By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
DALLAS — The rabbi who heads an influential neurological institute based in Jerusalem will be teaming up with Texans Can Academies to host an international conference here in June. As a result, Texas will become a hub of training for educators and medical professionals.
“This is a journey that has taken me 26 years,” said Texans Can President and CEO Richard Marquez, a longtime advocate of the institute’s methods to develop and improve thinking.
Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, the head of the Feuerstein Institute, spent a busy week in town, serving as scholar-in-residence at Shaare Tefilla, as well as meeting with veterans’ advocacy groups, philanthropists, retired members of the NFL Players Association, and medical and educational organizations.
But a key part of the trip was his time at Texans Can, which is the largest organization in the United States using the Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment program. Texans Can has been working to create its own trainers, who will play a key role in June at the Feuerstein Institute Conference and beyond, allowing other scholastic systems to benefit. So will those combating brain injuries or trying to prevent dementia.
“After six years of this method here, we are going to go out and share with other schools, other educators,” Feuerstein said.
Feuerstein’s father, Rabbi Reuven Feuerstein, spent more than 50 years trying to convince educators and medical professionals that instead of focusing on knowledge, it’s important to work on methods that encourage thinking, with teachers acting as mediators. Reuven Feuerstein won the Israel Prize for Social Sciences in 1992 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
Rafi Feuerstein said he has a “deep partnership” with the 13-campus charter school system due to a shared philosophy. The academies’ motto is “Graduating Thinkers,” while Feuerstein consistently warns that education is undervaluing the thinking process.
“You do good work,” Feuerstein said to Marquez. “Going out from Can to the entire school system is a dramatic decision. To share it with others, that’s a great and meaningful decision.”
Feuerstein, who has done a great deal of work for those in difficult socio-economic situations, said he was impressed with the way Marquez approaches education. Texans Can is devoted entirely to children struggling with traditional schools.
“He said, ‘I am not competing with schools, I am competing with the streets,’” Feuerstein said.
For more than two decades, Marquez has sought to use and share the FIE concept. In 1990, he was an advisor to the U.S. secretary of education, dealing with the dropout rate.
“I found in the reading literature the term ‘metacognition,’” Marquez said. “I had never heard of it before. It led me to the work of Dr. Reuven Feuerstein.
“Dr. Lee Hannel introduced me to Feuerstein’s work. After that it was learning more, learning more. I built our reading program on his methods.”
It may seem unusual to have a major scientific organization led by a rabbi and founded by another one. But Feuerstein said his father’s faith helped shape the Feuerstein method.
“The work of the institute is very closely related to a faith-based belief system and Judaism; however, it is also a scientifically-proven method,” he said. “Its universality has made it appealing to people from different religions, nationalities and countries.”
That universality is a major key to the work, developed as Reuven Feuerstein helped immigrants and the disadvantaged in Israel to succeed. Over the years, that grew into work with those who have Down syndrome and with injured soldiers.
“We teach people to think, we teach people to learn,” Rafi Feuerstein said. “That’s our niche. You train people to think and you have a very wide influence. The basic principle, the philosophy of our work, is human beings are flexible, open systems and can modify themselves.”
That concept was originally met with scorn in scientific circles, but it has grown more acceptable.
“Sixty years ago, the idea that a person could change, and has potential, was a radical idea,” Feuerstein said. “Now, it is considered common knowledge, and we witnessed that shift in thought right in front of our eyes.”
Still, there are hurdles to spreading the FIE method. The educational world has long focused on facts and figures.
“Today, the teacher is the source of knowledge and the children have to listen,” Feuerstein said. “We want to teach you to read the answer. We want the teacher to create new processes in the child.”
During his trip, Feuerstein saw a teacher at the Ross Avenue school teach the concept of alternatives.
“She used them to bring the knowledge out. She taught them to think. The main tool of the mediator is the question,” Feuerstein said.
“If you are mediating all day, you are thinking all day,” Marquez added.
Having teachers who can properly put the Feuerstein method into action is key to making it work.
“That is the most difficult piece. The follow-up has to be there,” Marquez said.
“It’s not a yes or no question. You have to create the right question, to think.
“‘What do you think?’ is a central question. We try to bring awareness to ‘How do you think?’” Feuerstein said.
This is why the institute and the academies are both looking forward to the June conference.
“The instruments without the mediator are useless,” Marquez said. “You’ll make mistakes and nobody will help you correct them.”
But until recently, he’s had to send teachers and administrators to Europe or Israel to be trained. To date, the Feuerstein Institute Conference has been held 37 times, all in Europe.
“Instead of us flying people to Prague or Florence, we can train people here,” Marquez said.
When they are in the classroom, teachers using the FIE program help facilitate learning as opposed to lecturing.
“Knowledge doesn’t have the same place it had 20 years ago,” Feuerstein said. Holding up a smartphone, he stated, “In this machine I have more knowledge than all the teachers in the world. So what’s the reason to teach knowledge?
“What should be done in schools? Thinking. You have to learn how to use it. The problem isn’t lack of knowledge, it’s how to deal with too much knowledge, changing knowledge.”
While Texans Can Academies works with what Marquez calls “non-traditional students,” Feuerstein has used FIE programs for every age and ability. Brain injuries and dementia are a growing focus. The same method used for the kids at Texans Can has helped a wide range of people. That includes doctors and pilots sharpening their skills, students with Down syndrome (including one of Feuerstein’s sons) or autism, Ethiopian-Israelis looking to overcome cultural obstacles, and an Israeli soldier who regained speech after losing the part of the brain with his speech center.
FIE takes a positive approach, that existing skills are the ones to prioritize, not areas of existing weakness. Feuerstein said that gives people with little education an equal starting point.
“Most people are professors on how to survive,” Feuerstein said. “Think how much wisdom and creativity they need to survive their environments.”
As a result, he said, schools need to become potential-oriented.
Marquez agrees. He said students with ADHD and dyslexia have shown significant growth. Texans Can administrators and educators shared their own stories at a recent board meeting for Feuerstein to hear, and Marquez noted that students and teachers have also been able to grow outside the classroom from the experience.
“It also changes the quality of life. You transfer those skills to your own life,” he said.
The Feuerstein Institute Conference will be held Sunday, June 18, through Friday, June 30. Feuerstein hopes for a big turnout from not only educators and medical professionals but nonprofits and other organizations.
“During the five days I was there, I met numerous professionals, parents and educators from various sectors, as well as foundations and philanthropists,” Feuerstein said. “I recognized the huge thirst in the approach and the solutions it provides, both in education and the clinical field. Our work with dementia received a great deal of interest.”
Some of the areas of clinical work that the Feuerstein method can be used for include efforts for patients with head injuries, as well as developmental, genetic or intellectual disabilities.
For more information on the Feuerstein Institute, visit Feuerstein-global.org. For more information about Texans Can Academies, visit www.texanscan.org.