Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Why no pedagogy in England?

Brian Simon, Alexander Bain and 
Aleksandr Luriya

Sorting through a mountain of unfiled papers at work yesterday I came across a copy of a chapter that Gill Maguire had obtained for me at my request a few years ago. It had then got ‘buried’! I had requsted it to help respond to a student-conductor’s question of why the very idea of pedagogy had been lost in the United Kingdom, a question that I have been asked many times by incredulous Hungarians and other Continentals over the years.

The world of education is an essential part of the wider conceptual sea over which academic, scientific and other serious consideration of Conductive Education should be sailing, rather that sheltering (or held captive) in the familiar but restrictive harbours of therapy, rehabilitation and brain-based understandings, or lost up the confusing creek of inclusion.

I hope that the student in question got to see the paper in question. Whatever happened, it seems a shame to waste the information obtained, so here follows the sub-lecture that I might have delivered around it. I have to add that I am not altogether satisfied with the answer that the paper offers to the question that heads this posting, as it was written by the late, great Brian Simon, it is well worth a read for its own sake by anyone with an educated interest in education itself, and in relevant psychology, philosophy and social history.

Before stating my reservations, however, I would like to quote a few gems that jumped out at me from this paper and offer valuable contributions to the task of contextualising or perspectivising pedagogy (and therefore also conductive pedagogy) within the history of education, albeit from a very English viewpoint. I don’t know for certain pedagogy’s situation and status in other English-speaking countries. As ever, I am open to guidance. I do, though, know that things are very different on the Continent of Europe.


Brian Simon’s account dwelt lovingly upon the progressive and open-minded activities of the late-nineteenth-century English school boards and their local elementary-school systems This all too brief episode of state-sponsored educational enlightenment was brought to an end by the traumatic intervention of central government over the years 1899 to 1904, following which a positive pedagogy based upon scientific procedures and understandings was seen as no longer appropriate or required.

As part of that early flowering there had come a wish to establish a science of education (incorporating the psychologies of the time) of which a leading exponent had been Alexander Bain, whose major work on pedagogy was published in 1879.

The crucial basis for this approach lay in the theory, announced by Blain as fact, that the formation of associations of ideas in the mind was accompanied (or was the resultant of) new connections, linkages, or 'paths' formed in the substance of the brain. The process of education, since it consisted of the planned ordering of the child's experiences, must therefore have a necessary effect (as Priestly had argued one hundred years earlier), and this, of course, had been the basis of the theory of human perfectibility characteristic of the Enlightenment. This approach posited not only the educability of the normal child, it stressed the 'plasticity', as Bain put it, of brain functioning and processes. Education then, as again Bain defined it, was concerned with acquired capacities and functions. It was about human change and development.
 (Simon, 1981, p. 129)
Now there’s an view of education (and psychology, and child development) that could have made a far better job of recognising and incorporating Conductive Education than has England's present state education system that has so disastrously failed to understand and welcome it more than a century later.

A brief renaissance of local educational progressivism did follow in the first two decades of the twentieth century, but the baleful influence of the new psychology (characterised by reductionism, biologism, mental testing and determinism), coupled with further central-government interference, pushed this to one side. Contrary to what happened in Europe, England did not build upon the work of its pedagogic pioneers to develop pedagogy as a commonplace and vital component of its education system.

...and Aleksandr

By the start of the nineteen-eighties, however, Brian Simon was looking forward with some optimism to pedagogy’s re-establishment.

In part this was because of the potential for progressive political change that he felt to be in the air, as a consequence of the already apparent wave of technological change and the economic and social effects that would inevitably follow.

‘It is a commonplace,’ he wrote, ‘that Britain now faces a deep economic crisis…’ (p. 134). That was in 1981. Looking back with the burden of bitter hindsight, from the even more dire situation that we find
 now ourselves in, economically and educationally, and regarding too the disastrous things that have been done on both fronts over the intervening years, what can one say?

What sterile and pedagogy-free educational nonsense has been trotted out over these years in response to our persisting social and economic problems. And to what educational or economic avail?  This paper by Brian Simon reminds us, if reminder be needed, to be very careful about expressing too rose-tinted an optimism when economic and educational crystal-gazing…

Brian Simon certainly subscribed to pedagogic optimism. In the nineteen-sixties he was heartened by the work of Bruner ('Man is not a naked ape but a culture-clothed human being, hopelessly ineffective without the prosthesis provided by culture’). More fundamentally, however, from right back in the nineteen-fifties, he and Joan, his wife and collaborator, had been actively investigating, articulating and proselytising the work and thinking of A. R. Luriya, L. S. Vygotskii, and their associates and heirs in the then Soviet Union.

In 1982, Brian Simon reckoned, England had serious, objective economic and social reasons enough to look again at developing a proper pedagogic science. Along with other 
among leading English educationalists of his time time, following some forty years of national pedagogic neglect, Brian Simon was not alone in his hope and expectation in advocating (and anticipating) major pedagogic advances at long last. He and Joan had their own firm theoretical base for articulating the bases of a scientific pedagogy for England, to demonstrate which, in the chapter being considered here, he quoted the following passage by A. R. Luriya.
It is now generally accepted that in the process of mental development there takes place a profound qualitative reorganisation of human mental activity, and that the basic characteristic of this reorganisation is that elementary, direct activity is replaced by complex functional systems formed on the basis of the child's communication with adults in the process of learning. These functional systems are of complex construction, and are developed with the close participation of language, which as the basic means of communication with people is simultaneously one of the basic tools in the formation of human mental activity and in the regulation of behaviour. It is through these complex forms of human activity... that new features are acquired and begin to develop according to new laws which displace many of the laws which govern the formation of elementary conditioned reflexes in animals.
(Luriya, 1962)
Not a brilliant translation but no worse that many of those that have come later. Hardly surprising,  is its congruity with the position of Conductive Education.

Hardly surprising either is that the revitalised pedagogy never arrived.

The end of the tale told here overlaps the beginning of another story, that of the early internationalisation of Conductive Education, in the early nineteen-eighties, and it worth noting Joan Simon’s interest in the project which was entering its first phase in the very year that this chapter of Brian’s was published.

Limitations of Brian Simon’s paper

This paper remains a fascinating and scholarly account (argued inevitably in terms of the national preoccupations of its day, but no harm in that). It convincingly accounts for the demise of pedagogy in England in the context of the stifling of progressive local educational initiatives by central government and then the deadening effects of the dominant Anglo-Saxon psychology over most of the twentieth century.

It is a seductive account. Reading it I was convinced. Finishing it, though, I realised what a partial account it had provided. As is often the case, it was a comparative perspective that raised two questions in particular.

  • Why did often authoritarian and centralised regimes in Europe permit, facilitate or even embrace the development of pedagogic science within their national education systems? 
  • Why was it that to no small degree the Continent seemed immunised against the negative effects of psychometrics and its ideological ally, child-centred education? (Brian Simon does a valuable service, by the way, in pointing this out this unlikely convergence, and elaborating a little upon it: pp. 139-140).
No, there has been something deeper going on here, beneath the surface phenomena of specific, national social and economic histories, though I cannot discern what this might be.

Be that as it may, despite brief progressive sallies, over a long time now, the English national educational system remains resistant to the notion of pedagogic science and the positive, optimistic views of human transformability that such science permits.

This goes for conductive pedagogy too  and la lutte continue on that front.

And oh yes, one further personal objection: pedagogy is more than simply the ‘science’ of education, it is also its ‘art’. This essential component of the pedagogic process is also amenable to explicit and material exposition. Not to do so is also reductionist in its way. I ought to get round to writing down a few more lectures.


Brian Simon

Bain, A. (1879 ) Education as a science, republished by Kessinger Publishing, 2007

Luria, A. R. (1962). Higher Cortical Functions in Man, NY, Basic Books

Simon, B. (1981)
 Why no pedagogy in England? In B. Simon and W. Taylor (eds.) Education in the Eighties, London, Batsford, pp. 124-145


  1. Andrew,
    I really appreciate your explorative account of this book chapter. Ever so often I pick up this publication and recommend it to students and have suggested to some of my colleagues and yes, they found it fascinating.
    I wonder are you aware of a follow up article which revisited Simon's ideas?

    Alexander, R (2004) Still no pedagogy? Principle, pragmatism and compliance in primary education. Cambridge Journal of Education. 34(1), pp7-33.

  2. Yes, I know of it but haven't seen it (a photocopy would be much appreciated!). I also know that its author has not had an easy time of it, as the system in this country is still actively resistant.

    That chapter of Brian Simon's has been quite widely cited (try googling the title) but what I called 'something deeper' still holds sway! I was interested to see that your colleagues in a major teacher-training institution were not aware of the piece till you pointed it out to them. I assume that they were aware of Brian Simon (though look at his brief biography in Wikipedia: he comes from a different planet from that of today's teacher educators).

    'The onlooker sees more of the game.' You tell me your opinion of what it is that the English have deep in their Englishness that makes them so pedagogy-proof!

  3. Thank you from someone who is an English educationalist, in the businiess of pedagogy, I too have found colleagues who do not know Simon or Alexander's work. I think perhaps now they know a little bit more about Alexander's through the Primary Review, however, do they grasp the cultural influences on pedagogy in the English system? No, nor will they if the system continues to perpetuate itself through political direction and aims.
    A despondent English pedagogist

  4. Nil desperandum... the fat lady hasn't sung yet!

    Though, as the couple of years since I posted this piece have shown, the system shows a continuing, dismal propensity to go from bad to worse, with few if any chinks of silver lining to be seen!

    One can but hope that ultimately it will be so bad, so expensive, so choaked, and so ineffective, that even its friends and present exponents will eventually turn against it and ask whether solutions might not be saught in teaching itself.

    Yours in struggle, whoever you are,