Professor Reuven Feuerstein: My mission is to those who need me most, who need the bread and butter of education – not those who want an aperitif, or a cigar after dinner.Lisandra Gawad of Moor Park, California was a golden girl – an honor student, a leader and a talented musician and dancer – then she contracted viral encephalitis. She was left with severe brain trauma, deep amnesia, and profound loss of cognitive function.
The prognosis was bleak. Her physicians and therapists concluded that she would never recover completely, and that she should be taught self-help skills to give her a measure of independence. Dr. Carol Genrich, Professor Emeritus at California Lutheran University, disagreed with this assessment. She treated Lisandra according to the unique methods of Israeli educational psychologist Professor Reuven Feurstein
“As I continued to be mediated – my fragments of memory and emotions became more and more coherent. My mediators were literally rebuilding my neuro-pathways,” Lisandra told ISRAEL21c about her months of painstaking treatment. “I was not only relearning, I was remembering life experiences we thought were forever lost.”
So complete was her recovery that she was able to graduate high school together with her class. Lisandra is now married, has two children and lives a life far different from the limited existence envisaged by the original evaluation. And she is training to be a practitioner of the methods that “restored her life” to her.
Feuerstein’s internationally known approach to education grew out of his experience with young Holocaust survivors who were labeled ‘retarded’ and ‘uneducable’ when they landed in the fledgling state of Israel. His teaching method, the ‘Mediated Learning Experience’ (MLE), is applicable to people of all ages, and is a powerful therapy for those suffering from mental and physical deficiencies and cultural deprivation.
There are several Reuven Feuersteins. One is the renowned educator and psychologist. Another is the grandfatherly figure who makes instant rapport with the eighteen-month old Down syndrome baby sitting on the corner of his desk. Over all towers the Old Testament prophet with the ample grey beard and penetrating gaze, who proclaims his faith – intelligence can be changed, everyone has the ability to learn, no one is ineducable, and most important, there is always hope.
Feuerstein refuses to accept that negative factors, such as cultural deprivation or physical handicaps such as low IQ, deafness or brain damage, impose an absolute limit on a person’s intellectual horizon.
“We have shown that these (handicapped) people can be meaningfully helped. Not just to turn them to some sort of consumers of life but rather into contributing members of society – as parents, as workers.”
MLE rests on two basic concepts – modifiability and mediation. Modifiability embodies the belief that cognitive ability can be changed; hence, a person’s potential is determined by his mind’s amenability to change. However, he can only undergo significant changes if he has a guide – a mediator – to identify the barriers that obstruct his response to information and other stimuli, and to help him circumvent them.
Normally, parents, siblings and teachers act as mediators. Children that lack a supportive home environment, or suffer from physical or socio-economic handicaps need a trained specialist.
Feuerstein developed two educational tools to translate these basic concepts into practice.
The first, LPAD (Learning Potential Assessment Device), determines an individual’s learning potential, rather than classifying him according to a fixed measure of intelligence. It searches for the positive as it aims to define what he can do, his ‘islands of normalcy’ as a starting point for a learning teaching program.
The second of the tools, IE (Instrumental Enrichment) is a series of pen-and-paper exercises designed to improve cognition and overcome obstacles, whatever their origin, to the thinking process. For handicapped or culturally deprived people, IE is a remediation program: for others, it is a tool for improving thinking skills.
MLE is practiced in sixty-nine countries. In the United States seven institutions are authorized to provide training in the method. It is used in a wide variety of settings, from private clinics for the more affluent and mainstream schools through supplemental and special education classes, to therapy for those with physical or mental deficiencies.
“My mission is to those who need me most, who need the bread and butter of education – not those who want an aperitif, or a cigar after dinner. And the masses of youth in the inner cities have that need,” said Feurstein referring to his work in the U.S.
Accordingly, he ensured that IE was approved for use in Federally funded programs, such as ‘Leave No Child Behind,’ for bolstering students from low-achieving schools.
An important feature of IE is its power to change the student’s attitude to learning; and increase his self-confidence. The experience of Dr. Gwen Gibson of the Chicago-based Institute for Cognitive Literacy illustrates the point. As part of a supplemental education program in inner city Chicago,. Gibson introduced IE to two of the lowest performing elementary schools in one of the poorest areas of the city.
Despite their teachers’ doubts, the students became so enthusiastic that they asked that their siblings, and then their parents and be allowed to attend the lessons. When these relatives caught the mood and demanded that they be allowed to participate, Gibson opened a monthly class for all who wished to take part. So popular were these Saturday meetings, that she was forced to increase the frequency to fortnightly and then to weekly.
The participants found that the lessons of IE are applicable in daily life. They began using the problem-solving skills IE teaches to address common concerns – how to get the trash picked up, how to deal with noise in the buildings, and so on. The IE class had become a community family advancement program, focusing on problems in the daily life of the community.
Deaf children suffer from specific cognitive difficulties as a result of their deficient hearing. For example, they have difficulty with verbal communication and with the concept of the past and the future, because they rely so heavily on visual inputs. MLE has had notable success in combating these problems in several schools for the deaf.
At New York’s Lexington School for the Deaf, IE is taught as a separate subject in grades 4 to 8, and also influences the teaching of curriculum subjects. Dr. Janice Berchin-Weiss, who heads Lexington’s Mediated Learning Institute, is palpably enthusiastic.
“The IE curriculum is just incredible. The more you use it the more you realize how well designed it is… it really allows you to develop cognition, real thinking ability,” she told ISRAEL21C.
And there is good reason for her enthusiasm. Lexington’s pupils outperform other deaf children in standardised achievement tests. Thus, their reading comprehension improves at three times and their math at twice the national average rate for deaf students.
Like their colleagues in Israel, cognitive rehabilitation therapists in the U.S. are using MLE with success in the treatment of the brain traumas caused by road accidents, strokes, and disease. Stan Adams of Pensacola, Florida and Lynne Williams of Westlake Village, California, are making tentative attempts to apply it to Altzheimers disease.
Williams attended an elderly woman, T. in an Altzheimers end stage facility. “T. had lost all cognitive awareness and all sense of direction and time. She could not even make her mind think. We had to stimulate her and help her to learn how to think,” said Williams.
After many months of one-on-one IE sessions, T. regained her self-awareness and ability to reason and plan. She is now able to express herself articulately, and hold a logical conversation. She enjoys small-talk, lunching out and shopping. Recently, she left the care-and-board facility and returned to her family. Williams downplays the significance of the achievement. She says that her approach to T. took little notice of the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
“In line with Feuerstein’s thinking, I relate to the condition as I find it, not how it came about,” she said. Since T.’s behavior resembled that of patients who “I treated [her] similarly to the clients who had suffered a stroke or bleed or other brain injury.”
Despite the fact that MLE is helping American children on the fringes of society, Feuerstein is not satisfied: he is still driven by the thought of the many children he has not yet managed to reach.