Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Staying different

Febrile thoughts about CE’s identity, from a fitful night’s sleep

Heavy stuff

I used to teach conductor-students a module called 'Pedagogy and psychology for conduction'. I tried hard over twenty weekly lectures to 'debiologise' the students' understanding of the human mind and its development. I tried to sever the direct brain = mind model that most people in our society seem to pick up unquestioningly through everything that they hear and experience through ut life.

This is of course not the same as understanding the mental/spiritual aspects of our being as inextricably linked with its bodily aspects ('holism'), something quite different that also had to be got across. Rather I write here about the unspoken assumption that mental/spiritual phenomena are explicable primarily or even exclusively through biological phenomena (specifically, through neurological ones), i.e. that psychological and along with them pedagogical questions can be answered by what happens at the neurological level. Or to put it another way round, neurologists can understand and explain the sort of things that psychologists and pedagogues have to deal with. That makes it ‘science’.

Training and socialisation

Still with me? Possibly not. Certainly, most second-year student-conductors would be out the window (metaphorically) before even half way through such a wordy statement. The goal of these 'lectures' (or performances as I tended to think of them), as an integral part of the wider whole of which they were a part, was not aimed primarily towards academic understanding of academic ideas. Rather, drip by drip, it was to bring the students to reconstrue their everyday experience 'in the groups', in ways that helped them make explicit what they were seeing and experiencing week by week through their emerging conductive pedagogy. The role of such lectures was to bring this often inchoate experience together, leading the students' experience of the human condition towards a much more dialectic, systemic, transactive understanding. You may call that 'conductive' if you wish but I had no need to do so at the time.. To provide these students the conventional stuff of Western Anglo-Saxon psychology would be directly to contradict their everyday experience in the groups. They needed to access different psychologies, ones historically and substantively closer to the pedagogy that they were being socialised into.

Two of the principles that Chas McGuigan and I had tried to built into the very bones of this course when it began, were that practice leads theory and that conductors have to be socialised (brought up) as much as trained. Not coincidentally of course, this is how we understood 'Conductive Education' itself to work when it successfully transforms its learners.

I liked to think that over the course of twenty weeks' realignment of their understandings, and with some force-feeding of certain radically different but ultimately very simple conceptual tools, the students would start articulating their practice in rather a different way. I hoped that in doing so they could consciously recognise the changes that they were themselves experiencing, and recognise who/what they were becoming, 'conductors'. They would understand how being a conductor 'feels' different, because conductors do not just act differently (with their clients, anyway!) from most other people around them in society, they think differently too.

By the end of these twenty weeks they could begin to express themselves about their work in this way, even in the impenetrable terms of the opening paragraphs above. They could do this not so much because they knew the meanings of some awkward new words (they would probably lose most of these meanings anyway even before they went on their summer vacations) as because they had been socialised into their sense.

If that sense should remain, then I would have achieved my goal.

The wider problem

One rich source of examples of the 'correct' way of thinking was the students' own everyday emerging conductive practice An everyday source of examples of the 'wrong' way of understanding was (and remains) the day-to-day drip, drip, drip of prevalent biologised ways of thinking about thinking, in the newspapers and through the other media, more and more of it with every year over the time that I taught on that course.

There was never any need to plan ahead for illustrative materials, they jump off the page or out of the airways all around us. Students' may have paid scant attention to the news etc. but photocopier and recording tape were all that was needed to bring immediate and comprehensive examples direct into the classroom, often from the last night's broadcast television or the morning's daily newspaper.

I found a particular mine of examples of the present-day dominance of biologised undertandings of humanity, and where it comes from, in the plentiful publications and publicisations of Susan Greenfield, a pharmacologist. I was reminded of this over the last week or so by a little public storm in the UK teacup, over children and their computer-use, with bland statements of the patently facile from the usual 'opinion-formers' , made on platforms where they were unlikely to be intellectually challenged.

A choice example

A week or so ago, to relieve the continual economic gloom, the British media came out with one of their regular moral panics about children: this one was that social networking harms children’s brains. Up popped Susan Greenfield again, as she does, with yet another painfully egregious example of personal ideology wrapped up in neuro-babble. It would have provided a wonderfully clear teaching aid to present to undergraduates. Read it for yourself to see what I mean (example: Derbyshire, 2009).

I am no way able to judge how far she is, as often described in headlines in the popular, press, a ‘top neuroscientist‘. I am (was) a psychologist, and such matters are wholly beyond my area of competence. It is painfully obvious, however, that here she is operating here well outside her field of expertise, so why then are her views treated with any more respect that is due to any other mild but dotty crank.

Because she is ‘neuro-something’.

What a nerve!

No specialism in social or psychological science is required to spot this one. On BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live last Saturday, poet Matt Harvey (2009) presented a nice piece of doggerel on this.

The threat of social websites

the neuro-scientists are alarmed
our children’s brains are being harmed

they’re being re-wired, infantilised
they’re not learning to empathise

with endemic obesity
it’s all too easy now to see

we will inevitably find –
enormous kids with tiny minds

a bloated, brainless generation
with no concept of concentration

hang on – I use facebook, I’m quite clever –

I don’t suffer from attention defic-whatever

Of course I know that the child’s brain is different from the adult’s, just as I know the social and historical contexts of the functioning and learning of both. But I see no reason to consider the thinking of either this poet or that neuro-person to be inherently more ‘scientific’ here.

It is up to you to form your own informed judgment to decide which is the most plausible, entertaining or socially valuable.

I hoped that graduating students would retain and increase their critical respect for scientists who explore the workings of the human brain (neurologists), and for those who went in there and tried to patch up damaged ones ('neuro-surgeons'). At the same time, I tried to inculcate a healthy, critical suspicion of anything that tried to appropriate this respect by tagging the suffix ‘neuro-’ on to some other word (supply your own examples). Perhaps in the future, I hoped, our graduates might stop and think when they heard of statements or practices implying that

  • we are who we are, because of our brains
  • we can and cannot do certain things, because of our brains
  • potential already exists, within our brains, waiting just to be 'fulfilled' in some way.

The changing world

This conductor-training course had begun life in 1997, at which tme it was still confidently expected that graduate conductors would go out into the world to work 'in groups'. Already, however, even then we were in danger of 'training for yesterday', as more and more conductors were by then finding their way, usually more from necessity than choice, into working as the only conductor around, wholly isolated from their fellows.

When one speaks of Conductive Education entering a new phase or stage in its development, this is almost certainly already an almost an out-of-date analysis catching up with a reality changing ahead of it. Out there, around the world where people struggle to create and maintain conductive services, the new stage is already under way. 'Being a conductor' has already transformed out of all recognition from what it used to be and from what conductions are trained to do. In the circumstances it is great credit to those who train conductors, everywhere, that underlying practices are imparted so robustly as to permit their adaptation to some very widely different contexts. It would be better by far, however, if conductors could be trained for the sorts of demand that they will face, from the outset.

Over to you

So how should 'conductors' be trained for this new era? Is it over-optimistic to hope that the frankness and thoughtfulness displayed in the (still current) public agonising over the National Library of Conductive Education might transfer to more fundamental issues of teaching practice and theory?

Inevitably, this links to bigger questions still about how 'conductiveness' should be most effectively provided in the word that we face, which will be larger, poorer and much less Eurocentric that the one that Conductive Education came from have known.

The world is set now the road to change and there will be no turning back, so here are some perhaps more specific questions.

  • What radical changes are already impacting directly upon the practice, the training and maybe the range of theories open to us?
  • How, or whom, should we train to generalise the human benefits of what we now call ‘Conductive Education’, drawing from the already considerable insights of the international conductive movement, as well as from its founding core in Central Europe?
  • What should be kept, what should go, what are the new ways to deliver, what direction should we be taking, what is 'the knowledge' required and how best might we share, store and deliver this?

What further important questions are missing here?

These are not of course questions solely for conductors. They are far too important for conductors alone, but please, please, please let us have conductors making significant contributions this time round. Change there will be, along with hideous pressures to conform to the existing hegemony, to accommodate to the ways in which things are alredy done and understood 'outside' Conductive Education, from people who do not understand or cannot fully articulate the distinctiveness of the 'conductive' way.

Apocalypse now?

I had an email this morning from Ivan Su in which he did not use nice, comfortable words like ‘downturn’ or ‘recession’. He wrote ‘tsunami'.

This is what Conductive Education will have survive, developing fast to concretise and express its distinct identity, while defending core values that place its practice largely beyond existing paradigms in education and rehabilitation. It could be so much easier just to let go, and go with the flow.

Really, once this happens, it might be as though Conductive Education had never been.


Harvey, M. (2009) The threat of social websites, Saturday Live, 24 February

Derbyshire D. (2009) Social websites harm children's brains: chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist, Daily Mail, 24 February


  1. Waiting for Liverpool to come out for the second half, I went google walkabout; found this, relevant or not, I know not. It entertained me for a moment.

    "Western psychologists know something. Western doctors know only a fragment of mind. The afferent nerves bring the sensations from the periphery or extremities of the spinal cord. The sensations then pass to the medulla oblongata at the back of the head, where the fibres decussate. From there, they pass on to the superior frontal gyrus or superior frontal convolution of the brain in the forehead, the supposed seat of the intellect or mind. The mind feels the sensations and sends motor impulses through the afferent nerves to the extremities - hands, legs, etc. It is a brain-function only for them. Mind, according to them, is only an excretion of the brain, like bile from liver. The doctors are still groping in utter darkness. Their minds need drastic flushing for the entry of Hindu philosophical ideas."

    Read the whole article at:

  2. I have just read your latest blog-essay and also the "Daily Mail" article about the Neuroscientist Lady.

    I can't help answering you, even though you want conductors to do so above all. Maybe they are much too tired in the evening, have a family, want to relax, etc. I do hope some answers/thoughts will come from that side, too.

    In my view a basic GOOD academic training, combined (in CE) with well-guided practical learning, to acquire the necessary skills and to develop students’ outlook and personality etc. need not be changed to something else afterwards, fast as the world changes around us now.

    We cannot plan for a Tsunami, real or economic, so I should forget about that argument.

    What did the Westernisation of CE (i.e. Pető's "method"/Hári's practice being plucked out of its original socio-economic, "Communist" environment) prove, even before that original environment disappeared?

    What everybody knows: that, thank goodness, brain-damaged children don't live in geographically specified areas. Nor is their social background homogeneous. They come from individual families, all over the place.

    In the West the children don't (can't or won't) live in an institute so it is very hard to bring them together into groups (csoports). But their education is (in principle) necessarily based on csoport-work, a basic element of C.E. That is the ideal setting for conductor trainees to learn to work in, even though in today's outside world, after their diploma, much of their conductors' knowledge maybe applied on an individual basis.

    So, what's wrong with that? And here I speak as a specialist pedagogue, a conductive mother (with some reading in the core subjects as well.) Up to a certain age children (babies, toddlers) are happiest in a one-to-one relationship. The Mother-and-Baby group at the Institute was noisy, the "csoport"-spirit only came in with the singing and the rhymes. These certainly created a bit of calm, and all participants (the group) enjoyed it, even though every mother-and child was vastly different. I could not quite recreate this atmosphere at home, but I did learn the exercises, the tricks, and so did George (although his leaps of development always came when he was back at the Institute.)

    Now: a good conductor can also create a special atmosphere with one small child in his own home, but the mother (or any other Bezugsperson) has to learn together with her child. The conductor learns the "principles" during her training (in the ideal, a csoport-based, Institute-type setting) and should be able to work her way into the situation she is invited to. In this way she still helps!!! She must also be a trainer to the mother, and impart her enthusiasm as well as her skill-base concerning that particular child.)

    Of course, in their later stages of development all children need peer company The Institute had its older children's groups, but they also sent children over to the school next door. I gather that some of today's conductors work in normal schools, giving as much "extra" to one or two disabled pupils as the school budget allows.

    So, again, this is not in contradiction to the type of basic training that NICE provides through its conductor training programme. The hard bit is that very few of conductors will now enter a ready-made, conductor-friendly environment, so they must be fighters as well. Most of them are, too!

    I could go on, but I don't think I need to. We sing from the same hymn-sheet. Only, you tend to despair.