Mediation of Cognitive Competencies for Students in Need

By Ben-Hur, Meir | Phi Delta Kappan, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Mediation of Cognitive Competencies for Students in Need


Ben-Hur, Meir, Phi Delta Kappan


Children who have not received sufficient Mediated Learning Experiences are not prepared to deal with the cognitive challenges confronting them as they enter school and are thus unable to benefit from the wealth of classroom experiences offered, Mr. Ben-Hur points out.

Keith, an average fifth-grade student, has just completed an exciting hands-on science,unit investigating "planet Earth. It lasted four months. Wanting to assess Keith's new understanding, his science teacher engages in a clinical interview with him.(1)

Teacher: Where is the sun after it sets?

Keith (pausing): I don't know . . .

Teacher (pointing to the student-made colorful globes with attached labels hanging from the classroom ceiling and to students' pictures and drawings on the walls): Is there anything in our classroom exhibit that can help you think about this?

Keith (looking around): No . . . but I know it doesn't go into the ocean.

Teacher: How do you know that?

Keith: Because it would splash the water.

Teacher: Oh. So where does it really go?

Keith (pausing): Maybe to China?

Teacher (relieved): And where is it when it sets in China?

Keith (troubled): I don't know . . .

Sound familiar? Have you ever wondered why it is that some student experiences - even rich, exciting, hands-on types of active learning - do not result in real learning of new concepts? Have you wondered how it happens that some students (perhaps as many as half) do not understand what they experience even in the most engaging classes?

Why Learning Needs to Be Mediated

The Piagetian constructivist school of developmental psychology, which views cognitive abilities as a product of the combination of the maturation of the central nervous system and earlier exposures, provides little help to our troubled teacher. She needs to find ways to facilitate the construction of concepts in mathematics, science, and other subjects for the half of her students who cannot build them on their own.

"Meaning" is not implicit in objects and events. Our concept of the world is, for the most part, not a product of our perception of the world. Rather, our perception is generally the product of our concept of the world. What we learn from our direct exposure to objects and events (direct learning) is strictly determined by our preconceived notions of these objects and events and by our ability to relate them to our previous learning. Our concepts, in turn, may be modified by those experiences that are incompatible with them. However, such modifications are unlikely to happen without some form of intervention or mediation. Remember, it took humans millions of years to change their idea that the Earth is flat, and they did not change their thinking until the interventions of maps and exploration provided evidence incompatible with their beliefs.

Keith's learning about planet Earth could not depend entirely upon his own ideas of planet Earth even in a hands-on, exciting, active-learning science class. His perceptions of the objects and events in his science class were entirely different from those his teacher expected.

Lev Vygotsky, a world-renowned social psychologist, argued that the origin of our concepts of the world must be found in our early learning of such things as language, culture, and religion.(2) This learning cannot happen without the help, or mediation, of such people as parents, caretakers, and siblings.

Reuven Feuerstein terms this form of learning Mediated Learning Experience (MLE), as opposed to Direct Learning Experience (DLE). He argues that the "mediators" of our early learning interpose themselves between us and the world to help make our experiences meaningful. Furthermore, he argues that, in their deliberate attempts to change our concepts, mediators promote the development of our cognitive systems.

How MLE Promotes Cognitive Development

In an attempt to produce mental models, modalities, and dispositions for our later experiences, mediated learning experiences transform our cognitive systems and facilitate our cognitive development. …

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