Realizing Reuven Feuerstein’s Dream

The greatness of Reuven Feuerstein, clinical, developmental, and cognitive psychologist, known for his theory that intelligence is not fixed, lay in his recognition of the relevance of a child’s past, present, and future to that child’s academic success. A child may have had a rough start, but can still have a brilliant future. Feuerstein knew that—knew that all children are capable of learning, no matter where they are at the start. But Feuerstein is gone, having died at the ripe old age of 93. With Feuerstein now only a memory, who is left to believe that our children, all of them, can learn?

We are a society of labels: ADHD, dyslexia, math whiz, genius, slow, quick. It’s easier to deal with the label than to see through the externals to the strengths buried deep within the child, which might be called upon to advance learning to the next level. This was Feuerstein’s strength: seeing the strengths in the child, seeing the whole child, and defining the next goal in the learning process. It is up to us to keep Feuerstein’s legacy and important methodologies alive.

In the 1950’s, Feuerstein took part in research trials in which a number of academic tests were administered to immigrant children. Feuerstein questioned the poor results of these immigrant children on IQ tests and decided to mediate and intervene. As a result, the performance levels of the immigrant children rose.

There is a pervasive belief that IQ tests summarize a child’s unchangeable intelligence. This is, in fact, untrue. The IQ test was designed by Binet to determine how children enrolled in the Paris public school system were faring. Binet’s intention was that new educational programs would be created in response to the results of French schoolchildren taking the test. The very foundation for the IQ test’s conception was to demonstrate that education and review/practice could bring about fundamental changes to a child’s intellect.

Feuerstein Sensed The Future

Feuerstein recognized Binet’s true purpose in conceiving the IQ test. He knew that the “ability to learn” should be evaluated before measuring a child’s acquired knowledge and intellectual skills. Reuven Feuerstein was a man who could sense the future and who recognized the reality of brain plasticity before the phrase was known and popularized. Feuerstein was able to demonstrate to the world that social and cultural understanding is as important as our biological development.

Students learning in a second language are now common in schools, worldwide. What is the true learning potential of these children?

Reuven Feuerstein would know. He developed new teaching tools in which skills were linked to concepts that worked and had meaning. In this learning format a child could not only develop learning skills but think creatively about his learning, too.

Feuerstein wanted each child to have a fair chance during the evaluation period. In his own evaluations, he shifted the main emphasis so that an evaluation no longer offered a static, immovable summary of a child’s intelligence. By integrating cultural, social, and emotional intelligence, Feuerstein instead placed the emphasis on identifying the individual child’s strengths and weaknesses to demonstrate how that particular child can learn.

(Photo credit: The Mind Unleashed)
(Photo credit: The Mind Unleashed)
(Photo courtesy: Blindfold)
(photo credit: Blindfold)

With technology having taken hold of society, there are conflicting views and perceptions of how to view this up and coming generation. The debate centers on how children should learn and be evaluated. Will technology surpass human interaction in the classroom? Is there still room for socialization in our hi-tech world?

A popular meme. The quote is falsely attributed to Einstein but speaks to our fears of our current technological reality.
A popular meme. The quote is falsely attributed to Einstein but speaks to our fears of our current technological reality.

Socialization may be hampered by technology, but technology is undeniably necessary. Without technology, we would not have, for instance, the Pillcam (aka capsule endoscopy), now the gold standard for intestinal visualization. Without technology, we could not Skype with a grandmother many thousands of miles away.

Pill Cam

Should technology change our focus in the classroom? In today’s modern, technological world, should we focus on a child’s strengths or weaknesses or a combination of both? Many teachers choose to dedicate their professional lives to educating the next generation while other teachers talk about being boxed into an outdated and generalized rote curriculum. The typically structured lessons offers just enough time to cover concrete to abstract learning concepts without breaking down the picture, as much as is necessary for fully absorbing lessons.

If we want to enable students to learn for life rather than for a test, the topic must be divided into four levels: the concrete, the semi-concrete, the semi-abstract, and the abstract. Manipulatives—things that can be touched and moved—can be used to help the student master the first, concrete level of learning. Getting to the semi-concrete and semi-abstract levels is a bit harder these days, due to the ever present flow of images provided by computers. Exposure to constant images comes with the result that visual imagery is compromised in many students. Helping children to reach the semi-concrete and semi-abstract levels helps support their working memory by helping them to create “mind pictures.”

Incorporating pictorial representations into lessons, so as to absorb the semi-concrete and semi-abstract levels of learning, is effected by having students design, interpret, and read information in an organized format. Students can create drawings, graphs, diagrams, charts, and graphic visual organizers. Finally, the students can apply the abstract (symbolic representation) by demonstrating the understanding and use of letters, numbers or topic. The sequence of concrete followed by pictorial to abstract creates a strong foundation for learning.

Measuring Performance

Today, performance is measured through standardized tests. Students that struggle due to cultural differences, learning disabilities, anxiety, or other factors, receive accommodation—but only if the child’s “problem” is “bad enough”—and this is based on an IQ test that does not fairly measure a child’s ability to learn.

Reuven Feuerstein (photo courtesy of the Feuerstein Institute)
Reuven Feuerstein (photo courtesy of the Feuerstein Institute)

Feuerstein believed in another way. He knew that learning is culled not only from the moment of birth or from the time an IQ test is administered, but that learning is impacted, for better or for worse by the past, present, and future. All of these factors, taken into consideration, are relevant for our academic success, which is never “over.” We, all of us, should be constantly in a state of learning and growing and in large measure, this is linked to our experiences in the past, present, and in the future.

A glance at our society, however, shows it has been taken hostage by automaticity. TEACHING today should be about embracing technology without allowing it to become a substitute for executive functioning. Google is at our fingertips. That should be a wonderful thing, but for many people, Google means that the working memory is compromised. The lack of cognitive and motor connections, such as the ability to tie a shoe, tell time, and do mental math are glaring, and seem to be lost artifacts of an earlier, even ancient time.

Our next generation’s brains, on the other hand, are wired to learn in a new and innovative way that depends on incorporating cultural as well as “social emotional intelligence.” Teachers are looking for a new manner of curriculum capable of bringing the adventure of learning into their classrooms in an enjoyable and productive manner. Google classroom is an example while international competitions like the “Brain Bee” encourage high school students to learn more about neuroscience. When schools become involved in such competitions, students are motivated to learn about their brains and how they learn. This knowledge empowers students to understand how social/emotional and cultural intelligence play a role in learning and life. It teaches them how they think and how to utilize their strengths and apply appropriate, workable strategies.

“The World Gave Up On Him”

Reuven Feuerstein (Photo courtesy of the Feuerstein Institute)
Reuven Feuerstein (Photo courtesy of the Feuerstein Institute)

A few summers ago I traveled over 7,000 miles to Berkeley, California to take a course on executive functions and sensory cognitive strategies. During the break I went to lunch with a psychologist from New York, a nurse from New Jersey, a teacher from Colorado, and a mother from California. During our lunch the mother from California told us about her Down syndrome son. “The world gave up on him,” she told us.

But then Reuven Feuerstein came to California to give a presentation to her parenting support group.

Feuerstein gave this mother hope, tools, and skills. She told us about the spark of hope that was reignited in her son and in herself. Feuerstein has left a legacy of reignited sparks. One of the researchers at the Feuerstein Institute is a personal friend of mine, Diana Rosenfelder. Through my connection to Diana, I am still able to bear witness to the wonders of children thought unteachable, who make strides in their learning in spite of the naysayers who predicted for them a dire future. Diana’s stories of Feuerstein’s methods and his work are a constant source of inspiration.

From Feuerstein, we can learn not to focus on intelligence “quotient” but on a child’s ability to learn. Shifting the focus from definitive labels can open our eyes to the strengths and weakness of students. These strengths and weaknesses can serve as the vehicle for learning how to make our school system a stronger one that can effectively reach the potential in each student. One day I hope to see Feuerstein’s dream realized for all children.

One day soon.

 Coming soon: the Kids N’ Kars app, the parents’ helper that helps keep babies safe.


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Heather Cohnen, B.A., M.A., is an educator and teacher of Cognitive Sensory Strategies.