Making a Difference to Underachievers

In today’s educational landscape, it is quite common to see students categorized as ‘intelligent’, ‘average’, ‘unintelligent’, ‘underperformers’ and so on. The view that students have a pre-determined, pre-set ‘level’ of intelligence and ability to learn is quite prevalent and this is a widely accepted view as well. Academicians and educators across the country, even the world, really believe that not all students can achieve the same academic goals because of the differential intelligence levels that they are endowed with. This gives credence to the belief that intellect or intelligence is an inborn ‘skill’, with each person being gifted with a specific limit of it. This also means that there are only a select few who can truly excel even when the best teachers are employed and they are leveraging the most modern, most effective teaching techniques to impart knowledge.

This view is flawed in more than one way because there is reason to believe that the so called ‘underperforming’ student does not have the same intelligence or ability to grasp complex academic concepts as the so- called ‘intelligent’ student. Further, there is no scientific basis for the assumption that everyone is born with different intelligence levels, which cannot be enhanced or drawn out in any way as they progress through life and through different educational experiences. As Nobel Prize nominee, clinical, developmental and cognitive psychologist Ruevin Feurestein explained, ‘intelligence is not fixed but modifiable’. It is the responsibility of the teacher or academician to devise a teaching system or strategy that helps every student achieve higher levels of intelligence by drawing upon his or her own hidden reserves.

An overview of the Feuerstein Method

After fleeing the Nazi invasion, Feurestein leveraged his psychology degree to teach young survivors of the Holocaust in his new home in Palestine. The needs of these children prompted him to take up a career that would address both psychological and educational needs of refugee children. In the 1950s, Feurestein was involved in working with children from Moroccan, Berber and Jewish families and he found that those who initially scored low on IQ tests showed remarkable improvement when they were given special psychological and academic attention.

This encouraged him to start viewing intelligence as a modifiable characteristics rather than a fixed one, as the traditional view point held. He started researching various ways in which too ‘teach’ intelligence even as he expounded the theory that the students who excelled and who were believed to be intelligent were actually leveraging their ability to learn more effectively than others.

The prevailing means and tools for measuring intelligence were flawed and inadequate, in his view, because they failed to indicate that all students could be elevated to the same level of intelligence provided they were taught how to do it. As a new, more effective and more accurate method of evaluation, Feurestein came up with the dynamic assessment method, as it is known today. His focus was on identifying and evaluating the inherent cognitive flexibility in the child that represents the ability to learn. Once this evaluation is done, teaching methodologies can be tweaked so that these abilities are used optimally.   This view was dramatically different from what was commonly accepted then and it transformed the way people looked at ‘intelligence’ and its impact on academic performance.

Taking his study further, Feurestein began to devise methodologies to help children who were not performing well academically and work on their weaknesses, putting them on track for dramatic improvements. ‘Mediated relationship’, he discovered, lay at the foundation of meaningful teaching strategies. These methodologies have brought a ray of hope into the lives of not just poorly performing children but also children with special needs such as those affected by Down’s Syndrome, palsy, stroke or other conditions.

The journey from ‘poor performer’ to ‘gifted’ status 

Feuerstien’s methods can be used with amazing success in every academic field to teach and engage urban students most effectively. The success of the methods hinge on our ability to understand and accept that intelligence is limitless. Most urban schools tend to look at students as deficits; they believe that the students can only advance so far. However, this is far from the truth that Feuerstien has proven beyond doubt. In my personal experience, wherever I have implemented Feuerstien’s method, the results have been simply dramatic and uniformly impressive.   I have taught several boys and young men of color with these tools and witnessed the improved academic performance from close quarters.

One important contributing factor for this impressive change is that a growth oriented mindset is essential. A tremendous amount of growth is possible when this correct approach is adopted to take a low performing student and turn them into a “gifted” student. This growth mind set is often lacking in academic environments where ‘underachievement’ is the expected outcome. Sadly, this is true of many schools where children of color are automatically tagged with the ‘underperformer’ label. The teachers may, inadvertently, believe that these students are incapable of improving their academic excellence and thus feel that investing more attention or time on them will not yield results. In reality, it is the opposite that is true.

The teacher has to actively believe that the students can excel and this belief should be evident every single day in the teaching strategy, technique and tools utilized.  This positive mindset, that the underperforming student is no different from their academically proficient peers, is the foundation block on which the students builds their new skills to learn more effectively and efficiently.

Another critical understanding for both teacher and student is that learning and intelligence are not two different aspects. Intelligence is the knowledge of identifying where knowledge can and should be applied, i.e.: a meta knowledge of sorts. This knowledge comes when the learner is actively involved in the learning process- understanding why they are studying something and where they might apply it. When the students make these connections, they can apply the knowledge intelligently to various situations. This is not all- they can also learn more advanced concepts easily because the grounding of knowing why they need it and how to use it is already present in them. This is how the transformation from poor performers to exceptional students takes place with the right teaching methodologies being implemented.