(Editor’s Note: This interview occurred a few years before Dr. Feuerstein’s death at age 92 on April 29, 2014.)
It was the young European Holocaust survivors in Israel that first inspired Professor Reuven Feuerstein to explore cognitive development, a field he has worked in for more than 60 years. “These children went through daily and repeated trauma,” explains the 90-year-old world-renowned cognitive psychologist. “There was no need for logical thinking. What can logic play in such a situation where everything is abnormal?”
Feuerstein is known for his groundbreaking work in cognitive modifiability; rejecting the idea that intelligence is fixed, he established the principle that all children can learn how to learn. Born in Romania in 1921, he moved to British-mandate Palestine in 1945, where he worked to rehabilitate these damaged and often misdiagnosed children and young people, many of whom were thought to be developmentally delayed. He then moved on to work with young immigrants from different countries who had also survived personal, cultural, and societal deprivations and arrived — often alone — in Israel. “We couldn’t lose or give up on any of them,” says the professor almost 50 years later. “People were measured as to their cognitive processing, their capacity to adapt,” he says, noting that testers accepted the belief “that these tests indeed measured in an unavoidable way what this individual would ever be able to do.”
Feuerstein noticed that by interacting with the children rather than administering standardized tests to them, their results improved. He developed an unorthodox methodology and a theory about the human potential for modifiability, along with improved learning and functioning in the world, even for people with known genetic disorders such as Down syndrome. He founded the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential (ICELP) in Jerusalem, currently run by his son, Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein. Now 90, the elder Feuerstein shows no signs of slowing down, helping assess young Ethiopian immigrants for the army and university, and analyzing what is needed for neuroplasticity in brain-injured people, the elderly and those suffering from dementia.
Brain World: You worked against the conventional wisdom of the times, where educator and psychologist were taught that there are critical periods in development — if you don’t pick up a certain skill within the established critical period it won’t happen, and that evaluations and their results are static and unchanging.
Reuven Feuerstein: You must provide certain kinds and types of stimulation under certain conditions that lead to the modifiability of the brain. Structural cognitive modifiability overcomes the traditionally considered barriers to change — critical periods, severity of condition and etiology. These are no longer insurmountable barriers of change, due to the linkage between neural plasticity and cognitive modifiability interventions.
BW: The modifiability of the brain at different stages — that is the theory you founded, structural cognitive modifiability (SCM).
RF: The theory of SCM basically postulated that individuals can be changed in terms of their cognitive processes in a structural way. This led me to develop a methodology for assessment [the Learning Assessment Propensity Device, or LAPD]; for treatment [the Mediated Learning Experience, or MLE]; and the Instrumental Enrichment Program [IEP] for use in the classroom. This methodology, which combined a different kind of assessment, along with adapted behavioral techniques and training, created such a strong effect and made such strong changes in people’s behavior, it was almost impossible not to speculate that must be something happening in the neurophysiology. But in the 1950s it was exactly that — speculation.
When I met with the great neurophysiologists of the time, Wilder Penfield and Karl Pribram, they said, “Yes, there must be something happening, but we have no way to prove it, and to talk about it in a speculative way would be almost heretical.”
BW: At first, many people didn’t trust your results.
RF: When trying to find placements for clients, I had to go to people and say, “Look, he looks like an idiot, but he’s not. Look, he doesn’t know reading, he’s 17, but he will learn.”
BW: So what have you learned from your testing?
RF: We have had an enormous opportunity to learn more about the way by which the brain functions on an individual level. If I can find, in some way, to limit what was described before as a global condition, I can find the modifiability in the individual. An individual may have great difficulty with change, but if I find the proper way to reach them, I may create or encourage modifiability, which makes the individual function better.
BW: So the MLE is a mechanism for creating change. When testing a person you teach them.
RF: If you can create change, you can then predict the potential or propensity for further change. The MLE is but a method in my interaction with you — not just to make you know something in a passive way but how to produce it, how to create it. I am not just passing to you information, but passing to you all you that you need to know in order to be able to learn by yourself.
When I impose upon someone to close the door, what is he? He’s my extended arm. But if I tell him, “Son, the window is open, close the door, there’s a draft,” then he knows when to close the door. I don’t have to extend my arm though him. I teach him how to approach things, how to understand things, I teach him how to learn, and learning how to learn is the most important thing to do in a world of total change.
The question is: How do we shape environments which will offer the individual both the help to change and the need to change. It comes back to the need. The MLE should hopefully become the mode of interaction between parents and children, between teachers and children, between society and the individual. Instead of imposing, mediating the experience.