‘We cannot afford to lose even one child’

Rabbi David Ariel Sher on the life of Professor Reuven Feuerstein.

‘A magician.’ ‘The transformer.’ ‘Like an Old Testament prophet.’ ‘The miracle worker.’ ‘An amazing agent of change.’ Perhaps what struck me most when researching the life and work of noted psychologist Professor Reuven Feuerstein was the startlingly hyperbolic language almost always used to describe him. However, after studying Feuerstein’s clinical, developmental and cognitive work in depth, I couldn’t help but find practitioners’ accolades and the innumerable accounts of his successes most compelling.

Feuerstein was an unusual man with an extraordinary life story. Born in Botosani, Romania in 1921, he could read Yiddish and Hebrew at the age of three and at the tender age of eight taught a 15-year-old dyslexic child to read the traditional Kadish prayer, said in memory of departed loved ones. During World War II, the young Feuerstein commenced psychological studies at the University of Bucharest. In the city’s Onesco school he also taught children who had escaped from countries under German control, whose parents had been murdered by Nazis and local collaborators. Involved in the country’s resistance movement, in 1944, on the eve of the Jewish festival of Purim, Feuerstein was arrested by an undercover Rumanian policeman. He escaped by convincing the policeman to join him for a drink before heading to the police station. This ended in the inebriated guard leaving Feuerstein unscathed. No longer deciding to rely on such luck, Feuerstein boarded a ship sailing to Palestine several days later.

Day-to-day contact with young Holocaust survivors made a huge impact on Feuerstein, as he later related, ‘I saw a 17-year-old boy who only weighed 75 pounds, and who looked at every scrap of food as if he was starving; he would steal and hoard food every chance he got’. At the time many said there was no future for such children, given the atrocities they witnessed and the trauma they had suffered. Feuerstein disagreed: ‘Basically, I said, yes, we can help these children and all children, no matter their developmental problems. We can help them because they are human beings who have a Divine spirit in them.’

In 1948 Feuerstein contracted tuberculosis and was despatched to Switzerland to convalesce. It ultimately turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events, as he enrolled for further psychological training at the University of Geneva, where he studied under leading figures of cognitive and developmental psychology, including André Rey, Jean Piaget, Carl Jung and Karl Jaspers. During this period, he claimed he learned ‘the essence of human modifiability’.

Feuerstein returned to Israel in the mid-1950s and spent several years working with Holocaust survivors and children arriving from North Africa and other developing countries who had suffered cultural and personal deprivation. He was responsible for the closure of ten establishments for children’s special education in Israel under his firm conviction that homogeneous environments were detrimental for children’s development. This did not make him popular with leading educational figures, but by 1964 he had succeeded in moving these children into regular kibbutzim where they were trained by special staff to integrate into normal environments. Several years later, in 1970, Feuerstein completed his PhD in developmental psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Theories and work

When Feuerstein tested these children with Piaget’s methods and standardised tests, he observed that many of them would be categorised as ‘retarded’. This ran contrary to his belief that any child had the ability to progress, regardless of age or condition. Through special methods, Feuerstein believed the children would be able to overcome all obstacles.

Determined to act, Feuerstein founded the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential (ICELP) in Jerusalem’s salubrious Rehavia neighbourhood. Treatment at ICELP was based on his ground-breaking structural cognitive modifiability (SCM) theory. In his own words, ‘the theory of SCM basically postulated that individuals can be changed in terms of their cognitive processes in a structural way’. In association with the SCM theory, Feuerstein developed an assessment methodology (LAPD; the Learning Assessment Propensity Device) and treatment (MLE; Mediated Learning Experience). Fundamentally, Feuerstein assessors try to appraise ability to change. One of the pivotal differences between standardised tests and the Feuerstein method is that assessors intervene when children encounter a dilemma, reorganising or restructuring materials to assist the children. Whilst teaching the child how to successfully complete the task, the assessor (or mediator) gauges what the child finds complex and the way in which the child learns. Whilst teaching, Feuerstein mediators engage in whatever behaviour is necessary to encourage the child’s interest. ‘You will see mediators singing, dancing, rolling on the floor… Sitting quietly at a table can come later’, one explained.

Feuerstein also developed the Instrumental Enrichment Program (known as FIE) for implementation in school classes. This methodology combined a different kind of assessment with adapted behavioural techniques and training, causing such great changes in behaviour that Feuerstein asserted ‘it was almost impossible not to speculate that there must be something happening in the neurophysiology’. His theories and work are unusual today; in the 1950s they were considered radical. When he met Pribram and Penfield, two distinguished neurophysiologists of the time, they concurred that undoubtedly there appeared to be some form of modification taking place. However, they resigned themselves to the fact that it could not be proven and shied away from openly challenging prevailing scientific thought. Over the ensuing decades, Feuerstein was scorned and criticised for being a ‘dreamer’ and an irresponsible optimist. The prevailing opinion was that the brain is incapable of producing new neurons to replace those that are destroyed.

In 1970 Feuerstein became professor of educational psychology at Bar-Ilan University, and in 1980 he was appointed visiting professor at Yale University. By this point, his views were beginning to catch on. Discoveries concerning the plasticity of the brain bolstered what he had known intuitively for decades. Feuerstein had published three books and was invited to lecture at universities worldwide. His methods were adopted in over 80 countries, his Instrumental Enrichment was translated into 20 languages (including a Braille version) and 30 American states incorporated his techniques into their education systems following endorsement by the US Department of Education. In his eighties, Feuerstein accepted a request by President Jacques Chirac to attend a meeting at the Elysée Palace to discuss the implementation of his programme for troubled schoolchildren across France. Two hundred and twenty major companies in France, including Peugeot, Renault and the French postal and electric services consulted with ICELP. In his nineties, 12,000 Brazilian teachers learnt his methods at the request of the country’s education ministry, and Feuerstein entered into negotiations with the Education Ministry of the Netherlands for similar purposes. In recent years, well over 700 teachers from across the world would study his methods every year at his centre in Jerusalem. Over 80 books have been written on his work and over 2000 peer reviewed journal articles and doctoral theses have focused on his methods. Feuerstein was a recipient of honorary doctorates and awards from cities across the world. He was honoured with France’s Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques in 1991, received the Israel Prize for Social Sciences in 1992 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.

Feuerstein’s work was known in Britain, but many were irked at his irrepressible optimism even in seemingly hopeless cases. Disgruntled psychiatrists, reluctantly giving in to intransigent parents who wished to have their children seen by Feuerstein, sent him discourteous referral letters asking Feuerstein not to be unkind by expecting more than possible from their patients. Some referred to his methods as ‘idiosyncratic’ and ‘unscientific’ whilst still reluctantly agreeing that Feuerstein had somehow succeeded where others failed. However, it was an extraordinary episode that still captures headlines and almost involved the collapse of Margaret Thatcher’s government that truly brought Feuerstein and his methods to the centre of national attention in the UK.

Accounts and stories

In 1983 Cecil Parkinson was at the zenith of his career. In a rags-to-riches story, this son of a railway worker had accrued a substantial fortune and was deemed pivotal in ensuring Thatcher’s sweeping electoral victory that year. Appointed Secretary of Trade and Industry, some predicted Parkinson might even be the next Prime Minister. That was all before he became inveigled in a scandal when it was revealed that Parkinson, a married man and father of three, had been having a 12-year affair with his secretary, Sara Keays, who was now expecting his child. Merely four months into the job, Parkinson was forced to resign. Although his daughter Flora appeared healthy at birth, she later developed a severe form of epilepsy and underwent surgery. The procedure was only partially successful, leaving Flora with critical learning issues. Parkinson refused to ever meet his daughter and successfully arranged an unusual legal injunction which prohibited anyone from revealing Flora’s identity or from speaking publicly about her.

When psychiatrists in Britain determined that Flora – who had an IQ of 48 – would never be able to lead a normal existence or attend a regular school, Keays travelled with her to Jerusalem where she met Feuerstein. Upon arrival, it was noted that Flora did not appear interested in lessons; she would not remain seated for longer than 30 seconds and refused to listen to teachers. Within three months under Feuerstein, Flora had changed beyond recognition; she enjoyed lessons, quietly absorbed information and sedulously applied herself to tasks set to her. Whilst she would remain affected by her illness into adulthood, this significant change was unexpected given her initial prognosis. This metamorphic development was filmed and there were plans for it to be screened as a documentary by ITV. However, the High Court and Court of Appeal maintained that this would abrogate the restrictions on Flora’s life being made public. Although during the legal imbroglio Flora was always referred to as ‘Child Z’, Feuerstein was mentioned by name in many UK newspaper reports on the case and unwittingly garnered considerable media attention.

In 2001, the first Feuerstein centre in the UK opened in Cricklewood, London. Two parents whose children had been treated by Feuerstein realised that there was nothing comparable in Britain and resolved to found a centre based on Feuerstein principles to aid thousands of children and adolescents (aged 3 to 19). When the Hope Centre opened after £650,000 had been raised in private donations, Peter Batkin, one of the founders, declared, ‘we know there are hundreds, indeed thousands of handicapped children on whom the medical profession has given up. For them, as for their parents, Professor Feuerstein is the only hope.’

The stories seem to be endless. There was Roman Aldubi, whose skull was crushed in a terrorist ambush and doctors predicted would remain in a vegetative state. After intensive work, he now works in the computer industry. Then there was the Dutch girl with Down’s Syndrome who spent two years at ICELP under Feuerstein and went on to complete secondary school, graduate from university, drive a car and play numerous musical instruments. She eventually began to study Feuerstein’s techniques herself. ‘When I gave a lecture in Prague’, Feuerstein proudly recalled, ‘she lectured there too beside me. That was an experience for me.’ Another case concerned a young man named Daniel, who was deprived of oxygen in a swimming accident and fell into a coma. When he regained consciousness, experts on anoxia declared that he would remain in an irrevocably vegetative state. After treatment by Feuerstein, Daniel recovered his ability to speak and began a degree at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Feuerstein was dismissive of any attempts to ascribe metaphysical descriptions to his results; he believed that people could be positively changed through his system. There were no miracles, he smilingly opined, ‘just a lot of hard work!’. He utterly rejected the notion that tests could reveal that children were incapable of certain tasks. ‘I have seen the terrible effects of the tyranny of the measuring rod’, he related. ‘Look at IQ. Psychiatrists swear by it. Yet one test can ruin a child’s life. A score of 50 means the child is labelled an imbecile.’ Feuerstein also did not believe that intelligence is inexorably fixed at birth, but that it could develop and be enhanced. In a typical case, Feuerstein saw a child who was initially assessed to have an IQ of 35 and went on to have an IQ over 100, leading a normal life. ‘I accept the existence of heredity’ he declared, ‘but for me the chromosomes do not have the last word’.

Feuerstein was certainly not an opportunist or hawker of false hopes. He took no money from families for therapy at ICELP and he treated his own grandson, who has Down’s Syndrome, with the same methods used for his other patients. Together with his devoted wife Berta, Feuerstein lived in a sparsely furnished, simple apartment in Jerusalem. According to a close family friend, Feuerstein appeared to care little for the huge receptions arranged in his honour when he travelled abroad. ‘He did not care about honour and material things, he cared about changing children’s lives’, she related.

Religion

Feuerstein was an Orthodox Jew, and certainly had something of the aura of a biblical figure with his ever-present beret and flowing beard. He was accepting of all, regardless of faith. Feuerstein believed that love of children was a natural feature of many cultures but said, ‘particular, perhaps, to Judaism is the belief that people can always be changed to come closer to G-d, in whose image we are all made. G-d cannot change anyone without that individual’s help. That is the essence of my belief.’

Perhaps it was his unique Holocaust experiences and love of all people that led Feuerstein to work with disadvantaged children. Deeply moved by Africa’s struggle with AIDS, malaria and starvation, he stood at a conference in Paris and announced to the startled gathering, ‘we must help Africa!’. At almost 90, he was instrumental in setting up a village in Rwanda to provide education and homes for some of the 1.2 million children deprived of living quarters by the genocide. The village teachers use Feuerstein methods and were trained at ICELP before returning to Africa. Feuerstein also worked directly with Native American populations and set up a centre for the Maori population in New Zealand.

Even in his older age, Feuerstein’s iridescent mind showed no signs of slowing down and during his final years he spent much time assessing young Ethiopian immigrants and planning for the future of ICELP. When asked how he achieved so much and worked so tirelessly, Feuerstein admitted it had involved a large amount of self-sacrifice. He forwent studies he had commenced in art, music, botany and biology. He was not studying as much Talmud as he would have liked and had reluctantly stopped attending classical music concerts. Feuerstein died in April 2014 at the age of 92. He was eulogised in the presence of statesmen and leading educational figures by his four children and two grandchildren, including his grandson with Down’s Syndrome. Today, much of Feuerstein’s work is continued by his son, Refael Feuerstein.

Apart from his evident perspicacity, what was it that made Feuerstein succeed where all else had failed? Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who knew him well, declared that there were three reasons. ‘First, the basis of his work was love. He loved the children and they loved him. Second, he had transformative faith. Under him children developed skills no one thought they could because he believed they could. He had more faith in them than anyone else. Third, he refused to write anyone off. He insisted that children with disabilities should be included in society like every other child. They too were in the image of God. They too had a right to respect. They too could lead a full and meaningful life.’

This is almost certainly true, but there seem to be additional reasons which explain how he could believe so intensely in the most challenged individuals. When he contracted tuberculosis, he was told by the Swiss specialist that nothing could be done to save him. However, as he related, ‘I believed I would make it. I wanted to live.’ He went on to study and succeed. These experiences taught him not to simply accept contemporary wisdom. His early experiences of recovery and a passionate belief in the ability of every human to change despite bleak diagnoses seem to have influenced Feuerstein’s worldview. Ultimately, his belief paid off: the thousands of fully-functioning individuals, whom others wrote off and whom Feuerstein believed in so passionately are this astounding man’s most enduring legacy.

Rabbi David Ariel Sher, B.Sc. (Hons) Psych, M.A. (Dist.) J.Ed, MBPsS

Key references

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