Learning, which begins before birth, becomes ever more important as the pace of change accelerates around us. Whether it involves learning how to better influence the future, or developing the needed skills for earning a livelihood, learning can be empowering, fun, and energizing – or it can be frustrating and discouraging – depending on your skills in learning. But how can we learn how to learn?
Kathy Greenberg, Associate Professor of Special Education at the University of Tennesee, Knoxville, works to help teachers mediate their students’ learning experiences so that students gain practical skills in problem-solving. Her COGNET program, based on Reuven Feuerstein’s Mediated Learning Experience (MLE), makes the power of effective mediation widely accessible.
Developed by Feuerstein over 30 years ago, the theory of MLE complements the earlier work by the Russian researcher Lev Vygotsky, who developed mediation as a way to assist learners in developing cognitive processes. Feuerstein extends this work to a broad cultural setting and considers what can be done to help people overcome common impediments to learning.
The theory is comprehensive and complex, and consequently it has proven difficult to understand and apply for those outside the fields of psychology and special education. Kathy’s success with the application of mediation led her to seek ways to make the theory and skills in its use more widely available to parents and all professionals who provide services to learners. The 30-hour COGNET training program provides an introduction to the theory and tools to use in mediation. Participants learn to diagnose hindrances to learning, to help their students understand basic factors which affect learning, and to use learning tools efficiently.
Thanks to the US Department of Education Follow Through Program grant #030913, the program – now in its third year – is available at a reduced cost, and training workshops for parents and professional educators have been conducted in several states. An interactive video training program based on Greenberg and Feuerstein’s work, directed by Quicksilver Productions and New Horizons for Learning, will be available in Spring 1991. For more information contact Dr. Kathy Greenberg at COGNET, 321 Claxton Addition, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996-3400, 615/974-2321.
Duane: How did you get involved with the Mediated Learning Experience?
Kathy: I was teaching young adolescents with learning disabilities in 1975, and I was looking for a way to help them learn to think. I felt I had some handles on how to help them learn to read and do math and other things. But they just weren’t thinking.
Then I heard that George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville wanted teachers to volunteer to receive training in a program on "learning how to learn," and then to implement that program for evaluation. The program was Feuerstein’s "Instrumental Enrichment," a world-renowned program which applies the comprehensive theory on which COGNET is based.
During the very extensive, 40-hour training, I began to see ways to pull together some things that I had always known at an intuitive level. And when I used the program, the kids in my class – mostly adolescent boys – began to behave better and to pay better attention almost immediately. They began to speak up more, and there was an inaudible sigh of relief – "You mean I’m not lucky if I get it and unlucky if I don’t? You mean I can be responsible for my learning?"
I still get goose bumps when I think back to that class and how they began to change. They began to see that there is a system to the way you look at the world and how you go about learning and solving your problems.
When I entered higher education, I began to work on ways to train others. It is difficult for people to get into this theory at first unless they come from the field of developmental psychology. So for eight years I worked on ways to share this theory quickly with more people. With the primer that we now use in COGNET, people are able to understand it and use it in a relatively short time.
Duane: I’ve found the theory somewhat inaccessible, too! What is the Mediated Learning Experience?
Kathy: It is easy to get too wide a focus, so it’s better to pinpoint certain principles and stick to them to explain the theory overall.
According to Reuven Feuerstein [of the Hadassah-WIZO-Canada Research Institute in Jerusalem, Israel], who developed the theory of Mediated Learning Experience (MLE), mediated learning occurs whenever an individual deliberately places him or herself between external or internal stimuli and the learner, and transmits the stimuli in a particular way to that learner.
What distinguishes MLE are three particular characteristics which must occur within the interaction – intent, meaning, and transcendence.
Intent refers to the intent of the mediator, the caregiver, the teacher, or whomever is in charge of the interaction, to focus the attention of the learner on some particular thing. For example, if a young child picks up a ball, the mediator would help the child to look at some part of the toy or see some cause and effect – such as the way you can make a ball spin when you turn it a certain way. The mediator will focus the child’s attention there rather than just following the child in whatever way the child’s interest might fall. Of course, the mediator must pay attention to the child’s interests and change her own behavior accordingly. The point is that the mediator makes sure that the learner goes beyond the immediate needs of the situation, in some manner which would not occur without the mediator’s focusing behavior.
The second characteristic is imparting meaning. The mediator helps the learner interpret the stimuli so that the experience has a special meaning that it might not have otherwise. To continue with this example of the ball, meaning can be brought out in a specific way – related to certain stimuli, such as watching it bounce or spin – so that significance attaches to this as a very special and unique toy that you can do things with that you can’t do with other toys. Imparting meaning provides a power, as Feuerstein refers to it, that keeps a person involved in the interaction so that he or she is much more interested in participating.
The third characteristic is transcendence, which has to do with making connections between the specific and the general. Transcendence is the heart of mediation. It involves moving beyond the immediate needs of whatever is going on in the current situation, or task, or what you’re thinking about to develop the potential to apply it elsewhere in slightly different ways.
It can be very difficult for people to learn a skill and be able to apply it in different situations. For example, people with learning problems who are learning to add and subtract may find it difficult to add and subtract in another classroom with a different teacher. Transcendence helps the person rise above the immediate stimuli and get a different perspective.
It is important to note that mediation is often done very implicitly. For parents in primitive cultures who don’t read, for example, no one has said "This is how you help the kids learn how to learn." Instead, what’s been said is "This is what parents are expected to do in our culture." You need to share certain things with your children or else you are not going to be respected by other members of your society.
Today we are finding a breakdown in cultural transmission, particularly in our country. Maybe the parents and children are there in the home, but they are watching television. And yes, there is some culture transmitted from television, but it’s not mediated to people. They are just exposed to it.
Duane: The theory of MLE seems intuitively correct to me. Yet in your surveys of classrooms at various levels, you found mediation was very often not being used effectively to help children learn how to learn.
Kathy: That’s right. And I believe part of the reason is that there has been so much emphasis on basic skills that we are teaching isolated skills. There is very little opportunity – and in fact, sometimes teachers are told that it’s wrong – to make broader connections. But if you isolate skills, you must help students place them in the context of the real world, or they will have many difficulties using them when they are needed in real life situations – as well as difficulties in learning them in the first place. If you don’t help the learner find personal relevance in the skills, then you’ve created a worse problem.
For example, most adults today went through language arts. We had all those stupid sentences that had no meaning to us, and we were to go through and correct the punctuation and grammar. Year after year after year we did these things, and we know today that this approach is not very effective. We need to create personally relevant exercises – things that people edit because they want to get them in a form other people can understand, or because they want to share their own information – and not just some silly sentences in a text book.
Duane: The COGNET program also includes ongoing evaluation of the student’s learning efficiency. What’s the structure for this ongoing evaluation?
Kathy: Feuerstein describes more than 28 "Building Blocks of Thinking." But in the COGNET program, we have condensed those down to ten. We also work with eight "Tools of Independent Learning." [See sidebars below.] These tools allow you to see what it is that’s really causing the child problems, so you don’t just say, "This child can’t learn," or "This child has not learned the subject matter." Instead you are able to say, "This child did not gather all the information before starting," or "This child had no plan for learning."
If you are already a pretty good learner, sometimes there are just one or two Building Blocks getting in your way, particularly when you are having difficulty with some task. But when you get concerned or anxious or dissatisfied or unmotivated because you are having trouble, then you begin to use the Building Blocks less efficiently – and that causes you even more difficulty. The emotional overlay is, in large part, responsible for the breakdown in learning.
So by focusing on just a few variables, you can learn to understand that that’s what’s getting in the way. You can turn things around and become a much more independent learner.
Duane: And that feels good and motivates further learning.
Kathy: We know from neurological research that emotions are very much a factor in learning; they profoundly affect each other. What I like about this theory is that it doesn’t just focus on the cognitive side, but looks at emotions too.
It’s important to note that while this theory is used as an intervention with special needs populations, it is also a way of looking at all kinds of learning situations and seeing how human beings progress and develop, not just as individuals, but as whole societies and in the world.
Duane: What does the theory have to say about assessment of intelligence and ability?
Kathy: Feuerstein and Vygotsky agree that intelligence isn’t the issue – cognitive development is.
The prevailing theory of intelligence is based on the underlying assumption that the quality of cognitive functioning determines the quality of learning experiences – in simple terms, your ability to develop understanding from your experiences determines the quality of your experiences. However, Vygotsky makes a strong case that it’s the other way around – the development of cognitive function lags behind learning experience.
I agree with Feuerstein that both nature and nurture determine cognitive functioning – but that the prevailing theory overemphasizes nature. Learning experiences, particularly MLE, are the major determiner of cognitive functioning.
This is another paradigm shift with profound implications for intelligence testing. When subjects are taught how to approach problem-solving tasks, and then retested on those tasks, it is possible to measure their propensity for learning. We’ve found that students’ scores before they are taught how to solve problems are not very helpful in predicting their scores after being taught these skills. In other words, the ability to learn how to solve problems is not necessarily related to how much the student already knows. We believe these data support the assumption that mediated learning experiences are the major determiner of cognitive functioning, rather than the other way around.
Duane: That could have a dramatic effect on assessment.
Kathy: It already has. In California, Black students can no longer be placed in special education programs based on IQ scores. A very thoughtful look at this theory helped that happen.
Duane: How do teachers change their style of teaching when they become involved in this program?
Kathy: Teachers have changed rather dramatically – for example, in the way they question children, and in the types of answers they are comfortable in receiving from them. It doesn’t have to be the right answer every time. Instead, they encourage children to give partially correct answers and think further, rather than co-opting what a child has said, calling on another child, or telling the child what to think. They’re turning the classroom into a laboratory for learning instead of a stage for producing right answers.
Duane: That sounds powerful.
Kathy: It’s very exciting to see that happen. We also find that these teachers are very much raising their expectations of children, and they are expecting more from their slower learners as well. And not giving up on them so easily.
Duane: What’s ahead for the program?
Kathy: We plan to focus on determining the most effective approaches for implementing mediated learning in the classroom and the home. For example, we are investigating what happens when computer software is used to help students apply the Building Blocks and Tools.
But exciting things are happening regarding the theory of MLE as well. In the long run, the Russian psychologist, Vygotsky, is expected by some to have as much or more effect as Piaget has had on psychology. Most of his work is now in the process of being translated into English. For the next five years, there will be a volume out every year about his work, some of which is very closely related to this theory. As people begin to look at Vygotsky, they are going to see a need for Feuerstein, because Feuerstein provides great insight into specific aspects of mediated learning which can be used to improve cognitive functioning.
What everyone is coming to is that social interaction is the key to cognitive development and to learning. We’ve got to learn to focus on that, to see how that works, and to tap into what it is that’s happening in the classroom, or one-on-one in other settings. And when we understand that better, then we can help everyone to go further and to reach his or her own potential.
The Building Blocks are prerequisite skills upon which thought processes are based. In the Mediated Learning Experience, the mediator evaluates the learner’s level of competency and use of these Building Blocks and seeks to help develop those that are underused.
Approach to Task * Beginning, being involved with, and completing an event, including gathering information, thinking about the situation, and expressing thoughts or actions related to the event.
Precision and Accuracy * Awareness of the need to automatically be exact and correct in understanding and using words and ideas.
Space and Time Concepts * Understanding basic ideas about how things relate in size, shape, and distance to one another (space); and the ability to understand measurement of the period between two or more events and/or changes that occur due to these periods (time).
Thought Integration * Pulling together and using at the same time multiple sources of information which are a part of a given event.
Selective Attention * Choosing relevant pieces of information when considering thoughts or events.
Making Comparisons * Awareness of the need to automatically examine the relationship between events and ideas, especially in determining what is the same and what is different.
Connecting Events * Awareness of the need to automatically associate one activity with another and use this association in a meaningful manner.
Working Memory * Enlarging the thinking space in order to enter bits of information from the mental act, retrieve information stored in the brain, and make connections among the information gathered.
Getting the Main Idea * Awareness of the need to automatically find a fundamental element that related pieces of information have in common.
Problem Identification * Awareness of the need to automatically experience and define within a given situation what is causing a feeling of imbalance.
These tools are needed if a person is going to be an active generator of information and not just a passive recipient. They are described by Feuerstein as "parameters of mediated learning" and are included in the COGNET program under the following labels:
Inner Meaning * Being aware of and developing a significance inside yourself that provides intrinsic motivation for learning and remembering.
Self Regulation * Controlling your approach to learning by using metacognition (thinking about how you are thinking) to determine factors like readiness and speed.
Feeling of Competence * Knowing you have the ability to do a particular thing. Lack of this tool often results in laziness and other avoidance behaviors; presence of it results in feeling confident and motivated to learn.
Goal Directed Behavior * Taking initiative in setting, seeking, and reaching objectives on a consistent basis.
Self Development * Being aware of your uniqueness as an individual and working toward becoming all you can be.
Sharing Behavior * Communicating thoughts to yourself and others in a manner that makes the implicit explicit.
Feeling of Challenge * Being aware of the effects emotions have on novel, complex, and consequently difficult tasks; knowing how to deal with challenge.
Awareness of Self Change * Knowing that you change throughout life and learning to expect, nurture, and benefit from it.