Professor Reuven Feuerstein’s theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability holds the belief that people regardless of their age or limitations have the ability to be modified in the structure of their brains and that new neural pathways can be created. The theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability is anchored in what Feuerstein refers to as the active-modificational (AM) approach. A passive-acceptant (PA) holds the view that a person can reach a plateau in their development and learning. In contrast, an active- modificational approach refuses to believe or accept an individual’s impairment as defining or predicting of potential, be it physical, mental, educational or behavioural. The title of Feuerstein, Rand and Feuerstein’s book, ‘You love me!! … don’t accept me as I am’, illustrates the belief that underlies active modification and the parameter of mediation of the Search for an Optimistic Alternative. Modifiability does just not happen by itself; it involves advocacy for the person and hard work. It involves mobilising environmental resources to enhance the person’s learning propensity and their capacity for modification.
What is Mediation of the Search for an Optimistic Alternative?
Mediation of the Search of an Optimistic Alternative is linked to mediation of competence, challenge and goal directed behaviours. It is a desire for and a belief in a positive outcome in any given situation (Mentis et al. 2006). Searching for an Optimistic Alternative is within a person’s cognitive control.
Mediating the search for an Optimistic Alternative involves input to the emotional or affective motivational components of behaviour. It is an opportunity to direct the choices individuals make to solve their problems or reach their goals. Searching for an Optimistic Alternative includes a personal vision for the future: I can choose to be optimistic or pessimistic about what lies ahead.
In life, a person is faced with both negative and positive inevitable outcomes when making a choice to solve a problem. Having choices raises a dilemma. In taking a step or action to choose an Optimistic Alternative, a person is motivated to do what is necessary to achieve a meaningful goal, bringing their feeling of competence, their capacity and their focus to the matter at hand. Each action or step taken supports the realisation of that goal or intention. Choosing an Optimistic Alternative is a deliberate advancement towards a well motivated goal. To act, a person needs to know why they want to ‘go through the motions’ and what they want to achieve.
In the process of searching for an Optimistic Alternative, challenges arising out of the decision are anticipated. Using strategies like a ‘pros and cons’ list, the individual identifies and knows that in accepting the Optimistic Alternative, negative consequences will arise. However, an inner drive or determination is buoyed by optimism for the end goal. This gives rise to resilience and grit.
For example, a matriculant who wants to study at university might have to leave home and relocate to achieve that goal. She must make a decision to accept the offer of enrolment or decline it and stay at home. Choosing the Optimistic Alternative of the two scenarios in accepting the enrolment offer, enhances that person’s ability to achieve career goals. She must take practical actions towards the move, like paying a deposit, booking travel tickets and arranging accommodation. The individual invests time and other resources in the decision and believes that it is possible to solve any problems along the way. There will be negative consequences to her acceptance of the offer. She will have to face farewells to many friends and family. There will be financial challenges and, inevitably, endless rounds of paperwork. It could be stressful to adapt to student life in an unfamiliar city. These pessimistic outcomes of the decision to move to the next phase of an education are inevitable and the student must tackle them in pursuit of the Optimistic Alternative.
Why is the Mediation of the Search for an Optimistic Alternative important for developing countries and/or marginalised populations?
Citizens of developing countries or persons in marginalised populations will have economic and social-political goals that centre on a better life for all. In pursuit of this goal, there will be pitfalls and promise. There may be sacrifices to make both individually and collectively when working towards being a developed country where all people belong as equals. For example, when the leaders of the ANC formalised their party goals to liberate South Africans from the oppression of apartheid, its members knew that there would be personal costs to bear and hardships to endure. In their search for an Optimistic Alternative, that being a free and fair South Africa, they dealt with the challenges of exile, imprisonment and police brutality. They found courage, competence and capacity to face the negative challenges arising, motivated by the Optimistic Alternative that stood juxtaposed to the oppression they lived under.
How can the Search for an Optimistic Alternative be mediated practically?
In many cultures and traditions, results of standardised assessments hold the power to predict a child’s future success. If a child scores poorly, the believed prognosis will be one of pessimism. In contrast, Feuerstein’s approach looks at learning propensity; the ability to learn and change and the mediation of strategies required in order for this to happen. This approach looks at the individual’s areas of strength with equal importance to their areas of challenge. Feuerstein speaks of ‘Islets of Normalcy’ as windows into learning- those ‘aha’ moments when a child shows that they can do something and that is where we begin our intervention. As we work with parents and communities to educate about mediation, we must mediate the search for an Optimistic Alternative. This instils hope and hope instils a belief that change can occur. Dr Jeanne Zehr speaks of an acronym for hope: Hold On to Positive Expectation. If we hold onto positive expectations we can help our children to develop new strategies and overcome the ‘prognosis’ that standardised tests may have predicted.
Professor Kathy Greenberg the developer of the Cognitive Enrichment Advantage speaks to the ‘art and science’ of mediation. If we are to achieve the ‘art’ of mediation, we need to equip communities and individuals with the skills to be excellent mediators and thinkers. Working on Cognitive Functions is the key to making these changes. These happen at the three phases of thinking- Input, Elaboration and Output.
Input – Search – knowing that something is possible helps me to believe that what I want to achieve is attainable. Thinking something is impossible immediately stops my search. I anticipate possible outcomes. I am ready to confront and engage challenges.
In classrooms and in the home, this can be mediated by:
- Drawing the child’s attention to case studies or examples of people who have faced the impossible and found a way forward to reach their goal, despite setbacks and failure.
- Having the child list all the possible outcomes to their problems in terms of positive, negative and interesting so that they can make an informed decision towards an Optimistic Alternative. ‘The worst case scenario’ can be just the inspiration they need to take a risk.
- Looking back over a person’s history where they have grown or improved or developed and identifying these points of self change helps that individual believe in their own potential. Journaling can be invaluable here.
- ‘Blue sky’ brainstorming sessions where judgement and reality are suspended, at any age can help an individual to ideate beyond what is presently manifest and so envision possibilities.
- Supporting a child with a tally or record ‘good days’ can help them navigate depression on the way to wellness. The age old adage, if we can achieve something 80% of the time, we are doing well.
Elaboration – Solve Problems – knowing something is possible helps me to believe that I can find solutions to problems with which I am faced. If I am optimistic I can define a problem, search for relevant clues, make a plan, formulate a hypothesis and find solutions. If I am optimistic I can use my cognitive functions to problem solve in all areas of my life and move forward, rather than allowing challenges to hold me back. Explicit use of problem solving, goal setting and planning, and articulating these in written or pictorial form, scaffolds a plan of action to bite sized realistic steps. A specific problem likely has a specific solution while an overarching ‘huge problem’ is overwhelming
In classrooms and in the home, this can be mediated by:
- Mediating the principles of planning and problem identification can be made explicit by providing an example or the plan or a model answer. This could be a graphic organiser for a written expressive task or a written algorithm to narrow the child’s calculation to very specific steps that can be followed and mastered, for example, order of operations.
- Setting goals for physical fitness or high performance sports includes a training programme in the short, medium and long term where there are daily, weekly and monthly targets for fitness and skill development. The aspiring athlete can overcome the feeling of challenge brought on by being unfit at the present time if their sights are set on an Optimistic Alternative and a strategy to reach it one step at a time.
- If an individual presents with a disability that impacts access, rather than assume non-participation, mediating a search for an Optimistic Alternative might include strategies or mechanisms to participate differently; for example, a dyslexic learner could use text-to-speech software to read the same books as their peers. This action would require that the individual trains on the software and practises it to the point of mastery, overcoming the short term stress of that skills mastery in the hope of greater participation in the curriculum programme.
Output – Expression – knowing something is possible helps me to believe that I can express my thoughts and opinions and others will listen. If I am optimistic, I will consider another person’s story and point of view before judging, I will be self-regulated and persevere even when I find it difficult to express myself and I will take a moment to think so that my response is thoughtfully worded. If I am optimistic I will believe that my voice is important in the world. I will learn to speak and to listen and I’ll understand that effective communication can solve many of the world’s problems!
In classrooms and in the home this can be mediated by:
- Ensuring that everyone in a class discussion or at the family supper table has an opportunity to speak and bring their perspective.
- Encouraging and overtly modelling active listening behaviours as part of the ‘rules of engagement’ in a school or home setting will foster an environment where I can learn from others’ mistakes or insights and not make the same in pursuit of my Optimistic Alternative.
- Choosing not to remove barriers or hardship but rather supporting an individual as they navigate these will build grit and resilience towards achieving the goal.
- Explicitly calling on a child to present only the positives or only the negatives in a scenario helps them see that every circumstance brings optimistic and pessimistic outcomes.
- Drawing up a list of pros and cons is a well versed practice towards searching for an Optimistic Alternative when I make decisions.
Where can the Search for an Optimistic Alternative be bridged?
If we are to bridge the Search for an Optimistic Alternative to school, daily life and social communication we need to educate teachers, parents, children and members of the community about Feuerstein’s theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability; including the research that supports this theory.
If we believe that ‘Human Beings are Modifiable’; we will be optimistic about every person’s propensity to change. If we believe ‘The individual I am educating is modifiable’; we will hold optimism when considering the specific needs, goals and culture of the individual with whom we are working and plan their programme accordingly. If we believe ‘I am capable of modifying the individual’; we will be optimistic in developing our own skills and thinking in order to be better teachers, parents and mediators. If we believe ‘I myself am a person who may-and has to-be modified’, we will be optimistic about our own personal need for lifelong learning and modifiability and the desire for a feeling of competence. If we believe ‘Society-and public opinion-are modifiable and have to be modified’; we will be optimistic in modifying the broader views of society about a choice to search for an Optimistic Alternative when facing challenges and work to seek, set and achieve goals, on both a personal and a community level. This will allow for individuals with diverse cultures and challenges to find a sense of belonging.
An Example of Bridging at School
- Playground bullying could be an opportunity to bridge the search for an optimistic Alternative. Typically, school codes of conduct outline processes for expelling a bully. However, if the parties could engage in a restorative process, with careful mediation, perhaps they could find a way to see and understand each other and commit to a process of self change. In searching for reconciliation, an optimistic Alternative to the problem of bullying that differs from punitive measures like expulsion, all parties including the school system could move towards being a better place for all.
An Example of Bridging in Daily Life
- With the Covid19 pandemic, many aspects of daily life were disrupted. Communities could not meet as they used to. Schools could not see children on site. Because a school is a place of connection between people, this situation was bleak. In a search for an Optimistic Alternative, many schools decided to connect anyway, just differently. They used digital platforms and technology. There were many technical, practical and emotional difficulties with this, but all of the problems could be solved because the bigger goal, connectedness, motivated the problem solving and focussed the whole community towards that end.
- I may secure a job some distance from my home. I am not able to afford a car. Pessimistically, I may decline the job opportunity. In the search for an Optimistic Alternative, I could look at other modes of transport that can support my work attendance until I have saved for a car. This could involve taking a bus or taxi, riding a bicycle or connecting with colleagues to arrange a lift club.
An Example of Bridging in Social Communication
- Time and distance separate many families for various reasons. Parents and their children live on different continents, in different time zones. This does not diminish their emotional bond and attachment. Communication can easily break down. In the search for an Optimistic Alternative, families may use social media, instant messaging and video conferencing to keep in touch.
Lauren Davis is Deputy Principal and Director of Cognitive Education at Bellavista School in Johannesburg. She is an experienced Speech-Language Therapist with an active interest in cognitive education, including the mediated learning experience. Lauren trains educators and allied health professionals on IE Basic at Bellavista SHARE, a subsidiary of Bellavista School. She is passionate about the involvement of parents and teachers as mediators of learning in a child’s life. Lauren is trained to administer the LPAD assessment, delivered to the community through Bellavista iThemba, a recently founded centre for cognitive education.
Lauren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alison Scott is a seasoned educator with broad experience in School Leadership and Governance, Curriculum Development and Marketing. She is currently Executive Principal at Bellavista School, an organisation inclusive of a primary school, a cognitive education centre, an assessment practice and a professional development and training hub. Her interest in teaching and learning spans thirty three years and her belief in the modifiability of every human brain is fundamental to her work leading the organisation that comprises Bellavista School. Alison holds post graduate qualifications in inclusive and remedial education and, as a founding board member of the Institute of Specialist Practitioners in Inclusive Education, is a strong advocate for inclusive practice in all educational organisations. Alison is an author and public speaker.
Alison can be reached at email@example.com