Structural Cognitive Modifiability (part three)

Structural Cognitive Modifiability (part three)

learningThe Model

In previous parts, following an overview of Reuven Feuerstein’s work, we have explored the various influences on the man and his work, and noted the immensity of his belief in the modifiability (that is, the ability to change) of even the least promising student. Here we will be exploring the model which comprises the conceptual and practical foundation for structural cognitive modifiability.


This model is the accetion of Feuerstein’s thinking and practice over a period of many years, often drawing on the work of others (that of Andre Rey, in particular, having been mentioned in relation to the paper and pencil instruments). Though I may talk about ‘the model’, there are actually a number of models, used to draw out various aspects of the work, and providing a rich source of resources to those working with learning and development. Unsurprisingly, given its history, the model has been formed by means of what we might call ‘conceptual bricolage’. (For those who are connoisseurs of models, this means Feuerstein’s is somewhat lacking in the aesthetic satisfaction by which pashas of higher mathematics evaluate the rigour of their products.)

The model currently comprises the following main elements: The Cognitive Map (including a list of cognitive functions); MLE, mediated learning experience; LPAD, the learning potential assessment device; and IE, instrumental enrichment. They will each be covered, in turn, to present an overview of what Feuerstein’s work offers.

The Cognitive Map

As it does not feature in the cognitive map, itself, it should be made clear that Feuerstein fully recognizes the importance of the affective and motivational factors in learning and development. These factors might best be seen as overlaying and embracing every aspect of the activity undertaken with students. However, it stands in a differrent relationship to practice than do the features of the cognitive map, for the obvious reason that these are concerned with cognition.

There are seven aspects to the cognitive map:

  1. The CONTENT around which the mental act is centred.
  2. The MODALITY in which the mental act is expressed (verbal, pictorial, numerical, graphic, etc.)
  3. The PHASE of the mental act (input, elaboration, output).
  4. The cognitive OPERATIONS required by the mental act (identification, comparison, categorization, etc.)
  5. The COMPLEXITY of the mental act (both in terms of the number of items involved and the degree of their familiarity or novelty).
  6. The level of ABSTRACTION (from concrete to cosmic).
  7. The EFFICIENCY of the mental act (precision and rapidity of performance, which can be affected by difficulties in any of the previous areas).

It can be seen that any mental act can be ‘plotted’ in terms of these aspects of cognition. However, buried within aspect no. 3, PHASE, is a list of cognitive functions which can be explored in order to reveal any problematic deficiencies in cognitive functioning and which will, in turn, provide the focus for corrective activities. This list is therefore extremely important in SCM work and though a full explanation of each item on the list would be too exhaustive for this article, I will present the list below, as most of the terms convey some idea of what is involved.

It will be seen that the list covers the three phases of cognitive activity, and thus orients our attention to the very different kinds of situation faced when a student has difficulties with the input of information being presented to them, from when it is the ability to work, mentally, with that input in a fruitful manner that is the difficulty, or the situation where the first two phases are functioning adequately but may not appear to be doing so due to deficiencies in being able to bring out the results of deliberation in a form communicable to others. Of course, the items you will see under each of the three phases of input, elaboration and output allow for even finer distinctions to be made about the areas of functioning which are causing problems for a student. (While it is easier to speak of these functions in remedial terms, their development is also of considerablle value for those whose overall cognitive functioning gives no cause for concern. As mentioned in the first of these articles, Feuerstein’s work has been used with fully-functioning adults in organizations leading to increases in efficiency and a greater ability to cope with the stresses of change.)

Cognitive Functions


Perception: clear vs. blurred / sweeping

Exploration of a Learning Situation: systematic vs. impulsive

Receptive Visual Tools and Concepts

Understanding of Spatial Concepts

Understanding of Temporal Concepts

Ability to Conserve Constancies

Data Gathering

Capacity to Consider More than one Source of Info


Definition of the Problem

Select Relevant Cues

Engage in Spontaneous Comparative Behaviour

Mental Field: broad / wide vs. narrow / limited

Spontaneous Summative Behaviour

Project Virtual Relationships

Logical Evidence

Internalize Events

Inferential Hypothetical Thinking

Strategies for Hypothesis Testing

Planning Behaviour

Elaboration of Cognitive Categories

Grasp of Reality: meaningful vs. episodic


Communication Modalities: mature vs. egocentric

Output Responses: participatory vs. blocking

Output Responses: worked through vs. trial and errror

Expressive Verbal Tools

Data Output

Visual Transport

Behaviour: appropriate vs. impulsive / acting out

The above, then, are the aspects of cognitive functioning which Feuerstein’s work seeks to address. Next we shall turn to the way in which they are to be addressed.

Mediated Learning Experience (MLE)

While this phrase is likely to be unfamiliar, the process itself is not. We are mediating learning experience for others whenever we point out things for them to pay attention to and explain how different things are connected together. Parents are forever explaining to their children how things work. And, as with everything, some parents will be better at this than others.

Teaching is, in theory, a more formal version of the same process. The teacher’s role is to break down activities, like writing sentences, into elements which the student is able to grasp and then to build them up again into a whole – the activity. As we all know, though, if the presentation runs ahead of our ability to digest the various elements involved we find ourselves completely at sea. It can then be very difficult to catch up, unless we are given individual assistance. More importantly, teaching – in its ‘telling’ mode – tends to inculcate an approach to learning as the passive receipt of information. In contrast, Feuerstein’s efforts, through the medium of the mediated learning experience, are designed to encourage an active, autonomous and communal approach to learning.

While mediated learning experience might appear to be a natural process, it is social and cultural, not instinctive. It does not necessarily happen. When there is social disruption, such as at times of war or migration, the attention of parents may be completely focussed on survival. Or they may, themselves, be traumatized by their own experiences and unable to supply this kind of support to their children. Additionally, if a child does not respond to its parent’s attempts to mediate its environment they may well give up attempting to do so. This is often the case where there are learning difficulties. It can be seen from this that the kind of mediated learning experience that usually takes place in families is, to a large degree, motivated by the response of the children, and lack of response tends to extinguish it.

Within Feuerstein’s scheme, everything depends on the quality and extent of this kind of mediation. When first coming across his work, the most obvious element is the set of paper and pencil instruments (IE, see below). It is very easy to get the impression that it is these instruments which cause the cognitive development. In fact, it is much more the case that their function is to provide the platform for mediated learning experiences, and it is these which bring about cognitive change.

While the phrase, ‘mediated learning experience’, might not trip lightly off the tongue, it captures something which is not only fundamental to the interaction between parents and their children but also between coaches and coachees, between learning group advisers and learning groups, and every other interaction where the focus is on learning and development rather than teaching.

Given its wide relevance, let us see what Feuerstein considers this activity to be made up of. Once again, we can do no more here than lightly examine a sketch of what has been written on the topic, and again it will take the form of a listing of its prominent aspects. The first three aspects are of a different status than the others. These must be there for an interaction to be considered, by Feuerstein, as one of mediated learning experience. The presence of the other aspects, and how many of these might be present, is dependent on the characteristics of each specific situation. (To reinforce the impression, given earlier, that Feuerstein’s model is not, as it were, Swiss precision engineered these aspects are, in other listings, expressed in different phraseology and may gain the odd addition or two.)

  1. Intentionality and ReciprocityThe mediator intentionally guides the student’s attention by selecting, framing and interpreting specific stimuli, and also aims to engage the student’s responsiveness and, thereby, receptivity to learning.
  2. MeaningThe mediator encourages an understanding of the significance and purpose of an activity.
  3. TranscendenceThe mediator encourages the student to generalize what is learnt to beyond the present activity.
  4. CompetenceThe mediator facilitates development of the student’s self-confidence in being able to accomplish things.
  5. Self-Regulation and Control of BehaviourThe mediator brings the student’s awareness to the need to self-monitor and adjust behaviour.
  6. SharingThe mediator encourages the student’s interdependence through the sharing of ideas and feelings in their cooperative activity.
  7. IndividuationThe mediator encourages the student’s autonomy and independence and a recognition of the differences among people.
  8. Goal PlanningThe mediator makes explicit for the student the processes involved in setting and accomplishing goals.
  9. ChallengeThe mediator encourages in the student the determination and enthusiasm to tackle novel and complex tasks.
  10. Self-ChangeThe mediator brings the student’s awareness to change and development that has taken place, and to its importance.

It should be immediately obvious that this list of what is involved in mediated learning experience provides a ready parallel to the role of a learning group adviser in SML. On occasions where there is the need to delineate, in fine detail, the kinds of activities in which a learning group adviser is engaged we could do worse than to draw on Feuerstein’s suggestions.

It should also be clear that the concept of mediated learning experience and the activities sketched above are applicable in any situation of learning and development. They do not rely on use of the kinds of instruments Feuerstein has developed anymore than the qualities of a learning group adviser are restricted only to the learning group context. So it is with the recognition that mediated learning experience is at the centre of Feuerstein’s work that we can now turn to the instruments which are associated with his name.

The Learning Potential Assessment Device (LPAD)

The purpose of the LPAD, as its name suggests, is to evaluate the reasons for a student’s low functioning at the same time as the likelihood of its modifiability. In the process, the direction in which to proceed with that student’s development is also revealed.

Tests of functioning generally focus on a diagnostic measure of the level of current functioning and are less likely to explore the possibilities for improvement. Yet it is the possibilities for improvement, and how these may be pursued, that are the things of most significance. Because application of the LPAD includes the use of mediated learning experience (MLE) the process of development begins even while engaging in this assessment phase.

At its simplest, LPAD involves the student, in the first stage, working at the paper and pencil IE instruments while the assessor carefully observes how the task is approached. Having identified the likely reasons behind any difficulties the student had, the assessor then works with the student, on similar tasks, aiding the student in thinking through how to go about them and then putting those plans into action. Finally, further tasks will be presented, similar to those which earlier caused difficulties, to see whether the student is able, without assistance, to derive from the middle stage a workable strategy to complete the new tasks.

In this way, application of the LPAD can lead directly to engagement with those IE materials most relevant to a student’s development. However, there is no necessity that use of the IE materials be preceded by the LPAD. You can jump right into the materials and work through them all, with any learning or development issues being automatically addressed in the process.

Instrumental Enrichment (IE)

The IE materials are a set of 14 paper and pencil instruments, comprising sets of exercises, which are used as the basis for providing mediated learning experiences to students. The instruments have titles such as Organization of Dots, Orientation in Space, Analytical Perception, Comparisons and Categorization. Each instrument begins with the simplest exercises and their complexity is then increased in various ways as they proceed.

The aim of the exercises is not to get the ‘right answer’, but that the process used to come to an efficient solution is well thought through. That is to say, the instruments, in the way they are mediated, are an encouragment to think through what you are doing. In other words, they encourage ‘metacognition’, thinking about how you are thinking.

It might seem strange that a system which was initially designed to assist those who have some kind of learning difficulty should be based on having them operate at a metacognitive level. At first blush, it looks like a rather remote and abstract level for people who are having difficulty fulfilling even very mundane tasks. One of the paradoxes of learning is that sophisticated cognitive abilities are required for learning even quite simple abilities. Typically, our use of metacognition goes unrecognized. Indeed, we are often not even aware that we are thinking when our attention is fully immersed in some activity, never mind being aware that we are running two parallel levels of thinking. [As an aside, this could be an interesting topic to explore further in our newsletter if you, the readers, wish to do so. Simply send your thoughts to the editor; that’s me.]

Turning back to the instruments, themselves, let me attempt a description of the best known, the Organization of Dots. The first page begins with a frame in which there is a square and a triangle and, beside them, set in the same spacial arrangement, a group of dots denoting the corners of those shapes. This establishes the task: identify, from the placement of dots, the shapes within each frame throughout the instrument. Early on, the shapes are separated out and there are sometimes clues to guide you. As the pages continue, in the same vein, there are more complex shapes and the dots cluster together so that the shapes are, in effect, superimposed upon one another.

Initially, the task appear simple, even simplistic, but it doesn’t remain so. For one thing, you are expected not to pencil in a shape until you are sure of all of the shapes in that particular frame. It becomes extremely difficult to adhere to this when the dots are like a blizzard and in searching for a second shape you can easily lose track of the first. Completing the final pages does give a sense of accomplishment even to a supposedly fully-functioning adult.

Other instruments, some of whose names were given above, tackle different of the cognitive functions though there is sufficient overlap, within instruments, that all of the functions get a good workout. Because the aim is not just to zip through the instruments but for the process to be mediated to the metacognitive level, the 14 instruments provide enough material to keep students busy for something like 300 hours.

With the image of your intrepid reporter struggling to connect the dots, we draw to a close this three-part exploration of an estimable entry into the ranks of current approaches to learning and development. As was pointed out at the beginning, this approach has been most used with those having difficulty in reaching the norms of cognitive functioning. And for this it has become renowned. At the same time, it also offers the prospect of enhanced functioning and this can be of especial interest to the organisational world where, as we so often observe, success is closely tied to the rising curve of learning and development.

Graham Dawes