Tools of the learning trade

16th February 2007 at 00:00
Secondary and primary schools in the Borders are implementing the Feuerstein method in their teaching. Originally aimed at pupils with learning difficulties, this system of unblocking thinking enables all children to understand how they are learning - with amazing results

WHEN YOUR 10-year-old daughter comes home from school and starts talking about "thinking" and then says, "Mum, you know about these cognitive functions... ", your reaction may well be that of parent Bronwen Irving - "Sorry? What?"

What has happened is: your child has come across the ideas and methods of clinical psychologist Reuven Feuerstein. What happens next is: so will you.

This was certainly Mrs Irving's experience as her daughter Moray, a P6 pupil at St Margaret's Primary in Hawick, began expounding on cognitive functions and related matters.

"This was before I'd seen the Feuerstein method in action. Now I can see Moray using it every day," says Mrs Irving. "She was arranging grapes and chocolate drops on her birthday cake, for example, to make the number 10, and she said, 'I'll have to be really systematic', which is not usual for a 10-year-old. Then, making a card for a friend, she'd got stuck and said, 'I mustn't block. I'll try another way.'

"She's become more confident and open and won't be 'blocked' by anything.

She was always happy, but now seems much happier, and her learning has come on leaps and bounds. She's a different little girl."

Feuerstein's instrumental enrichment (IE) programme is a thinking skills programme which ensures that young people have all the cognitive tools to be effective learners. The methodology involved necessitates effective interaction between the teacher or parent and pupil known as the mediated learning experience (MLE), interpreting the learning environment for the child.

Feuerstein's ideas began to take root in Scotland over the last decade with the adoption of instrumental enrichment as an intervention programme generally aimed at vulnerable children, those with learning difficulties.

But exponents have long argued its relevance to the mainstream curriculum and that its adoption would benefit all learners.

A Scottish Borders pilot, which began in September 2005 as one of the Scottish Executive's Future Learning and Teaching projects, has taken up this challenge and participants in primaries and secondaries are enthusiastic that the adoption of IE and MLE will benefit all pupils.

"What began as a pilot looking at under-achievers is now involving mainstream subjects and whole-class teaching as practitioners began to see the benefits for everyone. This is for all children and it should be taught throughout the curriculum," says Anne-Theresa Lawrie, Scottish Borders'

learning and teaching development officer.

"Every secondary and eight of our primary schools are involved and, within the next few years, I'd like to see every school using mediated learning to deliver A Curriculum for Excellence."

You may know a little (or a lot) about Feuerstein in theory, but watching an instrumental enrichment class in action for the first time is a dizzying experience.

At St Margaret's Primary, Ms Lawrie and class teacher Jennifer Kinsella are putting the P4-P7 composite class through their cognitive paces - cognitive functions are "tools for learning"; that "impulsivity" involves answering questions before you've thought clearly about them and that this can lead to "blocking"; that everyone uses "systems" from postmen to plumbers, from electricians to surgeons, and even teachers.

We are looking at shapes and pictures; we are talking about "universal symbols"; we are talking about "meta-cognitive activities" and if I'm not following the excercises, it's probably because I'm blocking and I need to look at "other strategies".

The pupils' command of vocabulary and their understanding of the concepts is quite striking. In short, it makes you think. Which, of course, is the point. The pupils are learning how they learn. They are developing emotional intelligence and cognitive skills which are transferable to all subjects and situations and, Feuerstein would argue, not just beyond the walls of the school into the local environment, but across all cultures globally.

"We're developing the children's cognitive functions to give them a language to talk about and to understand their learning. Through this meta-cognition, they are learning how to learn and how they as individuals learn," says Ms Lawrie.

There are now 62 primary and secondary teachers (including members of school senior management teams) who are trained in delivering instrumental enrichment across Borders schools, with 30 more in training.

There are also 115 teachers already inducted into using mediated learning in their role as subject andor class teachers, including every newly qualified teacher. This makes Borders by far the most Feuerstein-friendly local authority in Scotland.

Jennifer Kinsella, a newly qualified teacher, says she has seen "great changes" in her composite class. The pupils are better learners, more systematic and less impulsive. Their social skills, and hence behaviour, have improved, and her own classroom practice has benefited.

"I use Feuerstein in all my classroom practice," she says. "It's not a lot of extra work. It draws you in and you want to read and learn more about it. It makes you more reflective and it makes teaching more exciting, because classes are more interactive."

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