'Intellectual Zorba' offers hope to mentally handicapped

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The Independent Online
A clinic in Israel run by a 74-year-old Romanian, who produces "miraculous" improve ment in mentally handicapped children, is attracting large numbers of families from Britain,

Professor Reuven Feuerstein, who has been dubbed an "intellectual Zorba" radiates an energy and humour that is hard for adults to resist and which children, many of them mentally handicapped, find captivating.

Every word is accompanied by an expansive gesture of his large hands but beneath his trademark beret, the large hooded eyes miss nothing. For some children three months at the Hadassah-Wizo Canada Research Institute in Jerusalem have realised dramatic improvement, at least in the short term.

So what is the secret? Prof Feuerstein, a clinical psychologist and professor of physiology at Bar Ilan University School of Education, prefers the summary of his beliefs attempted by the French newspaper, Le Monde: "The chromosomes do not have the last word," it said.

Human intelligence, Prof Feuerstein argues, is not immutable. He refused to accept a low IQ as an indicator of a child's capacity to learn but sees it as a "very potent artefact of statistics". He sees it as a barrier to maximise that child's potential for development, an attitude that has condemned many of the mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed to the "dustbins" of the education system.

"I totally reject the notion that a child's intellectual development is fixed and static," Prof Feuerstein said in a recent interview. "The learning capacity of all individuals can change, regardless of their age or learning difficulties. This is one part of my theory. The other part is that, for a child to learn, the teacher must interpose herself between the child and his world so he can interpret it in a meaningful way. Instead of teaching content the teacher must extend, embellish and interpret the environment so that pupils build up an internal model of the world. This type of mediated learning allowed changes in learning ability."

His methods, known as the Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Programme (FIEP), have a wider application too; for brain damaged children and adults, and normal, healthy individuals. FIEP has been adopted by schools and businesses throughout America, Asia, and Canada, aided by a BBC documentary on Prof Feuerstein. Although the British educational and psychological establishment have been slow to pick up his ideas, a charity, The Hope Committee for Children with Special Needs, is hoping to change that.

Prof Feuerstein settled in what was then Palestine in 1944 and developed his theories after working with children traumatised by the Holocaust, and newly arrived immigrants. His motivation was simple; six million had died, we could not afford to lose one more, he says now. Conventional IQ tests indicated that thousands of these children were severely retarded and would require institutional care for the rest of their lives. He could not accept this. "...I could not accept them the way they were. I could not accept reality."

In 1965 Prof Feuerstein set up his research institute. This has become a Mecca for families with problem children. There are now 160 employees at the institute and satellite centres in over 30 countries. One goal is to help handicapped children live independent adult lives and many young adults with Down's Syndrome are now working as care-providers.

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