Structural Cognitive Modifiability (part one)

Yes, that title is quite a mouthful, isn’t it. And why should we be interested in it. The reason, as far as I am concerned, is that Structural Cognitive Modifiability (SCM) is the name of a theory of learning which has been used beneficially across a wide swathe of very varied learners, from Down’s syndrome, special needs and other children with learning difficulties through those who are coping effectively with the expectations of the school system and on to include adults working in organizations. If SCM is useful across such a range, and is about learning, then it is relevant to us.

To lead us into the topic, in this first instalment I will explain how I came to be interested in SCM. Future parts will give some background on its developer, Reuven Feuerstein, and an elaboration of the various models and instruments encompassed within SCM. A good place to start, though, might be by taking apart its daunting name to reveal what it’s all about.

My dictionary defines ‘cognition’ as ‘the mental act or process by which knowledge is acquired, including perception, intuition and reasoning’. What is important about the term is that it includes more than merely the intellect. In the last couple of decades the term has gained in currency due to the creation of cognitive science as scientists from a number of different disciplines found their varied interests coinciding on the matter of cognition.

The modifiability of cognition is central to any idea of learning (including physical skills), but modifiability can be either momentary or longer lasting. To add the term ‘structural’ is to indicate that it is long-lasting cognitive change which is the aim. Cognition can be modified in such a way as to change cognitive structure; this is the belief Feuerstein brings even to the most unpromising cognitive performance.

Hopefully, this makes Structural Cognitive Modifiability less daunting. And how did I come to be interested in it. The story begins in the latter part of the ‘Eighties when I was one of those running the University of Sussex MBA programme at Roffey Park Management Institute. The programme was SML-based and we had designed a rigourous selection process which eschewed the usual reliance on prior academic qualifications. The programme was intended for practicing managers and was intended to develop them to be more effective practicing managers (rather than academics) so their past academic abilities would have been an insufficient guide to their suitability. (In fact, one of those who did not make it through the selection process already held a Ph.D.)

Those who joined the programme faced two main tasks in its first phase: to develop a thoroughly thought through learning contract, and to write an essay on their personal thoughts about managing. This essay required participants to abstract theoretical considerations from their practical experience and, at the same time, to evaluate existing management theories in terms of their own experiences of managing. In consequence, they were required to navigate in the conceptual world, moving from concrete experience to abstractions and vice versa, as they made a case for their personal perspective on managing.

Among the various cohorts with which I was involved there were a few managers for whom this task presented considerable difficulties. These were effective managers, yet they were hard put to construct a coherent argument in favour of a personal position on the process of managing. They would be able to write reams on their experiences as managers (‘war stories’) but seemed unable to draw principles or premises from these experiences, and to tie those premises together into a logical argument.

The implications of this reached far beyond the question of whether or not they could fulfil the requirements for a masters degree. It bore upon their future career possibilities. They were effective as middle managers but to move to the level of senior managers would require them to show an ability for strategic thinking. Strategic thinking, by its nature, is removed from the immediate and concrete realities with which these managers were familiar, and in which they were effective. Strategic thinking requires the ability of abstraction, the ability to draw back from immediate concerns and range across the as-yet-unlived landscape of the future; indeed, across many possible futures. In other words, it required that ability to navigate in the conceptual world.

I remember sitting down with one of these managers and attempting to tease out with him the implications of what he had written, to delve into just what his perspective was on managing. I even took it to the level of taking apart individual sentences, probing them for their meaning. It was hard. I felt I was mired in cognitive glue. Eventually, with the help of his learning group and by putting his essay through a number of drafts he did manage to produce an acceptable version. Nonetheless, I was dissatisfied with my ability to assist him in coming to grips with the conceptual world.

This dissatisfaction led me to canvas colleagues on how people could be helped to develop in this area. There were thin pickings. Much that I heard suggested the kind of approach I had taken. One elderly-statesman type, very experienced in training and development, said that the kind of ability I was interested in was either developed during the school years or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t that was too bad, nothing could be done about it. Not the kind of response to satisfy me.

With my antennae out for anything which might be relevant to this issue I noticed a TV programme on Feuerstein’s work with children. What I saw was interesting. I searched out his books and information on what was happening with his work in England. Serendipitously, it was not long before Feuerstein himself was appearing at a conference on innovative learning approaches in Brighton. Ian Cunningham and I attended his session, and both felt there was value in his approach.

The most noticeable aspect of that approach was a selection of pencil and paper instruments used by him in the process of developing cognitive functioning. I was eager to get hold of copies of those instruments. Unfortunately, the situation was the same as that with many psychometric tests, training was required before you were authorized to purchase the instruments. The training took time and money and, despite my interest, the rarity with which I faced the problems it was designed to address didn’t seem to warrant my attending.

That is where things lay. Until this last year. You will have heard that a number of us want to create an alternative to the school system, and that this has led to our forming the South Downs Learning Centre. In that context, the relevance of Feuerstein’s work increased. I found myself working with students some of whom had learning difficulties relating to cognitive functioning. I wanted to have more ways of assisting them in their development.

This time round, with the impetus of a more pressing need, I decided to bite the bullet and go for the training. It comes in two levels, each spread over six months, and with a seven month gap between them, meaning that I will not complete until March 2005. That seems a long way away, but I have been surprised to find the training very much more worthwhile than I had expected, so it has ceased to feel like a burden. Indeed, it has become a very stimulating way to enlarge my understanding of the fundamental cognitive factors which underlie our ability to learn.

Graham Dawes