This assignment will critically explore the role of mediation in dynamic testing and the identification of cognitive functions, and will include a reflective account of mediation with learners in local settings. As an aspiring Educational Psychologist (EP), working in a service with colleagues who value Dynamic Assessment (DA) but highlight a lack of confidence in using it, my motivation for pursuing this area of study is to explore the role of mediation within DA in assessing the cognitive abilities of individual learners, and critically evaluate this method of assessment. Through completing this assignment, I will be able to share my knowledge with my EP colleagues and encourage the use of DA with children and young people in order to establish their cognitive strengths, areas to improve, barriers to learning and what kind of mediation helps them learn.
Overview of Mediation in Dynamic Assessment
It seems that Vygotsky (1986/1934) was amongst the first to introduce the idea of intervening during assessments in order to reveal what children are able to do with some assistance. He gave an example of giving two children with a mental age of eight years some challenging problems; and found that with some form of help, one child could solve problems designed for twelve year olds and one child could solve problems designed for nine year olds. This ‘discrepancy between the mental age and the level he reaches in solving problems with assistance indicates the zone of his proximal development’ (Vygotksy, 1986/1934:p.186–187).
Feuerstein further developed the theory around mediation in DA when he was working with many traumatised young people who had been involved in the Holocaust (Feuerstein, Rand, Hoffman and Miller, 1980). Feuerstein noted how little psychometric assessment could offer these young people and that this form of testing looked at children's failure to learn, as opposed to what they could learn (Seng, 2003). Feuerstein believed that an individual’s capacity to learn is not only determined by their genetics, it is determined by the type of interactions they are exposed to. He proposed the theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability (SCM), the belief that cognition is changeable and can be improved at any age or stage of development. These cognitive changes are both internal, structural changes and durable, substantial and meaningful for that person (Seng, 2003). Feuerstein went on to develop the theory of Mediated Learning Experience (MLE), the special quality of interaction between a learner and an intentional teacher, which ensures SCM.
Feuerstein et al. (1980) describes MLE as ‘the way in which stimuli emitted by the environment are transformed by a ‘mediating agent’’ (p.16), the mediator positions themselves between the learner and the environmental stimuli and organises the stimuli for the learner. There are three criteria that need to be met for MLE to take place; intentionality and reciprocity describes engaging with the learner and sharing cognitive objectives with them; transcendence involves the teacher showing the child how the underlying principles learnt can be generalised to previous and future situations; and meaning is important in being open and letting the learner know why they are doing the particular activity.
Although the criteria for MLE may sound complex, Haywood and Lidz (2007) describe mediation as what good teachers and parents naturally do when they are promoting high levels of mental functioning, for example, self-regulating or strategic problem solving. Similarly, Haywood (1993) emphasised how good mediation can potentially be present in any interaction and that it is not about memorising certain mediational prompts, but about using your personality and the child’s responses in order to choose mediational strategies. He also described it as a ‘shared quest’, in which each member has an identifiable role to play and shares an understanding that they can count on each other to do their part.
Based on the assumptions of SCM and MLE, Feuerstein developed a flexible and ‘dynamic’ assessment process which incorporated mediation. There have been many explanations or definitions for the term ‘dynamic assessment’, including Lidz (1991) who defined DA as ‘an approach that follows a test–intervene–retest format, and that focuses on learner modifiability and on producing suggestions for interventions that appear successful in facilitating improved learner performance’ (p.6). Lussier and Swanson (2005) claimed that it is ‘procedure that attempts to modify performance, via examiners’ assistance, in an effort to understand learning potential’ (p.66), and Dorfler et al (2009) suggested that it is ‘one approach to gaining insight into the current level of competence as well as into how this competence can be influenced by specific educational interventions’ (p.77). Despite the variations in the definitions, they all share a commonality, that DA involves assessment, which tells us about the individual’s abilities; and a form of input from the assessor, which tells us about what the individual is capable of with input. Whether this input is termed ‘educational interventions’ or ‘examiners’ assistance’, we can assume that the authors are referring to ‘mediation’.
Haywood and Lidz (2007) highlight that in DA the assessor does not stay neutral, and do ‘to’ the learner, instead they get involved and do ‘with’ the learner, conducting an interactive intervention. It is a process whereby the assessor needs to be open and clear in communicating what their intentions are, that they need active participation, and that they will give feedback during the process. They also highlight that if possible, it is useful to target an area of the individual’s cognitive functioning that needs exploring and establish the zone of actual development in this area. The assessment used should be just beyond the zone of actual development, with a shared mind-set between assessor and learner, that the next step is attainable, with the aim being determining how to reach it together.
Critique of Mediation in Dynamic Assessment
It seems that there is a widespread awareness of DA, particularly in the EP profession, with many positive attitudes towards the approach (Deutsch and Reynolds, 2000). DA’s positive, flexible, interactive and culture-fair nature has been reported to be the key strengths of the approach, as well as the amount and type of information that is gained from it. Bosma and Resing (2012) found that DA was seen by teachers in mainstream and special education as more positive than psychometric tests, as the results are focussed on the child’s potential instead of their deficits. Deutsch and Reynolds (2000) found similar views when they questioned EPs; that DA shows ‘positive directions for future development rather than a deficit model’ (p.324) and it is perceived as a ‘student friendly’ (p.323) approach, enhancing self-esteem by looking for strengths and enabling the child to see themselves as a person who can learn. Deutsch and Reynolds (2000) also discovered that EPs valued the flexibility of DA; the freedom to select the assessment material and adapt them to different styles of mediation, while taking into account the individual child’s needs. There is also evidence for the view that it is less culturally bias and reduces inequalities (Deutsch and Reynolds, 2000; Frisbey and Braden, 1992).
Haywood and Tzuriel (2002) found that when comparing DA with static assessment, teachers favoured DA and gained more from it; for example, how much has been learnt and how much help was given. Similarly, Frisby and Braden (1992) reported that DA was informative in determining interactional styles that worked best with a child, and Bosma and Resing (2012) discovered that DA with graduated prompting offered additional valuable information about specific instruction needs for children with SEN compared to psychometric tests, for example, the type and number of prompts needed. These findings line up with studies using DA in mainstream schools (Resing, De Jong, et al. 2009; Resing, Tunteler, et al. 2009; Resing 2000; Tzuriel 2000). Deutsch and Reynolds (2000) also found that DA is ‘rich in information’; it identifies cognitive abilities required for the task, mediational strategies, and the child’s cognitive functions. Furthermore, they found that EPs saw DA as useful in offering ‘down to earth and usable advice’ (p.324) in order to develop concrete next steps and strategies and that it is a ‘more realistic or simply superior’ (p.324) alternative to psychometric assessments.
There is also evidence to support the use of the mediation aspect of DA in particular. In a synthesis of over 800 studies relating to achievement in education, Hattie (2008) concluded that learning needs to be the explicit goal, and that goal needs to be challenging, and attained through deliberate practice, with both teacher and student being engaged and passionate, while providing feedback throughout. This explanation describes many aspects of the MLE. In addition, Robinson-Zanartu’s (2017) study showed that most students who had not achieved when using purely academic interventions, began to succeed when mediation promoted the used of meaningful thinking skills. However, Frisbey and Braden (1992) summarised some findings relating to an intervention involving mediation and metacognitive skills called Instrumental Enrichment (IE). It was found that although the learners who experienced a pro-longed programme of IE showed enriched attitudes and problem-solving skills, there was a failure to translate their skills into improved academic achievement.
Despite DA being perceived as having many positive aspects by many, it has been found that it is currently not widely used (Deutsch and Reynolds, 2000). They found that this was attributed to the fact that it is a more demanding, challenging and time consuming assessment and the materials can be expensive and difficult to access. They also pointed out the lack of training in DA, lack of continued support from a more skilled and experienced professional and lack of time due to other priorities and demands set by local authorities. These findings correspond to Karpov and Tzuriel’s (2009) conclusions, highlighting that ‘DA requires more skill, better training, more experience, and greater effort than static testing’ (p.233) and as the training is not necessarily always taught in EP doctorate courses, EPs may not have had any opportunities to train in DA. If EPs have been able to access some form of training, then it may be after years of using standardised testing which they are experienced in using. They are therefore more familiar with this static way of working and there is a sense of satisfaction in ‘being able to do what we already know how to do’ (Haywood and Tzuriel, 2002:p.59).
Deutsch and Reynolds (2000) also found that EPs highlighted that the language and concepts involved in DA can make it difficult to communicate the findings to others and that it can be difficult to link to classroom practice. Similarly, Haywood and Tzuriel (2002) expressed that as parents and teachers typically do not expect DA and are unlikely to be able interpret it, the report may not be received positively. Bosma and Resing (2012) compared the impact of DA and standardised assessments and found that within the group of the teachers who received DA results, the verbal responses were positive, however, classroom observations did not show any substantial change in the interactions between teacher and child. On reflection, the time between providing the results and observing could have been too short for teachers to make changes (Witt 1986), and the DA reports may have been too different compared to standardised assessment, which they are more used too; they may have struggled to interpret the recommendations and may have needed assistance in translating them to their teaching practice.
Another finding from Deutsch and Reynolds’ (2000) research is that EPs said that DA was too subjective and ‘too open to individual interpretation’ (p.325). Similarly, Haywood and Tzuriel (2002) state that assessors have to be subjective in their judgements regarding what cognitive functions require mediation, what mediation to give and the interpretation of the assessment; inter-examiner agreement is therefore important in reducing the subjectivity. The Cognitive Abilities Profile (CAP) is a tool that could help to resolve this issue as it is a framework designed to be used in collaboration with parents and other professionals in order to develop a cognitive abilities profile of the learner, including their strengths, areas of difficulties and what mediation helps them.