Pupils can be trained to be bright

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
Israeli professor shows British teachers how new ways of thinking raise academic ability

It sounds like a dystopian vision: all children can be "modified", their behaviour and intellect subtly manipulated by teachers. In fact, it is the latest educational theory to be introduced into British schools.

A group of Scottish teachers have learnt that academic brightness is not a fixed condition. Instead, it can be taught to pupils, regardless of age, background or learning ability.

The 16 teachers spent five days in Jerusalem, visiting Reuven Feuerstein, a pioneering educational thinker. They learnt how to apply his theories in the classroom.

Professor Feuerstein, who studied with the eminent educationist Jean Piaget and is an academic peer of developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, claims that it is possible to improve pupils' academic ability, purely by teaching them new ways of thinking. The 88-year-old professor believes that ability to deal with social, emotional and intellectual problems can be traced back to early childhood. Youngsters pick up life skills by watching adults display those same skills.

But, he says, many children do not have these skills demonstrated to them. So, when they begin school, they lack the emotional, social and problem-solving abilities to deal with the curriculum.

Billy O'Neill, a former deputy head who runs the Scottish Feuerstein Training Centre, said: "In school, we just give children content. If they're struggling with maths, we give them more maths. But we need to go beyond that.

"We need to help them improve their ability to solve problems. We're trying to get them to activate the thinking skills that every human being has. It's joining dots, and then seeing how you can apply that skill elsewhere."

Under the Feuerstein system, pupils with learning difficulties are given the necessary thinking skills to access the curriculum. And more academically able pupils are taught to maximise their inherent talents.

The Scottish teachers' visit to Israel follows a pilot study, run by Mr O'Neill. He spent four years introducing schools in the Borders to Professor Feuerstein's methods. He believes they can be used to tackle social and emotional problems as well as issues such as knife crime.

"Children don't think through the consequences of acting impulsively," Mr O'Neill said. "So they solve problems aggressively. If we teach children not to think impulsively, they'll think before they act."

He believes that visits to the Feuerstein centre in Israel are vital if teachers are to understand the impact of the methods. "They can see the intensity of the work," he said. "They can hear reports of work with autism, blind people, brain-damaged people.

"The overwhelming response from teachers is: 'Why have we never been informed of this? Why isn't this in schools?' This should be the core curriculum. It should be part of the curriculum in every school."

Two of the returning teachers have already enrolled in courses at Mr O'Neill's training centre. He hopes that the remainder will also introduce their colleagues to Professor Feuerstein's methods.

Elizabeth Spence, a secondary teacher from Orkney, intends to do so. She describes Professor Feuerstein's "pathological optimism" as "contagious" and says she is "bursting with enthusiasm to share ideas".

And George Gilchrist, head of Parkside Primary in the Scottish Borders, agrees. "Chromosomes don't have the last word," he said. "All pupils are modifiable."


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