Sunday, 17 February 2008

Outside the Conductive Education goldfish bowl

The historical crisis is a more general one

It is not just within Conductive Education, and its research and development, that present ways of doing things cry out for change. A few weeks ago on this blog (‘CE: a lesson from Bobath’, 2 January 2007) I remarked upon one instance of this, the historical crisis in the world of ‘Bobath’ therapy:

More recently, in my posting on the approach of Bawin and his colleagues earlier today ('Conductive early intervention') I alluded briefly to how ‘early intervention’ for developmental disorders as a whole is regarded, by some at any rate, as having lost its way.

There are more. In the far bigger and intellectually more developed world of education and educational research (one to which Conductive Education is entitled to claim a certain affinity) the crisis is much bigger. A recent article in Educational Research Review (Jörg, Davis and Nickmans, 2007) presents an analysis of this crisis and in doing so accesses a literature that helps contextualise and articulate Conductive Education’s own historical situation, one that has been raised several times in earlier postings on this blog.

Some passages from their article offer a flavour of what they say. These are not always an ‘easy read’ but stick with them because what they say is really rather simple.

There is a worsening crisis in education

Over the past decades, commentators from a diversity of domains have offered sharp criticism of ‘educational practice’. Teaching methods are criticised as poorly fitted to the dynamics of human cognition; curricula are described as out of step with the current times and inadequate representations of parent disciplines; school structures are said to have failed to adapt to the increased diversities of the populations they serve and the mounting dynamism of their contexts etc. In brief, what educational systems claim to be up to and what they actually do appear to be two very different things.

The crisis concerning learning manifests itself by noticing that traditional ways of thinking on this complex topic have not been able to define learning adequately.

Being aware of the double meaning of ‘crisis’ in scientific revolutions, as put forward by Kuhn (1970), both as a state of art in the field of science and as a potential start for innovation, we may take the crisis of today as a full opportunity for a change: as a start of a turning point. Only them we may be able to take up the challenge of ‘inventing’ a new science (e.g. Vygotsky, 1926/1997). What we need is a genuine ‘revolution of new faces’.

We argue that not only educational practice is faced with a problem but that the field of social science has been in crisis for a long time. It seems in a state of … ‘learned ignorance’, remaining blind for what learning may be, unable to recognise its complexity.

Education is a complex system

A complex system is defined as any system comprising a large number of interacting components (agents, processes etc), whose aggregate activity is non-linear (not derivable from the summation of the activity of individual components) and which is characterised by self-organisation

The assertion is that education is a complex system, with all the properties that are characteristic of a complex system, and that it is necessary for researchers, policy-makers and educators, to adapt their educational actions and decisions accordingly. A good way of illustrating how a message functions to invoke the – not entirely uncontroversial – notion of a ‘meme’. Memes are the mental or cultural counterpart of genes and refer to units of information (ideas, opinions, theories, etc) that are transmitted from one person to another. Since message ‘transmission’ is not really about transmission at all, but about reconstruction by the person who ‘receives’ the message, meme transmission is a process in which the memes or messages are not only multiplied, but also transformed, diluted, extended and so forth. Memes are clearly involved in a struggle for limited resources, such as the time, attention and cognitive space of the receivers. For instance – scientific ideas – such as the notion that education is a complex dynamic system – are transmitted to other scientists and further developed or criticised by them. In some cases the messages are appealing and simple enough to enter the public media and become the topic of popular magazine articles and television programs. For instance, the current public interest in the brain as an explanation of human behaviour is likely to be related to a combination of several factors. There is the simplicity of the message (‘particular regions of the brain are responsible for particular abilities or behaviours’), the availability of powerful visual images (coloured pictures of brains with bright colours indicating what part is doing the hard work), innovative and impressive technology (various types of brain scanners, the promise of tangible handles for intervention (drugs that eventually affect the brain regions at issue). For scientists, an additional advantage is the sheer endless possibilities for subjecting any known form of behaviour, ability of psychological property to potential brain localisation. The brain message has also invaded the discourse of education in the form of so-called 'brain based education’.

Thinking in complexity may, or should, lead to a different science of learning and education, one that is characterised by acknowledging the complexity of reality, of non-linearity, and the important role of time in human functioning.

Only when it is recognised that education is in crisis, and when the causes of this crisis are recognised, will we be able to deal with the problems that this crisis brings along. The importance of this sort of acknowledgement was also noted by Vygotskian his first years as a scholar. He saw it as one of the preconditions for a paradigm shift in his field of study to formulate a ‘theory of the crisis’ (see Vygotsky, 1926/1997, for his work on the crisis in psychology, which was not published until after his death). By describing and formulating such a theory in the field of education, we might be able to perceive a crisis, understand its effects, and start to ‘solve’ it.

James Wertsch explained that a situation like this can emerge because of ‘the learned incapacities’ and ‘disciplinary pathologies’ that restrict the horizons of modern academic discourse (Wertsch, 1998, p. 11).

So, we may conclude that we desperately need a theory of the crisis we are is, to be able to overcome the crisis, and to sketch the significant ‘human benefits’ for the field of education and all people in it. ‘…the way things unfold is inherently unknowable to the human mind, emerging through spontaneous self-organisation … rather than advanced planning’ (Flood, 1999, p.9).

Focusing on potential instead of ends

The new complexity paradigm … involves the abandonment of the desire to pre-determine outcomes. Rather than being framed in ends-oriented terms, education might become possibility – oriented … ‘… we should be realistic in a complex way, understanding the uncertainty of reality, knowing that the real holds invisible potential’ (Morin, 2001, p.70). This is how, in our view, reality in learning and education could be, and should be, expanded into dynamic Vygotskian spaces of possibility and potentialities of learning and development for learners.

In contrast to statistics-based studies that can be carries out relatively easily – on many participants at once, using techniques like questionnaires or computerised tests – research into dynamics of complex systems requires mostly intensive, long-term, fine-grained, and often tedious examinations of agents and processes, usually with high-frequency repeated measures and observations. The only way to obtain insight into the dynamics of those processes is to actually study them, i.e. their performance in practice, and this will proceed in a piecemeal fashion. For some phenomena, many individual, or small-sample studies are needed before a critical mass of data is achieved, given the many and varied ways that agents in a system might effect one another. Another problem with these very intensive studies is that they are considerably more difficult to carry out than probe-oriented studies (in which, for example, subjects fill in a questionnaire). A further complicating issue is that the researcher must almost become part of the process itself. In a linear frame, such participation is seen as confounding and researchers are urged to avoid it; in a complexity frame, particularly in studies of social systems, it is understood as inevitable – and, therefore, a necessary element of the enquiry.

A few comments

I do hope that my exegesis does not do too much violence to the authors’ argument.

Be aware that ‘crisis’ here is not meant in its popular sense of a sudden event. Rather it is a technical term, particularly in materialist dialectics, referring to a period of growingly contradictory forces at a given stage of development, out of which qualitative changes (that is change to different ways of being and doing) struggle to emerge. This is certainly how Vygotskii understood the term. As a corollary to this, a historical crisis can go on for a long time. The crisis that occupied Vygotskii’s mind in the nineteen-twenties is still not generally resolved.

Older readers will recall Mária Hári’s desperate plea, made again and again over the years in the face of simplistic attempts to understand Conductive Education: ‘It is a complex system'. When I was teaching undergraduates (student conductors) about pedagogy and psychology for conduction I tried to help them towards an explicit understanding that human development (and its disorders), pedagogy and upbringing, and therefore conduction, are only really explicable as dynamic, systemic, transactional phenomena. Sounds wordy, I know, but like the article quoted from above, it’s really very simple once one makes the qualitative leap into the conductive paradigm. In many ways Conductive Education is ahead of the field in achieving a highly complex, systemic pedagogic practice, but it has singularly failed to agree and articulate a correspondingly complex theoretical position.

Jörg and colleagues give a gentle jab tothe brain-reductionists who, certainly in the English-speaking world, deserve a much harder time than they generally receive. Conductive Education has suffered no little from its own home grown biologisers over the years – ironic when one considers András Pető’s goal and achievement of demedicalising motor disorders in the first place. In the wider world in which we swim, however, there’s a steady drip, drip, drip of the simplistic message of brain as an explanation of human behaviour. Just one, very recent example: the English weekly teachers’ newspaper, the Times Educational Supplement, runs a weekly feature under the heading of ‘Brain and behaviour’ in its TES Magazine supplement. Last week’s offering in this series (18 February, sorry, it doesn’t go on the Web), ‘Networking pays off’ by Susan Greenfield, was as intellectually dishonest and unthinking an example of the ‘brain-based education’ meme as you could imagine. No matter, it will have doubtless served to reinforce the socialisation of teachers into growing mindset that is antithetical to basic tenets of conductive pedagogy and conductive upbringing for the motor-disordered. – indeed to the whole purpose of transformative education..

And as for the problem of ‘Conductive Education research’, the final paragraph quoted above from Jörg et al., could have been written with Conductive Education in mind. Would that it were heeded!

Conductive Education can sometimes seem like a tiny goldfish bowl, its inhabitants apparently seeing little of what happens outside. In some important respects Conductive Education is actually running ahead of the field, in others the same problems as confront us also confront others around us – and in certain others we are being left far behind. In some ways Conductive Education has gained enormously from its relative isolation, (practiced at times almost to the degree of autarchy!) but we might achieve a better balance of advantage if conductivists were to get out more and key into what is going on in the big wide world.


The article summarised here:

Jörg, T., Davis, B., Nickmans, G. (2007) Towards a new, complexity science of learning and education, Educational Research Review, vol., 2 p. 145-156

This journal Educational Research Review is published on behalf of the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction, by Elsevier Ltd. You will find the journal at:

Elsevier is not an open-access publisher. Downloading the article cost US$ 30.00. If you want to read the article more cheaply, then you will have to go through the library system.

The article includes nearly two pages of references. Cited below are those referred to by the authors within passages quoted in this posting:

Flood, R. L. (1999) Rethinking the Fifth Discipline. Learning within the unknowable. London: Routledge

Kuhn, T. S. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd edition). Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Morin, E. (2001) Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future. Paris: UNESCO Publishing

Vygotsky, L. S. (1926/1997) Collected Works, Vol. 3. Problems of the Theory and History of Psychology. NY: Plenum Press

Wertsch, J. V. (1998) Mind as Action. NY: Oxford University Press


  1. Andrew writes that Maria Hari liked to refer to CE ‘It is a complex system'. But what did she MEAN by complex system? I often come across the explanation that CE is a complex system but no hint what COMPLEXITY means?
    Then Andrew explains: "conduction, ...only really explicable as dynamic, systemic, transactional phenomena. " I am sure that these terms are specific to the science of education. But what do they all mean ? Is it possible to explain and describe the real essence of CE without reducing it to the umbrella term "complex" and finding more explicit and less abstract terms than that used by the science of education? Many thanks.

  2. I was never too clear what Maria meant by 'a complex system'. To be honest, I was never altogether sure that she herself could have said what she actually meant! But when I was editing some of her papers, for the book on her conductive pedagogy (a process that brings you very close to the thoughts of a writer), it was very clear to me that she was indeed describing a system that she could see only as a very complex entity, with a whole variety of factors operating in conjunction with each other, usually interdependently.

    To me it is that interdependence that is a sign that one is dealing with a system. The question then has to be which aspects are essential and which just add-ons or accessories that can be removed without affecting the working of the whole. But that is perhaps another question!

    To return to what you asked I am not sure that I can answer it. It's a real problem and I have struggled with it myself for years. Unsuccessfully!

    Yes, you are right to say that 'It is complex' is not enough, one has to get behind this. But what terms does one use? Because of my own background I have used terms and concepts that I find waiting for me in education and psychology.

    You've quoted from what I wrote in my blog posting: "conduction, ...only really explicable as dynamic, systemic, transactional phenomena."

    I could add to this:

    - 'mediated' (as Feuerstein among many others use the term)

    - 'reciprocical' (as used for example in analysing parent-child dyads)

    - 'ecological' (in the sense that Bronfenbrenner introduced into developmental psychology)

    etc, etc.

    When talking to people in the relevant fields, use of such terms makes the complexity and nature of CE readily understandable.

    So in the same way, does use of the term 'dialectical' (in its materialist context) if you can find an audience that still understands such things!

    The trouble is the question of what do you do when you have an audience which is not pre-equipped with the necessary concepts. This includes most lay people, that is most therapists and doctors, most 'educationalists', most politicans, most people of any sort in fact!

    This is where I can't help you. How do you express the idea of 'complex' whilst leaving the complexity implicit? You tell me. The best that I can offer in such circumstances is a simple list of some of the factors included, but I am very aware that this offers no vision of their systemic relationship.

    Perhaps we should not try! I have tried to convey this 'explanatory nihilism' to my students in the following terms. How do you explain to people how aspirin works to 'cure' a headache? Easy:

    - open the bottle (or get a child to do so for you)

    - put a couple of the tablets in your mouth

    - swallow them with some water.

    What you do not do is try and draw one of those elaborate parmaceutical diagrammes showing lots of little hexagons all joined together. No one will understand it.

    Perhaps trying to explicate our system for people who do not have a grounding in theoretial psycho-pedagogy is trying to do much the same.

    As I wrote earlier, I don't really know the answer!

  3. Yes it is possible “to explain and describe the real essence of CE without reducing it to the umbrella term complex and finding more explicit and less abstract terms than that used by the science of education”

    CE provides everything one needs to learn to live/function in your chosen world. It is “systemic” because it deals with all the aspects of living as a whole, all of them interacting with each other, all influencing each other. It is “dynamic” because life is active, motivating, full of meaning and creative.

    CE is “transactional” because life is constantly changing, relationships need to be renegotiated, new influences appear requiring readjustments to take place.

    CE makes sure that this is a never-ending upwards spiral.

    I was trained by Mária Hári. What do I think about this system of hers?

    Mária Hári.’s system is “complex” because she is dealing with an educational system that incorporates everything that would contribute to the development of non-disabled children, which actually means what a child learns in a ‘normal’ life through being active.

    In the case of disabled children, who cannot take part in life in the usual way, this system has to be carefully considered in order to provide for every aspect of the children’s learning, allowing them to be active in the usual conditions of life.

    Look for example at my lovely moon that we had yesterday evening. Point it out to non-disabled children and the questions will start pouring in, they will tip their heads and point at it and ask how far away is it, what is it made of, who lives there, the list is endless and endlessly creative.

    With disabled children do we even know if the child is seeing what we are pointing out. Can they tip their heads to look? Maybe they see 2 moons, a blue moon or a bright orange moon. If a child cannot speak, no questions get asked, do we anticipate the questions and provide equally creative answers?

    I think András Pető tried to simplify this complicated process and built up the CE programmes in order to provide a way for this system of learning to work. This is a system that provides normal living experiences for children who cannot experience them in the normal fashion. The children therefore develop into functioning people through having all the necessary normal life experiences.

    Isn't it actually life that is complex, and the way a baby/child/adult learns? Therefore Mária Hári.'s system must be complex because that is what she is talking about.