What is a Sense of Competence?
Mediation of a feeling of competence in our learners
by Jeanne M. Zehr, Ph.D.
Dr. Jeanne Zehr is an international senior trainer for the Feuerstein Institute. She has studied and implemented the Feuerstein approach for over 20 years in a variety of settings with a wide range demographically and with a number of different clinical diagnoses. ADHD, autism, addiction recovery, classroom group instruction, attachment disorder, chemotherapy brain fog, and early onset dementia are some of the arenas that Dr. Zehr has explored using Feuerstein’s program. She is passionate to help make the world’s citizens better thinkers!
Learners may not realize the skills they have. They may be in a state of denial due to trauma or blocking from anxiety. Mediation for a sense of competence is critical for learners to own their successes both academically and in life. Reuven Feuerstein identified at least 12 such parameters or criteria to define high quality human interactions. Though coming from the mind of a psychologist, these parameters for how we interact with children in the classroom are quickly found worthy of our attention, especially in countries where many barriers exist for both teachers and learner. These provide a way to lower the barriers.
Teachers are often overwhelmed with the demands of their profession. Becoming aware of this important parameter may be an encouragement first to them! By having a sense of their own level of competence, it will be more naturally passed onto their learners. When students are behind academically, physically hungry, and lacking resources in the home, teachers can still carefully search and discover skills their students do have in place. Begin here! Notice the strengths. Reuven Feuerstein stated, “If you are not prepared to look at your pupil’s strengths, don’t touch their weaknesses.”
Learners who have many challenges, both from within and without, often feel quite hopeless in an academic setting. When the emotions begin hijacking the frontal lobes, the learner believes they are not worthy, that there is no hope of catching up, or they have a sense of feeling lost. Here is where the teacher or parent or any caring adult can step in and not just offer encouragement, but actually help the child see, realize and own the skills they already possess. The skills may be academic, social, or survival skills. All of them have their root in the 28 cognitive functions , as identified by Feuerstein.
As a child develops the 28 thinking actions or skills, they become empowered as learners. They now have language to describe how they learn. The educator who can know these 28 thinking skills, recognize when they are working in each student and point them out as often as possible to each child, will methodically build up better thinking and learning in the classroom. This in turn, builds a community which in turn builds a nation by providing thoughtful leaders.
Mediated learning experience is the human quality of interaction between a teacher and a learner. The goal is to assist the learner in interpreting the stimulus and to eventually be able to mediate oneself. The teacher accomplishes this by asking very good questions, such as “What do you see? What do you think the problem is? What is your strategy?” The teacher also provides wait time between these carefully crafted questions, allowing the child to have a few precious seconds to ponder answers. With these more open-ended questions, the child has much more likelihood of responding and not being wrong, but simply providing a myriad of appropriate responses. Eventually, the child will gain the ability to self-mediate by asking questions in their mind to solve problems.
The teacher has two challenges with this parameter of mediation. The first is to provide ways for the learner to experience competence, then understand and accept it. The second is for the teacher to help the learner recognize where they are already competent, recognize and accept it.
The more trauma and challenge facing a student, teaching staff, or community, the more important this art of mediation becomes. Without a sense of personal empowerment, children will continue to feel like victims of heavy top-down curriculum coming at them at a pace and magnitude that can cause total shutdown. Teachers carry a tremendous burden of responsibility for pacing the curriculum to not cause this shutdown. Experience and knowledge of the students they teach can help lighten this burden.
Mediating students for a sense of competence might sound like the following:
- I see you have three sentences completed, would you read them to me?
- What do you think about these sentences? (listen for anything positive, but if they tell you they think the sentences are terrible, respond…)
- Ah, I hear you aren’t too happy yet with them, but I see some very good points here. You have a good idea started. I hope you will stick with it. Can you tell me some ideas you have for making the sentences better? (If they do not, then make only 1-2 simple suggestions).
- Ah, then you are happy with your progress thus far. Bravo for you! Do you have ideas for the next sentences? Would you like any suggestions from me or are you OK for now? (empowering them to decide.)
- I see evidence that you are a better writer than you give yourself credit for. Remember skills are built, not born! Writing is a challenging skill to learn how to do. It can take years, so go easy on yourself and just keep moving forward. Trust me – every time you write you will learn one more skill!
After scoring a student’s paper and discovering that the errors in grammar and composition are many, still search to find something this child did well. The use of a certain word or phrase or the overall theme of the writing might be noteworthy.
I chose writing because I firmly believe it is one of the most cognitively challenging tasks we ask of students. If their life at home is difficult or they have limited resources or have never traveled, it creates a mental block for writing which requires focused thought, a command of the language, and a rich background of positive life experiences. When life is quite miserable, why should one write about that?
Mediation of the parameter of a sense of competence was well identified and wisely chosen by Feuerstein to include in his list of criteria for what makes human interaction of high quality. Teachers can practice this one more and more as they become aware of its ability to empower their students, who are the very reason they arrive in their classroom each day.
In conclusion, teachers hold in their minds a mighty tool to improve the very world they live in. It is called mediation and requires the desire to empower children with keys for thinking and learning. By asking good questions, waiting, listening to the answers, and giving positive feedback on what parts are right, a teacher develops a child’s mind! As the teacher points out which thinking skills the child used, Feuerstein’s 28 cognitive functions are being integrated. If only we could do so in every classroom around the world, especially in places where children see that a better world is behind locked doors, unaccessible to them due to poverty, war, or a language barrier. Mediation is the key to unlocking the doors.
Other resources :
A Parent Guide to Developing Thinking Skills by Dr. Jeanne Zehr https://www.wbcl.org/data/uploads/Programs/Mid-Morning/MindCAP.pdf
by Reuven Feuerstein, Rafael S. Feuerstein