A thinking skills programme in the Borders has improved the attainment of youngsters with learning problems and won praise from teachers and senior management.
An evaluation of the Scottish Borders Council's "instrumental enrichment" programme by a team from Strathclyde University's Quality in Education Centre suggests it could be more successful in the long term than traditional remedial classes.
However, to be truly effective, the programme, based on the work of the Israeli educationist Reuven Feuerstein, had to be prolonged and comprehensive. The backing of senior school management and resources from the local authority were also seen as essential.
There were indications that pupils who had taken part in the Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment (FIE) programme became more active classroom participants, more inclined to listen to others, more likely to defend their opinions based on logical evidence, better able to articulate how they solved problems, more likely to read spontaneously and follow written instructions, and better able to handle several sources of information simultaneously. One reason for this progress could be that the teachers involved were found to have significantly changed their attitudes towards learning and learners.
After six months of working with 67 selected pupils, the FIE-trained teachers reported that more than three-quarters of them had made progress in six of the aspects of cognitive functioning targeted by the programme, all of which were connected with school attainment.
The FIE pupils, who all had behavioural problems, not only retained what they had learnt but also generalised their learning to a new task, it was found.
Secondary FIE pupils reported they were better learners after six months and better at completing tasks. One said: "It helped me to concentrate in other lessons and work systematically. If you're doing work, do it in order. Sometimes, if there's 10 questions and I do the easy ones first and jump from 1 to 4 and 6, I get told not to do that. I passed my maths test because I was practising my strategies."
Probationers involved in the programme said they had learnt the importance of sharing objectives with pupils. One stated: "When I'm teaching, I'm very much more aware of trying to give the children a reason behind why they're learning, and always give them an explanation why it's important that you do this thing or that thing."
The evaluation team also found that primary pupils, who took part in the programme as a whole class but did not have learning difficulties, made significant gains "which might act as a booster to future attainment".
Drawbacks to the programme were insufficient time to implement it, the extra workload associated with administering it, and the time and cost of training teachers, as it can only be delivered by staff who have completed nine days' training by a Feuerstein-accredited trainer.
The Scottish Borders pilot, launched in 2005, involved specially selected pupils because of their history of under-achievement due to social, emotional or behavioural problems. Some 32 primary and secondary teachers, including senior management team members, volunteered for the Feuerstein- accredited training and delivered the programme with the selected pupils for around 80 minutes per week. Probationers in the authority also received three days' training in mediated learning.
"Although this pilot project has not been running long enough to produce statistically significant effects," the evaluation reported, "the progress so far suggests that (overall academic improvements) could be realised in the longer term."
Paper and pencils
The Feuerstein method was developed to help children with learning difficulties, but it is now recognised as highly effective in unblocking the thinking of all children, enabling them to understand better how they are learning.
The methodology requires effective interaction - or the "mediated learning experience" as it is termed - between teacher and pupil, in which the teacher interprets the learning environment for the pupil.
The programme consists of paper and pencil exercises which have been grouped into 14 sets of activities, designed to enable learners to practise cognitive functions connected with achieving success in school, the workplace and everyday life. They are aimed at, for instance, control of impulsivity, development of self-motivation, looking for evidence, making comparisons, and forming and testing hypotheses.
The activities develop cognitive functions needed for tasks such as assembling flat pack furniture, diagnosing machinery faults, parking a car, map-reading or co-ordinating food preparation.