The man who can work wonders
The professor believes that every child and adult is capable of learning, given the right input. "Millions of people around the world need this more optimistic approach," he says. "It is one of the great problems of our times."
Professor Feuerstein worked as a teacher and counsellor after the second world war in the newly-formed state of Israel, with children who had survived the concentration camps. In this context, he has said, not one child could be written off as a hopeless case. The attitude has become his trademark. "Each child has an option to become modified," he says. "The only question is what will be the method, the type of stimuli and the time taken."
His methods have been under the spotlight since Labour MP Brian Sedgemore used parliamentary privilege to raise the case of Flora Keays daughter of Cecil Parkinson and Sara Keays in the Commons, breaking a two-year publicity ban. Twelve-year-old Flora has been treated at the Professor's International Centre for the Enhancement of Learning Potential.
Film footage shot at the centre shows remarkable changes in children. One girl was filmed over the three months she spent at the clinic. Initially, she is resistant to working with the teacher on pencil and paper exercises, complaining loudly that she is tired, can't do it, doesn't want to. She draws on the desk, smears lead from her pencil on the teacher's shirt, gets up determined to leave. Her mother coaxes her back. "Why should I come any closer?" the child asks Professor Feuerstein, belligerently. "So that we can work together," he answers.
One month later, the same girl is talking intelligently with him about colours and shapes, and trying, brow furrowed, to read flash cards. By the end of the three month period, she is thoroughly engaged with the learning process. She recognises the flash cards almost before they are flipped over, and answers with the lightning speed of the keen pupil. "I'm good at this", she tells the camera, with candour. "I'm making lots of progress and doing very well. " It is obviously true.
According to one of Flora Keays' relatives "Here, we identify children according to their problems. There, they identify the child's capacity to change." Flora Keays was left with serious specific learning difficulties, after persistent severe epilepsy in early childhood followed by an operation to remove a brain tumour. She has not been to school for almost two years but since her return from Israel has been receiving private lessons in the Feuerstein technique. Her mother wants her to be integrated with learning support into a mainstream school, a wish upheld by Professor Feuerstein.
74-year-old Professor Feuerstein is distinguished as much by his attitudes as his methods. Every human being, he insists, is capable of learning, and parents from all over the world make the pilgrimage to his International Centre for the Enhancement of Learning Potential, in Jerusalem, to hear these glad tidings.
For British parents, weary of doing battle with the system, the approach comes as a huge relief. Susan Zur-Szpiro and her husband Michael have a two-year-old boy, their fourth child, who has a chromosomal abnormality. Saul, a beautiful silent child, is small for his age and developmentally delayed. His mother, a psychologist herself, took the child to Jerusalem and was immediately impressed. Saul has been receiving help in the form of speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy through local services in north London, where he lives. But, says Susan Zur-Szpiro, "he's not a set of gross motor skills. He's a little boy. I was looking for something more comprehensive. "
The Zur-Szpiro family only had a week to spend at the centre, but "once you're there," says Susan, "their commitment is total. I felt like moving there right away." They were given techniques to use in working with Saul, and strongly advised against sending him to a nursery for children with special needs. They were told to do as much with the child as possible, stimulating him and encouraging and playing repetitively. "Here," says Susan Zur-Szpiro, "I'm told I do too much. I feel almost mocked. There, I felt validated, that I had professional support to do what I thought was right." Perhaps co-incidentally, Saul took his first steps in Jerusalem, on his second birthday.
The Zur-Szpiro family are part of a group of British parents who have formed "the Hope Committee"; they aim to raise Pounds 2 million for a British centre based on Professor Feuerstein's methods. Peter Batkin, leading the initiative, has a 10-year-old daughter who he says was previously languishing in a special school and is now making progress in a mainstream school, thanks to the intervention of Professor Feuerstein.
Professor Feuerstein has developed various ways of working with children who are failing or under-achieving. He believes that children's difficulties spring from not having learned to think coherently, and that he can teach them to do so. The methods are applicable whether children's difficulties spring from organic conditions such as Down's syndrome or autism, or from brain damage, emotional disturbance or social or cultural deprivation.
Children are first assessed through his Learning Potential Assessment Device which aims not to simply assess what the child knows or can currently do, but what the child is capable of learning. "It's an anti-IQ assessment," says Professor Feuerstein. "We measure the changeability of the individual."
Once the child has been assessed a process taking up to six weeks a specific set of therapeutic learning exercises, called Instrumental Enrichment, are set and followed in conjunction with a teacher. The exercises, claims the Professor, effectively address particular learning difficulties such as lack of concentration, an inability to plan ahead or impulsiveness. Some are a form of sophisticated dot-to-dot, which requires the learner to pick out increasingly complex shapes from patterns of dots. Others teach orientation, or are in the form of mazes, or use shapes and colour.
Howard Sharron, editor of the magazine Special Children, wrote a book about Reuven Feuerstein and described the techniques as "years ahead of anything the British special education or care system has to offer."
The role of the teacher is of crucial importance with this approach. Children with learning difficulties need more mediated learning than others, Feuerstein believes. The teacher must constantly frame and make relevant the materials, and without the teacher's belief in his potential the child cannot succeed. "We have reduced teachers to a pipeline through which we can transport information," he told The TES. "This is not what teachers are supposed to be."
Professor Feuerstein's ideas have been known outside Israel, for 20 years. Initially dismissed as cranky, his techniques are now widely used in many European countries, in Canada's prisons and in mainstream and special schools in the United States.
Some teachers in this country have taken up Professor Feuerstein's ideas with enthusiasm, not all of them in special education. Stephanie Hook is a teacher at Edgarley Hall, the junior school of Millfield public school in Somerset, where she has introduced a brief programme of instrumental enrichment for all children in years five and six. "It's a thinking skills programme par excellence for every single human being," she says. "It teaches the child to process information in a very effective way." Children at Edgarley Hall get two 40-minute sessions a week on the instruments. Enough, according to Stephanie Hook, to make a significant difference in their ability to plan and organise themselves.
At the School of Education at Exeter University, trainee teachers are taught Feuerstein's theories of the teacher as mediator, and about instrumental enrichment. At the Binoh Centre in north London for children with special educational needs, Feuerstein's methods are important. "We're very influenced by his philosophy that every human being has open potential, that none of us can predict the limits of another," says director Ruth Deutsch. "It's a very hopeful and open approach which gives a lot of confidence to parents and children." The Binoh Institute has just received a grant from the European Social Fund for training teachers and other professionals in this country in instrumental enrichment.
But these places are the exception. Instrumental enrichment was tried in Somerset and in other local authorities in the early 1980s but has not secured a foothold in British educational culture. Dr Bob Burden of the University of Exeter believes a healthy national scepticism is to blame, combined with the difficulties of combining anything with the demands of the national curriculum. His survey of research on Feuerstein's methods found that "there was a lot of strong evidence to support his approach" but also highlighted the difficulties of measuring outcomes.
With his long white beard, venerable age and firm belief in his methods there is a temptation, succumbed to by some parents, to see Reuven Feuerstein as prophet, capable of miracles. Parents speak of normally unresponsive children running to him, or recognising him after long absences. Certainly, the professor is a charismatic and gifted teacher. But his work is not in the realm of miracles. "It's man-made magic," he says. "It's hard work. You have to make miracles happen."
* A documentary film by Twenty Twenty Television's The Big Story, featuring Flora Keays, makes a persuasive argument for Professor Feuerstein's methods. Unfortunately, under the terms of a court injunction, the film cannot be shown.
* The Hope Committee can be contacted co 24 Sneyd Road, London NW2 6AN