"I thought it was like meeting God." Anne-Theresa Lawrie knows she might get a ribbing for saying so, but she was not being glib when she referred to her time with Reuven Feuerstein.
She was one of 16 education professionals who travelled to Israel to meet the renowned thinker behind "instrumental enrichment", a theory designed to help Holocaust survivors rebuild their lives. She was enthralled not just by the man, but also by his unstinting desire to help children, his lack of judgmentalism and his deep reservoirs of optimism and generosity.
Miss Lawrie is head of teaching and learning in the Borders, and has been immersed in his ideas for years. As the authority's Feuerstein trainer, she has helped make them an integral part of life in schools.
Feuerstein's aim is to prove that troubled young people, whatever their background, are not doomed to failure. IE has been used all over the world - it has helped young survivors of the Rwandan genocide and children caught up in the turmoil of post-apartheid South Africa.
It is now used with Scottish youngsters who have learning difficulties, emotional problems, or difficult family or social surroundings. The Borders and Aberdeenshire have led the way by appointing trainers; in the Borders, 200 staff have been trained, another 67 are currently involved in courses, while a smaller number have been trained in Aberdeenshire.
Instrumental enrichment encourages children to devise strategies for taking control of their learning. One success story is a 15-year-old in the Borders who had been regularly excluded, because he could not help blurting out the first thing that came into his head when talking to teachers and did not realise the consequences of his actions. He returned to secondary school following intervention, and says he now thinks before he acts.
"It's about being able to take control of your life and make informed decisions, rather than being at the mercy of your emotions," says Miss Lawrie.
Some teachers on the Jerusalem trip were long-time converts to IE, others knew very little about it. All came home energised by meeting the man behind the theory.
Feuerstein, 88, exchanged ideas with the group and met them several times during their visit to the International Centre for the Enhancement of Learning Potential, in Jerusalem. They also saw his theories - built on the conviction that intelligence is not fixed - being put into action with schoolchildren.
"Meeting Professor Feuerstein, it is easy to see how his determination, tenacity and compassion for his fellow man have enabled him to help countless individuals to have the chance to learn," said Gillian Penman, who works in Aberdeen. "Otherwise, they would have been assumed too poor cognitively to progress and live a meaningful life in the wider community."
Elizabeth Spence, from Kirkwall Grammar in Orkney, knew nothing about Feuerstein before the trip: "We were in the presence of a great man and his dedicated colleagues, and we had a shared interest - children and how they learn. The professor's belief and optimism were contagious."
She was impressed with Feuerstein's Learning Potential Assessment Device. Unlike an IQ test, it involves a mediator who spends up to 15 hours trying to understand how a child learns and thinks, and interprets their experiences. "This dynamic assessment makes so much more sense than traditional testing that identifies what children do not know," she said. "This assessed the propensity to learn - a far more positive tool."
Educational psychologist Laura Walmsley gleaned several ideas from Feuerstein's colleagues:
- it is more ethical to compare a student's strength in relation to themselves, than to general norms;
- assessment should be about finding the best intervention, not measuring competence; and
- if assessment does not lead to improved outcomes for children, it is better not to have it.
Ms Walmsley thought it "highly unlikely" a psychologist in Scotland would find time for the full IE programme. She was, however, persuaded that mediation and dynamic assessment should be central to Scottish education.
Another trip to meet Professor Feuerstein may be planned, depending on interest.