Monday, 10 August 2009


How resilient are ideas to changing contexts?

A Vygotskii vignette

Last weekend. A drinks party in West London. A lady talks to a bright young man who tells her that he is doing a doctorate at the Institute of Education, training to become an educational psychologist. In return she tells him that back at the start of the nineties she wrote a dissertation within the discipline of the History of Ideas, on a Marxist theory of mind, in which she had focused upon the thinking of Vygotskii.

At that time, she told him, nobody was interested in Vygotskii.

He appeared visibly surprised to hear that Vygotskii was a Marxist but assured her that Vygotskii is now 'big in education' and features on his course. She said that perhaps he had not known that Vygotsky was a Marxist because he may have seen only American publications, rather than Soviet ones. This seemed to have been so. He had not heard of One is not born a personality. Circumstances precluded the conversation's continuing.

I have a copy of the lady's dissertation before me as I write. Its Introduction has as epigraph a quotation from The Dialectics of Nature by Friedrich Engels:
It is precisely the alteration of Nature by men, not nature as such, which is the most essential and immediate basis of human thought. (p. 172)
Her introduction summarises Vygotskii's position on 'human nature' in the following terms 
Vygotskii presents us with a new and revolutionary view of human nature  in that we create it for ourselves by actively participating in the social world created by our history.
That would not be a bad philosophical basis for transforming the nature, role and values of educational psychology, but it is hardly likely to be used as such! It is. however, a fundamental statement of the very stuff of Conductive Education.

Hers was a philosophy dissertation, written within the History of Ideas. It recounts the influence upon Vygotskii of dialectical and historical materialism but also draws attention to his life-long fascination with Baruch Spinoza's concern to understand emotion. The front cover bears the Hindu symbol agni chakra, the fiery wheel that indicates the unity of intuition and intellect.


In 1997 I made a presentation to the Tenth Anniversary Conference of Tsad Kadima, in Jerusalem in which I looked at the story of the very complex introduction of Conductive Education to the United Kingdom in terms of myth, specifically utilising Robert Graves’ concept of ‘iconotrophy’.

As a mythographer Graves proposed this term to describe what happenned to a society’s mythical beliefs when invaded by a vigorous new culture, when new peoples swept in, bringing new beliefs and new ways of thinking about natural phenomena, preserving the outward forms of the original inhabitants’ beliefs but in fact imposing fundamental changes on the way in which people actually thought and lived.

For a brief period, at the end of the nineteen-eighties and in the first years of the nineties it was possible from the viewpoint of the United Kingdom to see the ideas and values of Conductive Education as just such an invasion, promising to impose its new belief systems upon old ways of doing things, to achieve fundamental change in ’the system’.

Wishful thinking perhaps. For whatever reasons, however, things did not turn out that way and by 1997 the invader was faltering, with a process of ‘reverse iconotrophy’ already under way. It was the invaders who, though maintaining superficial icons of their own, were showing the first signs of absorbing the beliefs and the structures of the existing system.
…the invader, Conductive Education, has failed to supplant the fundamental belief systems of the established order. Instead, the established order (where it has been affected at all) has incorporated a few superficial icons from the invading culture, reinterpreted them for its own purposes, and carried on doing what it did before in much the same way that it did before, with the same ultimate outcome and for the same ultimate purpose. (Emphasis in original)
I cited the ’plinth’ as a cardinal visual icon of Conductive Education

Not just CE, not just in the UK
The process of iconotrophy in the conductive movement in the United Kingdom, whereby Conductive Education is often reinterpreted as a therapy to suit existing institutions, as a ‘support’ to parents or as yet one more ‘technique’ to be incorporated into an existing special school, is hardly unique to this particular system.
I cited as examples the work and purposes of Montessori, Piaget and Vygotskii as having been subject to the same process, especially the work and purposes of Vygotskii, and spoke regretfully of:
…the revolutionary Vygotskii transformed into a college liberal.
The little vignette from London that opened this posting has offered me an unwelcome reminder of how the puissant ideas of L. S. Vygotskii have been brought to nothing at the hands of the existing belief systems of Anglo-Saxon academe, despite the apparent bulwark of a considerable written record, now cast aside.


How much more vulnerable has been Conductive Education, about which, in 1997, I had optimistically remarked:
The firmest bulwark for the conductive movement would be a strong, articulate, communicable and shared knowledge base. Continuing existence as a pre-literate society puts us out of kilter with the modern world.
Well, a 'strong, articulate, communicable and shared knowledge base' has not been much help in safeguarding the ideas of Vygotskii, the troika or the school of pedagogic practice that span off from what they did. Maybe if there had been more than isolated examples of Vygotskian practice in the West, things might have been different, but there have not been enough to form a critical, coherent mass.

CE still has no strong, articulate, communicable and shared knowledge base. Its eggs are firmly in the practice basket and even after more than twenty years there is little evidence of a 'critical, coherent mass'. And the practice follows ever more diverse task-masters.


Educational psychologists (UK): what most countries call school psychologists

Vygotskii. British Standard transliteration. The US transliteration 'Vygotsky' now has wider currency amongst most English-speakers.


Cartland, A. (1991) L. S. Vygotskii: a revolutionary view of human nature, unpublished dissertation, Kingston Polytechnic

Engels F (1940) The Dialectics of Nature, NY, International Publishers

Levitin, K. (1982) One is not born a personality, Moscow, Progress

Sutton, A. (1998) Dissemination of Conductive Education in the United Kingdom. In A. Sutton (ed.) Last Year in Jerusalem: four presentations to the International Conference on Integration and Adaptation, Jerusalem, October 1997, Birmingham, Foundation for Conductive Education


  1. Hey Andrew,

    I think your statement conductive education has its "eggs are firmly in the practice basket" seemed to me a bit grim. Reading Susie's blog, seeing how we run things at our centre and my personal experience with CE over the past 13 years, showed me that CE is shifting towards a more different basket. The "parents" basket. Don't get me wrong, I know that Conductors have tried to communicate with parents for at least the time I have been in touch with CE, how parents can do CE at home. But that was usually just it, some isolated tasks which had little to do with the family daily life situation. I can now see a big shift in this, now we communicating more the conduction, the conductive upbringing to the parents to make its part and relevant to their daily life. Now we just need someone to write this down and I think we are on to something.

    Might be just my opinion...


  2. Aenna,

    I don’t think that we have any grounds for disagreement.

    Yes, you are 100%-right, many conductors (not all) ‘have tried to communicate with parents…how [they] can do CE at home. But that was usually just it, some isolated tasks which had little to do with the family daily life situation’. That goes not just for your 13 years but for my 25 and I am pretty sure for a long time before that! That has always been a common feature of conductors' practice, and as you state it, a pretty frustrating one at that (think of all those parents 'shut out of groups!).

    What you describe as ‘a big shift in this, now we communicating more the conduction, the conductive upbringing to the parents to make its part and relevant to their daily life’ is a vital change in conductors’ practice. Again, I am sure that this practice is as old as the hills, but it has certainly not been general. Even parent-and-child work, which theoretically has been founded on something like this since the start of the seventies, can slip into a focus upon the child rather than upon both.

    Karoly and Magda Akos (themselves neither parents of a disabled child nor conductors!) argued years ago for a family-based rather than an ‘institutional’ CE. Maybe the circumstances in which many conductors now work will edge more conductive practice into REAL family CE.

    Yes, Susie Mallett is making an important contribution to the ‘literature’ by exploring how one might communicate such practice. I am sure that she won’t mind my expressing here a view of her writing that I recently expressed to her by email, that her very personal reports of being a 'conductor' (as the title of he blog announced)are as valid a contribution to the conductive-pedagogic literature as is what people conventionally call ‘scientific research’.

    Her writing combines three features that are, I think, so far unique to this field:

    - aspects of the pedagogue’s personal life and values, art, music, interests, concerns etc

    - along with observations and insights of the human, emotional and spiritual lives of the clients (with the word ‘clients’ here being family- rather than individually oriented)

    - AND the everyday pleasures, displeasures, pains and excitements of what actually happens between conductors and clients.

    These features may of course be part of the everyday thinking and discourse of many conductors. I an sure that they are.

    Therefore I disagree with what you write, in just one respect: ‘Now we just need someone to write this down and I think we are on to something.’ No, LOTS of you should start to write something down, and the informal, intermittent medium of the blog is the ideal way of making a start at this and learning as you go along. (When are YOU going to start?)

    You may or may not like Anton Makarenko and his pedagogy but there is no denying the force of his methodology when it came to communicating the essence of pedagogic ideas (and practice). I think that I right in saying that he was the biggest-selling writer on education of all time. What did he do? He told a story? What about? Life. The road to it!

    Family CE is practice too, as legitimate and valid as anything done directly with children and adults who themselves have motor disorders Let practice continue to have a leading role in Conductive Education, but let that practice be extended in the way that you advocate. And, please, let more of its practitioners follow a ‘road to living’ model of writing this down.

    I don’t think that I am being ‘a bit grim’ in this.

    Just my opinion of course!