultural knowledge – i.e. how to learn to live successfully within your environment, from one generation to another.  His work in this field had fundamental implications for our wider understanding of community and society, and the educational process within this context. So in gaining an understanding in detail of how learning skills were passed on you could analyse what skills are missing and then can diagnose and instrumentally remediate them.  Effective cultural transmission of knowledge and skills to the next generation could be observed in the way successful parents brought up their children – and these processes could be copied, systematized and honed to create an effective clinical and classroom practice.

This was liberating stuff! The theory of cultural transmission of learning skills (Feuerstein’s Mediation) explains so much. It shows why poverty affects some cultures so much more than others and, more controversially, suggests that some cultures are more successful in resisting adversity and more effective in passing learning skills on than others.

Equally inspiring and challenging has been the way in which Feuerstein transformed expectations of what children with special needs can achieve. With a trained  instructor the children would be able to move quite easily form one of the Instrumental Enrichment tasks  in his programme and bridge to the most high level conceptual and philosophical discussion.

Any cognitive or sensory or affective barriers to learning were, as far Feuerstein was concerned, to be attacked ruthlessly and unsentimentally. However, he always ensured that he  explained his diagnosis of a child’s learning  problems , if not their cause, to the child themselves, in order to enlist them in often very hard, very prolonged work he would expect of them. In the case of children with Down’s syndrome, Feuerstein would delight in removing them from the disabling and stifling control of their caring professionals and would place them in classes with tough regimes that would make them work and think for hours on end. He achieved some remarkable results and parents would send their children from all over the world to his clinic. The real issue was not to accept the children for what they were but to challenge them to change – with help from professionals. One of his most popular books is titled: If you love me, don’t accept me as I am.

At a time when educational psychologists are in short supply teachers could use Feuerstein’s diagnostic tools to understand and help children with learning blocks.  They could also advise parents of strategies that could help their children develop the skills they need to successfully cope with school and prosper in life.  Perhaps most importantly, they could use his theories of mediation, cognitive modifiability and cultural deprivation to become better teachers. Feuerstein explains what it is that teachers do that has an effect, and why? It theorizes the process of teaching at a deeper level than anything else, because it also theorizes under what circumstances children will learn and links the two together in the role of mediator.

Hopefully, this special edition will help sustain Feuerstein’s ideas for the teaching and therapeutic professions and, even more importantly, for the children they are there to serve.

Howard Sharron
Managing Director
Imaginative Minds Ltd

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