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Mediation of Cognitive Competencies for Students in Need

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  Mediation of cognitive competencies for students in need. by Meir Ben-Hur  The Mediated Learning Experience (MLE) believes that mediation creates a link between a learner’s concepts of the world and his early learning of such things as language and culture. Through MLE, a learner’s cognitive systems are transformed while his cognitive development is facilitated.  © COPYRIGHT 1998 Phi Delta Kappa, Inc. Children who have not received sufficient Mediated Learning Experiences are not prepared to deal with the cognitive challenges confronting them as they enter school and are thus unable to benefit from the wealth of classroom experiences offered, Mr. Ben-Hur points out.Keith, an average fifth-grade student, has just completed an exciting hands-on science,unit investigating planet Earth. It lasted four months. Wanting to assess Keith’s new understanding, his science teacher engages in a clinical interview with him.(1)Teacher: Where is the sun after it sets?Keith (pausing): I don’t know . . .Teacher (pointing to the student-made colorful globes with attached labels hanging from the classroom ceiling and to students’ pictures and drawings on the walls): Is there anything in our classroom exhibit that can help you think about this?Keith (looking around): No . . . but I know it doesn’t go into the ocean.Teacher: How do you know that?Keith: Because it would splash the water.Teacher: Oh. So where does it really go?Keith (pausing): Maybe to China?Teacher (relieved): And where is it when it sets in China?Keith (troubled): I don’t know . . .Sound familiar? Have you ever wondered why it is that some student experiences - even rich, exciting, hands-on types of active learning - do not result in real learning of new concepts? Have you wondered how it happens that some students (perhaps as many as half) do not understand what they experience even in the most engaging classes?Why Learning Needs to Be MediatedThe Piagetian constructivist school of developmental psychology, which views cognitive abilities as a product of the combination of the maturation of the central nervous system and earlier exposures, provides little help to our troubled teacher. She needs to find ways to facilitate the construction of concepts in mathematics, science, and other subjects for the half of her students who cannot build them on their own. Meaning is not implicit in objects and events. Our concept of the world is, for the most part, not a product of our perception of the world. Rather, our perception is generally the product of our concept of the world. What we learn from our direct exposure to objects and events (direct learning) is strictly determined by our preconceived notions of these objects and events and by our ability to relate them to our previous learning. Our concepts, in turn, may be modified by those experiences that are incompatible with them. However, such modifications are unlikely to happen without some form of intervention or mediation. Remember, it took humans millions of years to change their idea that the Earth is flat, and they did not change their thinking until the interventions of maps and exploration provided evidence incompatible with their beliefs.Keith’s learning about planet Earth could not depend entirely upon his own ideas of planet Earth even in a hands-on, exciting, active-learning science class. His perceptions of the objects and events in his science class were entirely different from those his teacher expected.Lev Vygotsky, a world-renowned social psychologist, argued that the srcin of our concepts of the world must be found in our early learning of such things as language, culture, and religion.(2) This learning cannot happen without the help, or mediation, of such people as parents, caretakers, and siblings.Reuven Feuerstein terms this form of learning Mediated Learning Experience (MLE), as opposed to Direct Learning Experience (DLE). He argues that the mediators of our early learning interpose themselves between us and the world to help make our experiences meaningful. Furthermore, he argues that, in their deliberate attempts to change our concepts, mediators promote the development of our cognitive systems. Phi Delta KappanMay 1998 v79 n9 p661(6)Page 1- Reprinted with permission. Additional copying is prohibited. - G A L E G R O U P Information Integrity  Mediation of cognitive competencies for students in need. How MLE Promotes Cognitive DevelopmentIn an attempt to produce mental models, modalities, and dispositions for our later experiences, mediated learning experiences transform our cognitive systems and facilitate our cognitive development. To show us the meaning, mediators confront us with and draw our attention to selected stimuli. They teach us how to look at the world selectively, how to see meaning. They schedule the appearance and disappearance of stimuli, they bring together stimuli that are separated by time and/or space, and they focus our attention on certain transformations in stimuli that we otherwise would overlook. In the process, they teach us how to focus and how to register the temporal and spatial properties of objects and events and the changes that occur in them. They teach us how to compare the same experiences using different criteria and how to sort relevant data from irrelevant data. They help us learn how to label our experiences, and they teach us how to group them by categories. Through MLEs, we learn how to learn and how to think. MLEs prepare us for future learning.Consider, for example, two groups of parents and children who visit a handson, exploratory science museum. In one group, a child skips eagerly from exhibit to exhibit, touching displays and occasionally pressing a button or listening to a recorded message. In the second group, the child and parents walk to each exhibit together. Then the parents direct the child’s attention to specific features, they ask questions, they interpret displays, they search for causal relationships, and they eventually help the child formulate concepts about the exhibit. In the first group, there is no comparing of this new experience to what the child already knows, no new insights are gained, and no new learning takes place. In the second group, the parents provide an MLE, and the child learns and acquires meaning.Children who have not received sufficient MLEs are not prepared to deal with the cognitive challenges confronting them as they enter school and are thus unable to benefit from the wealth of classroom experiences offered. Even when faced with handson, active-learning opportunities, they fail to find the meaning. They may enjoy creating the model planets, but they do not understand the related whys. They fail to achieve academically, fall behind, and lose interest. These children often experience the world in a random, impulsive way and grasp it episodically. They cannot consider several sources of information simultaneously and do not compare their experiences. They do not form relationships between ideas or look for causes. They do not identify problems and are bored even in classes that teachers believe are challenging. They are children who do not feel a need to reason and draw inferences, children who have difficulties in making representations. Keith was one of these children, and, as such, he benefited little from typical classroom experiences.Why MLEs May Be WithheldChildren may not receive Mediated Learning Experiences as a result of certain biological, emotional, or social factors. Extensive research - such as studies on Down’s syndrome or emotionally disturbed children - has been done on biological and emotional factors. Indeed, the literature is replete with evidence of their importance in the cognitive development of children. Some of the research shows that even the consequences of biological and emotional conditions can be ameliorated with effective MLEs.Feuerstein specifically directs our attention to social factors. He points to the social condition of many culturally different children as a determinant of their academic failure. He has observed that it is this population of children - those likely to be deprived of the benefit of a stable cultural context - who do not receive MLEs as a matter of their parents’ choice. Because they do not see their own culture as necessary, or even appropriate, for the future of their children, many minority parents withhold MLEs from their children and delegate the responsibility for their cognitive development to the social institutions of the government. Cultural discontinuity, which turns into MLE deprivation, is indeed a growing social problem, as reported in comparative studies with minority children. The population of minority students with learning problems, including the gifted underachievers, continues to grow.Feuerstein’s theory of MLE is tied to his belief that our cognitive abilities are modifiable, that we can change our abilities from the expected course of cognitive development. One of his fundamental premises is that the structure of the intellect can be transformed to enable one to learn better. Feuerstein argues that, regardless of age, irrespective of the cause, and despite a poor level of functioning, humans’ cognitive abilities are malleable. This argument is well supported by research on the brain. If a child did not receive sufficient MLEs as part of his or her early childhood experiences, MLEs in the classroom can change the course of the child’s early cognitive development.MLE in the ClassroomFeuerstein’s theory of MLE offers a refreshing outlook on education, and many teachers find his humanistic approach exciting. However, he warns against the misuse of his ideas. Good learning is not necessarily mediated, Phi Delta KappanMay 1998 v79 n9 p661(6)Page 2 - Reprinted with permission. Additional copying is prohibited. - G A L E G R O U P Information Integrity  Mediation of cognitive competencies for students in need. and, according to Feuerstem, mediation is not always good teaching.A teacher must first decide whether a student needs mediated learning. If mediation is not needed, then it is useless and may even be harmful. Mediation, by definition, replaces independent work. If a student has formed an appropriate goal for his or her science observations (i.e., has formed a relevant hypothesis); can follow written directions; can record, compare, and sort data; can write a report; and can present findings, and if his or her learning requires only these processes, then mediation is not needed. If the student cannot perform any one, or more, of these functions, then mediation should be offered to ameliorate the specific deficiency. Furthermore, mediation should be withheld as soon as the student achieves mastery. Ultimately, all students should be able to benefit from all types of learning opportunities, including direct learning experiences such as lectures, the Internet, and independent study - because they have learned how to learn.If you decide to offer MLE, you may want to follow Feuerstein’s guidelines for mediators. Feuerstein lists three characteristics that define MLE and distinguish it from other teacher/student interactions.(3) None of these is sufficient by itself; rather, each provides a necessary dimension for MLE. These characteristics are intentionality and reciprocity, transcendence, and meaning.Intentionality and reciprocity. While children learn much of what they know and can do incidentally, mediation is not incidental teaching. In MLE the teacher interposes himself or herself intentionally and systematically between the children and the content of their experiences. At the same time, both the teacher and the children reciprocate with shared intentions. It is easy to apply this principle when a student initiates MLE - that is, when a student feels a need for the teacher’s guidance. In such cases, a teacher intentionally addresses the existing need that engages the student in learning and responds to a child’s need for mediation. The more challenging case for mediators is when a child does not feel the need for mediation. How can the teacher’s imposed intentions achieve a reciprocal response?Skillful mediators create student-felt needs by manipulating all the available classroom resources, including the content of instruction, the students’ level of alertness, and the teacher’s own behavior. The model of Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment (FIE) program helped me to understand this idea.Let us first consider the choice of instructional content and material. The FIE program includes hundreds of problem-solving exercises - all using alternatives to the cultural content (ideas, values, beliefs, vocabulary, traditions, and so on) that is known to foster MLEs naturally in the childhood environment but that is often absent in the experiences of culturally deprived students. Teachers are always impressed by the students’ excited responses to FIE tasks and by the power of the program to generate a felt need for mediation. FIE tasks challenge students appropriately both by their novelty (their unusual appearance and structure) and by their level of difficulty (not too easy, but progressively more difficult).Teachers who have access to or are creative in developing and collecting alternative instructional content usually know how to use variations to engage students. Such teachers may find or develop a variety of content for the mediation of specific abilities. For example, a teacher may want to mediate the sorting of data. If a student is not interested in sorting with one kind of content, the teacher may offer an alternative that does engage the student.We also need to consider how a teacher’s actions help to create student-felt needs for mediation. As teachers, we often behave in the classroom in unusual ways in order to keep students alert. We raise our voices, use exaggerated body movements, and ask direct questions of students who seem to be drifting off. Other teaching strategies, however, enhance the reciprocity in mediation. They focus on student expectations and intrinsic motivation. FIE teachers trained in MLE use questions to create a student-felt need for mediation. Questions are carefully chosen to be as challenging and rewarding as the FIE tasks are. This model can be applied throughout the curriculum.The choice of questions reflects the mediator’s expectations of students. If the expectations are low, the questions are simple. If they are high, the questions are difficult. If the expectations are wrong, the instructional pace is too slow or too fast, or the questions are unchallenging, the mediation is likely to fail. Therefore, the choice of questions must be based on a fair assessment and analysis of the needs and abilities of the students. The analysis, assessment, and expectations of students must be dynamic, reflecting the changes sought by the MLE.We often think about the choice of teacher questions in terms of levels, such as those represented by Bloom’s taxonomy. When a teacher asks students why and how rather than what, students need to generate ideas rather than reproduce and copy ideas. For example, a science teacher whose students completed a sorting procedure will ask the students to explain how they did the procedure rather than what the result of their work was. Phi Delta KappanMay 1998 v79 n9 p661(6)Page 3 - Reprinted with permission. Additional copying is prohibited. - G A L E G R O U P Information Integrity  Mediation of cognitive competencies for students in need. New learning experiences should always be built on past successful ones, with a manageable progression between the two. When the challenge of the teacher’s questions is manageable, students become intrinsically motivated to engage further in MLE. If the questions are too simple or too difficult, students disengage from the MLE.The way we choose our questions is related to the time we allow students to think before they respond and to our reactions to their responses. Teachers are often impatient. The average pause or wait time after teachers ask a question in the classroom is two to three seconds. This impatience generally has three negative consequences. First, students may need more time to think a question through carefully. Premature student responses are likely to misguide teachers in forming subsequent questions. Second, short wait time reinforces students’ impulsiveness. Third, when students don’t respond during the short pause, teachers tend to become uncomfortable and replace the srcinal question with another, lower-level question, thereby reducing the challenge to students, possibly below the optimal level. A mediator’s (in this case a teacher’s) patience, even an exaggerated pause, is critical to the learning experience.The mediator’s response to a student’s answer must foster reciprocity in the interaction. Mediators may encourage and invite further elaboration and discussion or probe if initial responses are incomplete, unclear, or incorrect. At the same time, mediators should remain nonjudgmental in their comments. Examples of appropriate teacher responses are Thank you for your answer, Interesting answer, Could you explain your thinking in a different way, so that all the students can understand? and Could you think of another answer? Responses of this kind reflect the reciprocal nature of the interaction between mediator and learner, and they foster intrinsic motivation.To summarize, teacher behaviors that foster reciprocity in an MLE include:* choosing content that students like to think about;* changing stance, facial and body expressions, and level and inflection of voice;* asking why and how questions rather than what questions;* allowing sufficient wait time for student responses;* responding to student reflections in a nonjudgmental manner;* encouraging students to offer alternative ideas;* revealing interest in student learning;* listening carefully to students;* showing readiness to spend more time for the benefit of a student’s learning; and* taking special interest in struggling learners.Transcendence. While it may be an appropriate teaching goal, content knowledge by itself is not the mediator’s concern. Content serves only as a means to reach the goals of MLEs. An MLE seeks changes in the way students learn and think. Such changes must transcend the content and context of the MLE. A teacher may use the science class to mediate the process and utility of sorting data by different criteria. However, the teacher’s mediation must be aimed at the cognitive behavior and not at the specific data to which the process is applied. In fact, content may be a restrictive factor in an MLE.Abstract as it may be, content always defines specific contextual, functional, or even conceptual boundaries. In order to ensure the transfer of learning to other content areas and contexts, mediators should attempt to eliminate the boundaries that intrinsically tie the target cognitive behavior in the learning experience to its content; that is, they must decontextualize the learning of cognitive behavior. To do this, mediators need to vary the content while focusing on the same target behavior. For example, if the mediator is focusing on representational thinking, then the classroom model for the rotation of Earth around the sun would be just one instance in which the students discuss the spatial configuration and relationships involved. The mediator would engage the students with other contents that model the same cognitive function. Thus a science teacher might ask students to model eclipses of the sun and the moon and to explain these conditions as observed from Earth, the moon, and the sun. When the students realize that the view differs depending on the point of reference, the teacher would ask them to think of other cases in which the outcome depends on the point of view.Typical examples of the transcendence principle can be found in mediated learning at home. As parents mediate the concept of organization, they choose different content areas and contexts. These may include the organization of toys, drawings, crayons, chairs, tools, the contents of a school bag, and so on. The organization of these objects will vary with the criteria applied. First, the items might be ordered by size or color, then grouped by function, and, eventually, by age or according to the different relationships between them. Phi Delta KappanMay 1998 v79 n9 p661(6)Page 4 - Reprinted with permission. Additional copying is prohibited. - G A L E G R O U P Information Integrity
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