Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Reintroducing Reuven

It fell to me to introduce and chair Reuven Feuerstein at a plenary session of Tsad Kadima’s conference in Tel Aviv.

As he often does, Reuven raised the occasion to the level of theatre. I sat waiting on the brightly lit podium as, on the arm of his personal assistant, he very slowly proceeded down the central aisle of the darkened auditorium. I think that many, perhaps most I the audience had little idea of who he is, and sat in silent anticipation as his assistant and I helped him mount the low platform.

I find myself in a rather strange position her today, introducing Reuven Feuerstein to an Israeli audience.

I first came across Reuven Feuerstein more than thirty years ago, before I had even heard of Conductive Education, when I was working as a psychologist in a very different field – with children from disadvantaged circumstances. Conventional psychology offered little hope for such children I had found my own alternative in the school of Vygotskii to assure me on the human capacity to change but in the English-speaking world I still felt terribly alone.

Then in the proceedings of a distant conference I spotted a presentation by Reuven and was immediately struck by his ideas, their optimism, their congruity to my own (and Vygotskii’s) – and how education and psychology preferred to ignore them. I wrote, received an immediate and courteous reply and, when we met, found a human being to match the ideas..

Today I introduce to you this remarkable psychologist, and to his ideas. Here in Israel he is a national treasure. More than that, however, you have in Reuven a one-man world heritage site.

Reuven then delivered a virtuoso performance, speaking without notes, quietly passionate, perfectly timed

What he said followed the argument of his conference summary (see the earlier posting on this blog). His central message, outlining his theoretical position, was familiar enough to those who have heard him over the years around the world – but delivered here in more concentrated form, benefiting for a largely lay audience from his leaving the detail implicit. He expounded upon the modifiability of human cognitive functioning, and paid generous tribute to how in Conductive Education he had seen modifiability exercised in a direction beyond his dreams. As always, for those who could follow to the full, it was exhilarating stuff, and I hope that those who did catch it all not would could still feel the unquenched optimism, determination and excitement.

To this usual message he added very clearly his invitation to the conductive world to work together with mediated learning. Specifically this was for the benefit of motor-disordered children who might benefit from additional intervention derived from his notion of cognitive modifiability. More generally it was strengthen both approaches by bringing together conductors’ mediational skills (which I at this point I read as what CE calls ‘facilitation’ and ‘conductive observation’) and his own theoretical formulations.

From what I heard and saw afterwards, I suspect that many left the auditorium with still with little idea of the specifics of what he was talking about – but many there seemed to have grasped that they had heard something rather important and that Conductive Education is not alone.

In the past…

I first published a brief formal note on the congruity of Conductive Education and mediated learning more than twenty years ago. This read as follows.

Whether a given theoretical position has bee directly influential in Conductive Education or not, it should be clear that any theory of the transformability of human beings might have explanatory value, whilst those that are philosophically compatible might potentially interact with Conductive Education to mutual benefit. An obvious example of a compatible theory which, though developing contemporaneously with Conductive Education, has so far had no contacts with it at all, is Feuerstein’s notion of cognitive modifiability. This derived from work with children and young people whose problems of development are superficially quite different from those of the motor-disordered, yet some at least of Conductive Education can be readily stated in Feuerstein’s terms. For example, Conductive Education appears to produce unexpected departures from an otherwise expected course of development, despite present levels of functioning and aetiologies from which our present experience predicts very limited outcomes. It can be seen as generating changes in the learning process that generalise across many areas, the new rate of change itself providing conditions for future development, with the emphasis throughout upon volitional and conscious activity. Its underlying basis is a belief in plasticity as the most characteristic feature of humanity, ensured by learning experiences that are socially mediated, reciprocal, semantic motivational. It would be interesting indeed to follow developments, both theoretical and practical, if Conductive Education were taken up by Youth Aliyah. (Sutton, 1986, p.172)

I made a number of other small gestures to indicate the commonality between the two approaches (such as Sutton, 1987) but nothing came of this. A rather more substantive intervention, a television series called The Transformers, was a three-part BBC follow-up to Standing up for Joe (see Minnis et al., 1990), the second episode of which featured Feuerstein and his work The series achieved nothing like the response of Standing up for Joe. Another try was to invite Reuven to a conference in Birmingham, in 1999). In the event he was in poor health and could not attend: we had him amongst us for a little by way of live video link but this was not enough to achieve the effects that I had hoped.

And Reuven himself had attended a World Congress of Conductive Education in Budapest – but nothing came of that!

For years Jo Lebeer in Belgium has ploughed a parallel furrow, as a confirmed conductivist (parent, neurologist and author) who, as President of the European Association for Mediated Learning, straddles the divide between Conductive Education and Feuerstein’s work like no other individual and has tried to interest both the world of Conductive Education oin this, and the wider world of special education (LeBeer, 1995)

In all, over the twenty-one years since the possibility of linking these two systems in some way was first published, nothing substantial has been achieved.

…and for the future?

Well, Youth Aliyah, the organisation within which Reuven did his formative work, was never drawn to Conductive Education. The Transformers came to early in the internationalisation of Conductive Education to divert the attention of the first pioneers: as I know from my personal experience, they had enough to do getting their own basic conductive services off the ground to divert attention and resources to collateral links. Later, the widening conductive movement as a whole has developed its own concerns.

Now Reuven and I have both urged Tsad Kadima to take up this baton. There is no reason to suppose that such a practical and theoretical link could only be made only in Israel, or necessarily only through direct contact with Reuven’s International Centre for the Enhancement of Learning Potential. I see no sign, however, for the forseeable future that that any other CE organisations are in a position to construct such a bridge, being in the same small country would certainly offer practical advantages.

What a wonderful opportunity for Conductive Education to break out of its continuing narrow association with ‘therapy’ and ‘rehabilitation’, into the wider international world of psychological intervention, dynamic assessment, child development – and ideas.

Will it, won’t it…?


LeBeer, J. (1995) Conductive Education and the mediated learning theory experience of Feuerstein, European Journal of Special Needs Education, vol. 10, no 2, pp. 124-137.

Minnis, F, Paul, A., Sutton, A. (1990) The Transformers. London: BBC Publications,

Sutton, A. (1986) Problems of theory. In: Cottam, P., Sutton, A. (eds) Conductive Education: a system for overcoming motor disorder. London Croom Helm, pp. 153-177

Sutton, A (1987) Two great educators: Mária Hári and Reuven Feuerstein:, Special Children, March, pp. 12-13

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andrew,
    My name is Zsuzsi and I am a conductor in New Westminster, BC. I believe you met my boss, James Forliti, a few weeks ago, in Vancouver.
    I just read your thoughts about prof. Feuerstein and wanted to tell you that I used to work/learn in ICELP, knew the professor, got trained in MLE and I`ve been using it in my work ever since. I also wrote my thesis on comparing CE and MLE, in my final year at the Peto Institute.
    I am fully aware what enourmous advantages it would have to learn from ICELP`s practices. Conductors (Hungarian ones) so badly need more special education training, instead of the mainstream one. Long story...

    I live in Seattle now and work on the Canadian side of the border, because i don`t have US papers yet. When I do, I am planning to open a non-profit CE school. Everything that the Northern American system provides to cp children is just ... unbelievable. It needs to be changed and I want to work for that. Looking at the story of CE in the UK is very encouraging. Gives hope that it is possible to make a change, no matter how overwhelmingly giant the task seems to be... I could keep rambling here for a while, but the reason I got started is that you seem to be the person to ask for advice.
    Can I ask you some questions? Would you share your experiences and thoughts about integrating CE into different systems? Would you tell me why BBC decided to do a documentary about Joe, how the BFCE started, how the government funded CE programs started, what made a school hire the very first conductor in the UK, what made British universities decide to start and finance their conductor training program etc...? I would be very happy to call you sometime and talk to you about these if you have some time to spare for it.
    In my experience, information and a good understanding of CE in the world is just as hard to get as everything else needed for doing it.
    Thank you in adcvance!