Developing brain power

20th February 2004 at 00:00
They are revolutionary and transform children's behaviour by changing neural pathways in the brain. Reuven Feuerstein's ideas are being introduced to schools in Scotland. Raymond Ross reports on how they work

The education system fails a lot of children because it does not even know where to start, says Billy O'Neill, depute headteacher at a special school in South Lanarkshire.

Mr O'Neill is Scotland's leading exponent of the "revolutionary" ideas of Reuven Feuerstein, director of the International Centre for the Enhancement of Learning Potential in Jerusalem.

Professor Feuerstein's ideas focus on the unique propensity of human beings to change or modify pathways in the brain to adapt to the changing demands of life.

His ideas were highlighted at a conference last month in Glasgow held by Tapestry, the Strathclyde University based organisation that promotes the work of progressive educational thinkers, and are being put into practice at a number of schools in Scotland.

"Feuerstein says that all people have the potential to change and are modifiable if provided with the right kind of interaction, which he calls mediated learning," says Mr O'Neill.

This involves mediation by adults - parents or teachers - so that the significance of events or stimuli is perceived and grasped in a meaningful way. It is essential for the cognitive development of children, says Professor Feuerstein, and from this he has developed a systematic cognitive intervention programme that enriches thinking and problem-solving skills.

Instrumental Enrichment, as it is called, is much more than a programme for children with problems, says Mr O'Neill, who teaches at Kittoch School in East Kilbride, which caters for some 20 pupils placed by psychological services. "It remediates problems by working on the cognitive functions," he says, "and is more effective than counselling because it gives the pupils the tools to mediate for themselves.

"It brings about changes in the brain that make our pupils more effective learners."

He gives the example of what Professor Feuerstein calls "blurred and sweeping perception" which causes people difficulties in doing a task because they only pick up partial information. "The main reason for this damaged perception is lack of mediation in early childhood," says Mr O'Neill. "Children need adult mediation to develop the habit of focusing.

This develops the mechanism whereby they can shut out other stimuli to concentrate on the chosen item.

"Good mediation develops the structures to focus, which the child then learns to apply and do independently. That's what we mean by structural change.

"The child who can focus can take information in a clear and precise manner spontaneously, whenever needed. It's a permanent change and it helps in other cognitive skills. For example, this precision will mean the child can compare," says Mr O'Neill.

Because of the structural cognitive changes this brings about, it make people more effective lifelong learners, he says.

Professor Feuerstein's theory and methodology have now been placed at the centre of Kittoch School's philosophy and integrated into the curriculum, following a pilot by Mr O'Neill.

He teaches and assesses students, supervises and trains staff and is regularly invited to lecture at schools, conferences and universities throughout Scotland. His pioneering work was nominated for a COSLA Excellence Award in education in 2002-03.

"Instrumental Enrichment can have a profound effect," he says. "The worst pupil I ever had had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She could not work in a group and showed a lack of need for logical evidence. She had had little or no effective mediation in her life, arriving here towards the end of her school career.

"I took her one-to-one for three periods a week. I had to create in her a need to learn.

"She was almost addicted to playing pool, so I promised her she could play if she managed 10 minutes of uninterrupted work each period. The sooner she completed the work, the more time she had to play pool.

"Through her experience of mediated learning, within two months she was not only not bothering about playing pool, but I had to tell her to leave when the bell went!

"She had come to realise she was a good learner.

"If I had had her earlier in her school career and could have worked with her parents to show them how to mediate - it's not difficult - I would have had her in group work and eventually maybe back into mainstream education," he says.

Mr O'Neill believes mediation should be taught at teacher training centres systematically.

"The root causes of our pupils' problems are the gaps in their thinking.

The mechanisms that help them to think rationally and coherently are not working, are disrupted.

"Many pupils are highly impulsive and can't learn well either socially or in the classroom. They act quickly without thinking. In the long term this can end in tragic consequences, involving serious crimes," Mr O'Neill says.

Their problem, he believes, is not mental retardation but missing cognitive skills.

"These skills, which can be taught, are the prerequisites of learning.

Mediated learning should start pre-school and in nursery. Remember, education is cumulative. The earlier the intervention, the better."

Josephine Hughes teaches social and vocational skills at Kittoch School.

She says: "Feuerstein's ideas are fantastic and clearly relate to good teaching and good parenting. You focus on how pupils learn and how you teach.

"I've been trained in Instrumental Enrichment for three years and I've seen a difference using it. It helps our pupils to focus, which many can't do.

"It's encouraging when they say, in answer to what went wrong, 'I was impulsive' or 'I was not being systematic'.

"Even the vocabulary helps. They can be quite proud of the big words. It builds confidence.

"It makes me think more about how I deliver lessons. You can't be involved in IE without it benefiting your everyday thinking even.

"Mediated learning is the core and should be taught at college. Our priority is to make pupils independent thinkers and learners. It has a positive effect on behaviour but can be quite hard. It is not easy to challenge any person's way of learning, of thinking.

"I'd be lost now without this approach. What I learned in college - all the strategies that were suggested for working with our kind of pupils - proved useless. IE is something that does work."

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