If you are reading this, you may be an Educational, Clinical or Neuropsychologist. You may be a specialist teacher, a Speech and Language or Occupational Therapist. You might be accessing this website because you are a parent or have another role that makes you interested in finding out more about this area of work.
Much has been written about DA both from theoretical aspects and in addressing functional needs of users, so the following is intended only as a brief overview.
DA is a way of assessing the cognitive strengths and challenges of an examinee (child or adult – no age limits, by means of deliberate intervention ,often referred to as mediation, within the assessment itself, so that the assessment becomes a dynamic learning experience, rather than an unaided test of the learner’s current performance. I will call the examinee the ‘learner’ henceforth, since we are not talking only about children.
The history of DA goes back to the early part of the 20th century based on the concepts of Lev Vygotsky born in 1896 in Russia, the same year as his contemporary Piaget.
Vygotsky’s famous concept of the ZPD (1978), the Zone of Proximal (next) Development, threw out a challenge to psychologists already in the 1920’s. Psychologists, he wrote, should not only test children. Assessment should imitate nature. In daily interactions we don’t test children, we learn with them. If our goal is to help a child to learn better, we need to sample not only what the child can do now , unaided, that is their Zone of Actual (current) Development (ZOA) , but what may be in the process of development , emerging skills, which the child can only access with support at this point in time. The child has not yet reached the stage of independent mastery of the skill.
By placing a learning phase within the assessment, itself, we can see what is in the process of formation, emerging, but not yet crystallised in the repertoire of the learner, and what it takes by way of our mediation to help that person move forward.
Vygotsky’s work and his socio- cultural account of learning and cognitive development, was suppressed in Stalinist Russia for several decades after his early death (1934) and only appeared in western literature in the 1960’s. Thus, Piaget had the field of child cognitive development virtually to himself for several decades during which time generations of teachers were trained in “Discovery Learning “and in contrast to Vygotsky, taught to pursue a facilitating but largely non- interventionist role in the child’s journey from earliest years to mature models of abstract thinking.
With the exception of some early attempts at DA type tests by Andre Rey (1934), which were mainly ignored at the time, much of 20th century educational psychology was dominated by non -interventionist educational psychology tests such as Wechsler, Stanford – Binet and others.
Into this scenario in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the Rumanian Psychologist, Reuven Feuerstein, began his own DA journey, through his work with child survivors of the Second World War and his subsequent work with immigrant children into Israel from North African countries. Feuerstein studied with Rey and regarded Piaget as his ‘master’. Unfamiliar at first with Vygotsky’s ideas, he developed his own theory of the cognitive potential of under- achievers through mediated learning, even in children or adolescents who appeared ‘retarded’ in their scores in unaided performance tests.
In the 1960’s Feuerstein and colleagues developed one of the first, if not the very first battery of DA tests which he called the LPAD (Learning Potential Assessment Device), emphasising potential development not (yet) independently accessible to the learner, but revealed in a dynamic learning interaction between the assessor and the learner. In this way, but for very different historical reasons, he proposed similar ideas to those of Vygotsky (Kozulin, 1998). Many psychologists in the UK who have taken some form of DA training have likely come across one or several of the tests used in the LPAD.
The field of DA has grown in many directions and diverse applications (Lidz and Elliott, 2000). Different DA models have been developed, some in which the mediation is structured, or semi-structured and some more flexible, responding more individually to the learner’s needs as they emerge in the rapport between assessor and learner. Computerised DA tests have also been developed. These are well described elsewhere. DA is applied to learners of different ages, a variety of challenges including sensory and learning disabilities, psychiatric challenges, language deficits and disorders, and in its most classic original application, to learners who are immigrants, asylum seekers, culturally and linguistically different , who for reasons of unfamiliarity, may underperform on standardised psychological tests.