Thursday, 19 February 2009

New business models

Part I of an essay

Over the last few months the topic of new business models has appeared with increasing frequency in Conductive World, gaining significance as the world of Conductive Education begins to move towards a new stage in its development and spurred on by the extraordinary scale and pace of economic crisis.

A quick historical analysis

It has been long clear that models of practice and organisation introduced by András Pető in Budapest from the late forties, and developed and elaborated by Mária Hári and her colleagues in the seventies and the eighties, cannot be transposed to new social contexts without considerable adaptation.

This had been obvious right from the beginning of Conductive Education’s internationalisation (Cottam and Sutton, 1986). Many of those involved, however, individuals and organisations, have either been loath to grasp the nettle of radical reappraisal, seeking instead to retain as much of the original structure as possible while making only such minimal changes absolutely essential to establishing footholds in new countries. In parallel, others have tried to implement simulacra, based upon superficial grasp of the conductive system (particularly through the so-called ‘principles’).

By the end of the twentieth century a ‘historical crisis’ was emerging, with contradictions in the internationalisation of Conductive Education became ever more glaring, particularly as attempts to implement this system extended into countries socially, economically and culturally ever more distant from the society within which Pető and Hári had first manifest this approach. On the positive side, it seemed likely that new ways of working already emerging, with others to follow, would result in developments in understanding and practice out of which Conductive Education’s international phase would be slowly superseded by a new, ‘globalised’ one (Sutton, 2008a).

The inertia of all institutional and profession practices also applies of course to international Conductive Education, already long enough established by now to have its own, out-of-Hungary histories. It was hardly anticipated that change would be anything but slow and patchy.

Why a ‘business’ model?

The term ‘business model’ has been used here in part because this isincreasingly bandied about in relation to all sorts of proposed organisational structures for establishing economic development once the world emerges from its immediate problems. Indeed new business models might be an important factor in emerging at all!

And anyway, no other term has seemed to cover the very diverse straws, new ways of going about things, that have been caught blowing in the wind of change, reported in Conductive World. Maybe you can think of a better term. If so, do please suggest it.

But, a business model? Surely this is hardly the way of conceiving of Conductive Education? Here surely the discourse should be all about conductive practice and theory, in effect the ‘work of conductors’, which for the most part refers to their pedagogy.

On the contrary, it is proposed here that this view is hopelessly reductionist. There has to be some sort of organisation, even for just a one-man band, to ensure that the benefits of Conductive Education are reliably delivered. This will inevitably involve consideration of how this work is to be funded, and its wider oganisational activities and concerns. This even applies if the service in question is to be delivered ‘free’ (of which more at a later date).

Construing Conductive Educaion as more than just a practice practice, but part of a total delivery-system, demonstrates something else. The term ‘Conductive Education’ emerged out of mistranslation of two Hungarian terms into English, which lost and confounded important distinctions in the original language and the understandings ogf those who spoke it. All the same, the new English term attracted a third, rather wider meaning, representing the whole range of activities clustered around implementation of this approach, in different ways in different places:

The English term ‘Conductive Education’ is therefore often used in a blurred generic sense, incorporating aspects of both conductive pedagogy and conductive upbringing. Moreover, in the contemporary international spread of the system to new social contexts, the English term ‘Conductive Education’ has suffered further meaning creep, to cover not only pedagogy and upbringing but also issues relating to the implementation of the conductive system as a whole (administrative, organisational, regulatory, financial, ethical etc). (Sutton, 2008b).

Reductionism and holism

Practice and theory are always wedded to the structure that support them, one level helps shape the other, and this has always been so in Conductive Education as in anything else. A quaint teleological view is widely expressed in Conductive Education, that in some Hungarian Eden before the Fall, that there was a ‘pure’ way of doing things. In that state of bliss (never properly described) certain things were done with children and adults (and, honoured largely in the breech, with their parents/carers) supposedly because this was how the system’s unarticulated philosophy demanded. The same went for organisation, training, management and funding. After the Fall, things were no longer ‘pure’.

This view is of course total nonsense. Pető, Hári and their colleagues did what they were able to, and had to do, in the circumstances of their time, a time altogether unimaginable to most people today. They did as everyone else has had to, they adapted to their circumstances and out of this a ‘classic’ form of Conductive Education emerged, 'classic', architypal – and historical.

Seeking to understand Conductive Education solely in terms of its practice (that has largely been through the pedagogic practice of conductors), is not simply reductionist but offends a principle avowedly central to the whole conductive endeavour, the principle of ‘holism’.

On the contrary, theory/practice, organisation, training, management and funding, and wider matters like the ethics and philosophy, the social purpose of those involved, political and cultural imperatives (etc., etc), are inextricably linked together wherever people try to implement what they consider to be Conductive Education. Try and manipulate or even understand one element without relation to the rest of the whole is reductionist, perhaps even anti-conductive. Either way, reductionist analysis and action are rarely good basis for successful initiation of change.

The ‘classic’ totality that was elaborated and institutionalised in Hungary under Socialism saw conductive practice/theory embedded within a systemic whole that included the following:
  • low-wage, low-cost economy
  • official funding for a state institution
  • strong social discipline
  • a state policy of over-employment
  • jobs for life
  • a high level of (apparent) personal conformity
  • hierarchical/authoritarian management structures
  • slow professional preferment, awaiting Buggins’s turn
  • unquestioned official financial support for a state institution
  • exclusion of parents from the process at either micro- or macro-level
  • unquestioned residential schooling as the provision of choice for disabled children
  • officially sanctioned collectivist pedagogy
  • unanalytic craft-style training for the workers within the system
  • apparent acceptance of lack of open articulation or debate around the system
  • etc., etc.

To state such background factors in the functioning of the institute that once almost alone nurtured Conductive Education, before its internationalisation, is not to assert that such factors and the practices that emerged from them within this nexus were in themselves either good or bad. Nor are they news. Nor indeed is the fact that the contexts in which Conductive Education is practised in most places outside Hungary manifest diametrically opposite chracteristics in almost every respect, however much some who work in them might try to have it otherwise.

Not surprising then that world-view and expectations of many practising Conductive Education nay at times have been out of joint with the institutions that provide for that practice. In that it remains even in 2009 possible to think of staff in some places as ‘non-conductors’ and ‘non-conductors’ s testifies to something. There is no need to allot responsibility to either ‘side’ of the relationship, what matters here is that such organisations are hardly ‘holistic’.

A change in paradigm

BANG! Last year the world economic order began to fall in, the process gathering speed at extraordinary pace. Conductive Education faces the need to eliminate its every weakness and vulnerability, summon its every resource – and change, adapt, develop, – if it is to survive into the as yet unknowable future.

It is proposed here that one way to achieve this, maybe the essential way to go about it, is to raise the focus from the simple (and often unanswerable) question of ‘How can we keep doing some resemblance of this or that practice inherited from some unknown past?’ Instead, one should construe the practice, how this is organised and paid for, its relationship to its ‘outside’ worlds, a priori as but one part of a total bundle, a weapons system, a non-reducible whole.

As Mária Hári was fond of saying about the work of her Institute: ‘It is a system: it is very complex’. Thinking about Conductive Education, in the English sense of the term proposed above, its continuing development around the world has to be understood and developed systemically.

What to call such a paradigm? Urie Bronfenbrenner might have called it an ecological approach to the creation and maintenance of conductive practice as an organic component of conductive services or programs. Maybe therefore ‘organic’. Or perhaps ‘organismic’ (to suggest an interconnected living whole) might better fit the bill. Again, do you have any suggestions?

Are there any guidelines?

No. But there are possible precedents emerging from within Conductive Education, new ways to answer some of the problems that have to be accommodated to in the modern world, ranging from inclusion to fundraising. These have arisen spontaneously to square local circles. Such innovation has probably been happening since CE first broke free from the narrow ambit of the Pető Institute (one thinks immediately of the non-institutional Conductive Education advocated, and on a small scale practised, by Károly and Magda Ákos some twenty-odd years ago). Apart from the work of the Ákoses these initiatives have in common that they have not been described. The difference now is that some at least of them now emerge blinking into public scrutiny.

Perhaps no institution can yet claim to have come up with a total new-paradigm package to embrace every aspect of its work, though Tsad Kadima in Israel might be justified in claining to be well on the way towrds achieving this. Maybe the work of Tsad Kadima and some smaller, unsung organisations might bear description and analysis along these lines of a total ‘business model’ rather than in the familiar tired terms usually used in Conductive Education.

And certainly a paradigm shift in thinking to such an organismic analysis may prove essential for conductivists, moulded in in old ways but trying to construe what is being done by SAHK in Hong Kong, where the basic, irreducible unit is not the pedagogy but the totality of the organisation. This total organisational approach is of a kind and on a scale altogether unknown in this sector, an all-embracing, corporatized model (Fong, 2008).

The left-hand tool bar of Conductive World includes a list headed SEARCH CONDUCTIVE WORlD BY TOPIC. One of these topics is Business models. Click on it to call up previous items that have appeared serendipitously on Conductive World over the last year or so, that you may consider to offer something towards your own developing ideas of how Conductive Education might be reconstructed.

Are there any guidelines? From within Conductive Education there are probably many more exemplars of new ways of working mentioned here, if only people would communicate what they do.

What about from outside the world of Conductive Education? What ideas are floating around out here? This will be examined further in the second part of this essay..


Bronk. R. (2003) The Romantic Economist, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Cottam, P., Sutton, A.(eds) (1986) Conductive Education, London, Croom Helm

Fong, C. F. (2008) The business model of SAHK: a new vista for NGO corporatization

Hopper, K., Hopper, W. (2009), The Puritan Gift: Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream, London and NY, Macmillan

Sutton, A (2008a) Notes towards a history of Conductive Education, 2nd edition, Google Knol

Sutton, A. (2008b) Terminological exactitudes: can we begin to agree some basic terms? Conductive World, 19 August


  1. Andrew, I think this is a great blog. I have now read it 5 times and I am going to print it out so I can read it on the tram again.
    It all rings very true and I am occupied with thoughts about the new holistic, or even organismic, business model for this "one man band".

  2. Andrew,
    As Susie I was keep reading your 'essay' and cannot wait to read part 2.
    Lots of food for thought about CE the direction in which it may go and lots to think about my own educational past, the way how I was broght up and who I was being educated as an educator.
    I wish these thought to be shared with all those who responsible for the 'well-being' of CE, also wish that we will have lots more of this kind of critical but forward looking accounts of aspects of CE.
    Please do keep writing as many of us there who are hungry for such publications and learn a lot from your thoughts. You provide excellent examples and act as a great mentor.
    Best wishes,

  3. As usual you have given us a lot to think about and succinctly summed up the 'development' of Conductive Education, its consequences and considered future needs. Not many of us are capable of taking on board all of this easily, mentally or constructively, but I believe a unified approach by all those involved is necessary and wonder if there is enough will -and time -to ensure the right action and way forward happens whilst maintaining the principle of 'holism'. CE needs its Barack Obama to articulate and lead the way forward. Any suggestions or offers, anyone?

  4. Thank you all for the kind comment on what I wrote.

    Maybe one answer does lie in ‘leadership’, maybe. I doubt though that this is even an option because of a corrosive situation implicit in you Comment (’I believe a unified approach by all those involved is necessary‘. There’s never been a shortage of would-be leadership in Conductive Education. The shortage has been in its corollary, ’followership’.

    Crack that one in a democratic and open way, and you might create an unstoppable movement.

    Barack Obama was carried aloft up through already existing structures by a wave of highly organised collective action. This took people and it took money. Yes, the business of Conductive Education is miniscule by comparison, but Mr O was your comparison and I think that in this respect anyway we have something here to learn!

    And when he reached the crest of his wave, all he had to do was to step into the White House, put his hand on the tiller and firmly grasp the levers of power. Where is out tiller, where our levers of power?

    I respond tin this way not to cast cold water on what you say but rather to suggest the enormous amount of careful organisational work needed as a prerequisite for ‘leadership’. It can of course be done, and was indeed done with considerable success some twenty years ago in the United Kingdom, by a loose and canny federation, mainly parents but including a few professionals too, who formed RACE (Rapid Action for Conductive Education) and made Parliament and Government take notice..

    Maybe, ‘Anonymous’, you’d like to get in touch privately to talk about this more, maybe others interested in reviving RACE (not just in the UK) might like to chew over such a possibility elsewhere, contact old comrades who fought the fight twenty years back (and are now carers rather than parents), and consider how all this might be a lot easier (and cheaper) through twenty-first-century electronic communication.

  5. that's an impressive posting, however i suffer from attention deficit disorder and can't read much more than the paragraph, could you summise?