Retraining the brain

Issue: Volume 99, Number 14

Posted: 3 September 2020
Reference #: 1HAAXX

A programme supporting diverse learning needs – one of several such programmes in New Zealand schools – has been part of a north Wellington intermediate school’s approach to learning support since 2015, with remarkable results.

Blake, Josh and Ashton enjoyed working on an Organisation of Dots activity together.

Blake, Josh and Ashton enjoyed working on an Organisation of Dots activity together.

Tui sing in the kowhai tree outside a repurposed storeroom at Tawa Intermediate while three Year 8 boys put their heads together, happily absorbed in an Organisation of Dots activity that is training their brains. 

Ashton, Josh and Blake are attending a specialised learning support session. They are among 38 learners at Tawa Intermediate currently involved in the Feuerstein programme, which has been part of the school’s approach to learning support since 2015.

The Feuerstein approach – one of a number of different approaches to support diverse learning needs – was developed in Israel after World War II to support children’s adjustment to learning after the Holocaust. 

Feuerstein advocate Dr Dorothy Howie, from the University of Auckland, says the approach has many similarities to the Vygotskian approach, which is used by many New Zealand teachers, in that it focuses on partnerships between educators and students and looks at the processes that underlie thinking. 

The Feuerstein approach aims to improve learning by enhancing analysis and reasoning skills. During Feuerstein sessions, a trained mediator leads learners through analysing problems and systematically solving increasingly complex cognitive problems.  

Dorothy, who has recently released a book on the approach, emphasises that teaching thinking is a key competency requirement in The New Zealand Curriculum

“New Zealand could lead the world in the teaching of thinking, because we do think about teaching and learning in a culturally appropriate and inclusive way,” says Dorothy. 

Tawa Intermediate’s Feuerstein team, Claire Walker, Katrina Green and Jane Hannah enjoy a kōrero together.

Tawa Intermediate’s Feuerstein team, Claire Walker, Katrina Green and Jane Hannah enjoy a kōrero together.

“Amazing stuff happens”

At Tawa Intermediate, the programme is delivered by Jane Hannah, Katrina Green and Claire Walker, who have all completed Feuerstein mediator training. 

“Often students say, ‘Why have I been picked?’, but once they realise they are among like-minded people, amazing stuff happens,” says Claire. 

Students are selected for the programme through information gathered from their primary schools, assessment data from term 1 and anecdotal feedback from classroom teachers. The programme consists of eight units over two years, with each student assessed after the first year to check it is the right approach. 

“We are trying to provide something for students who either have a diagnosed learning difference like dyslexia, or when they fit the criteria where this programme would really boost their abilities and their self-belief so they can begin to see themselves as learners and start to make progress,” explains Jane.

Some students can act impulsively and this can mean they can miss the input phase of learning. “They don’t break down: what have I been given? How do I look into it? We really break that down for them, which is: what’s wanted? What’s been given? Where’s the strategy? Where do I start? How do I check?” explains Claire.

With much of the material presented in pictorial form, the subject matter doesn’t trigger anxiety for students who may have had negative learning experiences previously.

“Feuerstein worked out all the thinking skills a person needs and matched them to all the tasks. What does the brain need to do the task? Then the activity retrains the brain,” explains Katrina.

Learning support in action

When Education Gazette visited, Ashton, Josh and Blake were working on a unit that focuses on following instructions. The three boys have participated in the programme since Year 7.

Jane Hannah (centre) watches as Ashton, Josh and Blake get stuck into a new task.

Jane Hannah (centre) watches as Ashton, Josh and Blake get stuck into a new task.

“When we are reading instructions, what do we need to do to make sure we don’t get confused?” asks Jane.

“I look at the words and think about the meanings of the key words like the name of the shape, the size, the colour and then I do the page,” says Ashton.

“We have a picture of some shapes, we have to read the instructions and follow them and then put the shapes in order – maybe size, or it depends on the instructions. When you first start the unit, it will be quite confusing, but when you start doing it for a few days, you start to get used to it,” says Josh.

“It’s interesting to learn things like following instructions and organising stuff,” adds Blake.

“Today’s a bit different because it’s writing and spelling and that’s not necessarily their comfortable area, so they do make spelling mistakes,” says Jane. 

“It’s not a facet of their programme, but because this is key vocabulary that will help them in their future, I like to remind them to get it right when they have written examples. And it’s a safe space so they will ask how to spell things and they will want to make it accurate.”

Meanwhile, Claire’s Year 7 group has been working on orientation in space and she says the unit offers a range of learning opportunities from a practical way of sorting out directions – lefts and rights, fronts and backs – to soft skills such as empathy.

“You can’t find your direction, or give someone else directions, unless you put yourself in their shoes. That can be a mind-blowing thing for some children who aren’t used to seeing things from other perspectives. For a lot of the children that are here, sometimes it’s a social issue – they are not quite fitting in with their peers at school,” says Claire. 

Sea change

The programme makes a big difference to students’ confidence. The three staff trained as Feuerstein mediators say students selected for the programme often have not achieved well at primary school and by the time they reach Year 7 are reticent and not willing to give things a go.

“Then we see this sea change where all of a sudden, things are manageable. They think ‘I can do that’ and they get stuck in. And we hear from their classroom teachers that that has changed in the classroom as well,” says Jane.

Katrina Green and Ruby work on a Feuerstein task together.

Katrina Green and Ruby work on a Feuerstein task together.

Katrina says students love attending the sessions. “They realise that their thinking is unique to them and they can build on what they know – it’s exciting for the students. Suddenly it’s fun to learn and I think the tasks are really enticing to your brain,” she says.

Jane recalls a student who initially didn’t want to attend school. “His attendance rate at primary school was really low. He loved the programme; his attendance at Tawa Intermediate boosted up to 82 per cent. 

“There was a huge difference in his attitude towards getting out of bed in the morning and coming to school. His parents said, ‘He now sings in the shower before coming to school – he has got himself up and out of bed – he’s happy.’” 

Sense of accomplishment

Students regard being part of the Feuerstein cohort as a badge of honour and proudly wear the badge awarded to participants in the programme. “It feels like we have accomplished something,” explains Josh.

In the first year of the programme, the students were quite sceptical, says Claire.  

“They would ask a lot of questions, which is great, because it’s very much a discussion-based programme. And it didn’t really click until the second year, when all of a sudden, one boy said, ‘You know what? This really works!’

“All of a sudden something would pop up in class that may not be directly related to what they do in here, but they were able to bridge it to what they had learnt. For example, in maths they were doing flow diagrams and trying to work out linear thinking. The student said, ‘Hold on a minute, we’ve done this thing in Feuerstein... I can do this!’ 

“A lot of the kids we have here are non-linear thinkers. So it was that idea of getting lots of information and putting it in a form that you could express coherently,” says Claire.

Results and success

Jane says it’s difficult to assess how much the programme contributes to achievement, but by the end of Year 8, there are definite improvements. 

“It’s tricky to track exactly because we also pursue a diagnosis and once they have a diagnosis, they are entitled to a reader or writer in exams and they are getting the support that they are entitled to.

“You see an exponential jump because they are getting the support they need. For those who are already getting that help, you don’t see such a big jump, but we see a big change in the attitude; they become confident learners,” she says.

Tawa Intermediate tracks Feuerstein students as they progress through Tawa College. In 2019 all of the graduates from the programme achieved NCEA Level 1 at their first attempt.

“Intermediate is such a powerful time of change – they are only here for two years – but they come in as a young primary school child and we need to get them college-ready and those two years are a massive time of change really. 

“It’s a great time to do the Feuerstein approach. It’s certainly worked here and there’s very strong community support for it. People know about it, will actively search you out and talk about it, and parents ask where they can find a high school that offers the approach,” says Claire.

Activities such as Organisation of Dots help students learn how to solve cognitive problems.

Activities such as Organisation of Dots help students learn how to solve cognitive problems.

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BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:53 PM, 3 September 2020

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