Friday, 16 October 2009

Understanding why

“Nothing is as practical as a good theory" (Kurt Lewin)

Stalemate in primary-school education

Twenty-odd years ago years ago, in Royal Leamington Spa, I met one Robin Alexander. Our ways parted immediately and off he went the pursue his own noble and lost cause, to try and do something about the English primary school system. All these years later he is still at it and this morning’s five-minute wonder in England has been the report that has taken him (and seemingly a cast of thousands) six years to produce from the Cambridge Institute of Education.

It took HMG (that’s what we call our Government in this country though of course it is not really anything of the sort, but we English love to flavour everything that we say with a dash of hypocrisy) less that six minutes to dismiss it. Informed opinion suggests that when the other lot gets its hands on power, sometime next spring, then they too will reject it.

School-starting age

None of this bothers me a jot now, though it would have once. I do, though, have a particular persisting sentimental interest in one of Professor Alexander’s suggestions, something that I have advocated since I first grasped its theoretical basis in the very bowels of Vygotskii’s understanding of human mental development. In the present ‘educational debate’ (squabble) in this country, the matter is commonly referred to in terms of the age for starting compulsory schooling (though all credit to Robin Alexander, he refers to it in terms of the switch to formal teaching methods).

In England we start compulsory schooling at the absurdly young age of six, though the Government’s desperate attempt to combat mass school failure by ever-earlier ‘early intervention’ have of late dragged the reality of this lower. The whole issue here then gets entangled with quaint and whoopsie notions of ‘play’ and Rousseauesque understandings of child development… and peters out in the confused babel of strident special-interest groups.

Nothing happens (except of course talk), nothing changes, and English primary-school children continue to fail academically in droves. Worse, since nothing exists is isolation, the development of their whole orientation towards their ability to learn, their whole personalities, also suffer, as does society as a whole and its orientations… and so the vicious circle continues.

So many children do not ‘learn to learn'. They learn plenty else of course, including not to learn. That is one way of looking at it. I would prefer to put a boot on the other foot too: they do not learn not to learn, we (adults) teach them not to.

Never more so than when children’s development is affected by a motor disorder. But first a word of explanation.

Cultural-historical, cultural-social

For some thirty-odd years my understanding of how children develop had been framed within the conceptual structures that L. S. Vygotskii advanced in the twenties and thirties of the last century, as also exemplified and elaborated by his closest comrades, A.R. Luriya and A.N. Leont’ev, by his immediate successors like Zaporozhets, Gal’perin and El’konin, and by the army of pedagogues and psychologists and defectologists who laboured in the light of these understandings *.

I guess that these understandings will be with me now for the duration. The body of Soviet psycho-pedagogical work, despite its inconsistencies and internal divisions, and its shifts in emphasis over time, has provided me an understanding of the nature of humanity in its development and its dissolution to which I have seen no rival, even on the horizon. As far as I am concerned Vygotskii was the Newton, the Darwin of psychology (the philosopher Stephen Toulmin has called him its Mozart), and everything else that goes by the name of psychology is therefore pre-paradigmatic.

It was this understanding that brought me to seek out Mária Hári and Conductive Education in the early eighties, with the intention of springing it from its Iron Curtain cage, in the hope that this would provide a most visible, powerful and convincing demonstration of this theoretical understanding in action…

Ah well, we live in hope!

Qualitative change: stages

An important manifestation of the way in which Vygotskii and his compatriots articulated human mental development (actually, ‘psychic’ develpment, relating to the development of psyche or soul) was the relationship between quantitative and qualitative change. In the dialectical process of development quantitative change eventually creates the conditions and necessity for a qualitative leap (qualitativer Sprung) to a higher order of being, to a new stage.

Given the dialectical nature of human mental development (in contemporary parlance, its transactional nature), this qualitative leap to a new stage involves not just the mental (psychic) processes, activities etc of children but also the activities etc of the adults bringing them up and educating them.

Because of the age and nature of the children and families with whom I largely worked in the seventies and early eighties, out of the Parent and Child Centre in Birmingham, the two stage-changes that most occupied me were from the pre-pre-school to the preschool age, and from the preschool age to school age.

The latter I saw as the obvious corollary to commencing ‘formal’ work at school, while the play that assumes the leading role at the preschool age I understood very much in terms of Vygotskii’s social role play:
  • right or wrong, this understanding seemed to serve my purposes well as a psychologist working with families with children with developmental disorders at the P&C
  • it similarly served my crude attempts to help construct a developmental pedagogical practice at Holly Road Day Care Centre, which we then confidently asserted to be the most advanced of its kind in the country!
Oh to be young and bold…

Back to primary education…

The whole notion of a developmental psychology and a system of education that unquestioningly assumes a process of continuous (quantitative) mental growth appears ludicrous to me, as has the very notion of a ‘continuum of need’ for modelling developmental disorder (and of course nowadays, ‘spectrum’, as in the unquestioned ‘autistic spectrum’). They are simply against nature, human nature that is, in which change is only fully expressed with reference its discontinuities in development. Hence also my stage-based analysis of the history of Conductive Education.

Given an appropriate theoretical understanding of human mental development it is easy to see why, and even how, teaching should be mapped on to the unfolding developmental stages and directed towards the appropriate leading activities for a given stage. And it is just as easy to foresee the developmental train wreck that unfolds before one’s horrified eyes when an educational system offends grossly against nature, to anticipate the systemic effects that will wreak ruin down the course of so many children’s subsequent development if things are got seriously wrong.

Unfortunately, I have never found the means to explain this to people whose understandings are firmly, and unwaveringly, within the dominant paradigm of what Vygotskii and his comrades would have regarded as ‘bourgeois psychology’ (and bourgeois pedagogy), this even to soi-disants ‘Vygotskians’ now so plentiful in out midst.

I do not know the explicit philosophical/theoretical underpinnings of English primary education. It is probably fair to say that it does not have any, as this is just not the English way. That does not mean that the system does not have exceedingly powerful implicit beliefs and values, including about how children develop and how they ought to be taught. I just do not know what the are (though I can spot one when I meet one!). For all the talk, all the reports, all the politiking and jockeying, it is these implicits that underpin practice and its structures, and it would take a damn strong theoretical position to confront this.

We do not on the whole ‘do’ theory in England.

…and back to Conductive Education

Where do the ideas that underpin it come from, indeed at the most fundamental level, what are these ideas anyway? Why, from Hungary of course, most people reply, it stands to reason:
  • that is where it was first elaborated by András Pető
  • that is where Mária Hári went on to secure its place within that country’s education system
  • that is where I went to find it, in the mid-eighties
  • that is where by far its largest institution remains
Ergo, the idea of Conductive Education is Hungarian. Indeed, Hungary has now declared Conductive Education to be a national treasure (a Hungaricum).

This 'Hungarian’ answer is too easy, glib even. The question of where the roots of CE lie cannot satisfactorily be answered in terms of geography or current national borders. So where else to look?
  • one obvious line a of enquiry is to try and follow the roots of András Pető's thinking back into the liberal-Jewish-German world of the long-gone Central-Eastern Europe of the first half of the twentieth century
  • another is to explore the importance of András Pető's (alleged) interest into things mystical and esoteric
  • a third (and this seemed so obvious in the circumstances of my own first ‘discovery' of Conductive Education) is to look at the social, philosophical and educational context in which Mária Hári so successfully anchored it, the then Hungarian People’s Republic.
The three are not of course mutually exclusive.

When I used to teach pedagogy and psychology to student-conductors I found very little that was robust or relevant in these fields in the West to make it worth either my efforts or theirs. Most of what they might hear about in this respect is actually counter to Conductive Education. Since in my view most of this remains pre-paradigmatic anyway, why waste everybody‘s time on it?

So I would teach then about Vygotskii and the troika, about Meshcharyakov and Zagorsk, and about Soviet psycho-pedagogy. An interesting exercise was to get them on the floor with A3 sheets of paper and a plentiful supply of coloured felt pens, and have them map the Soviet psycho- pedagogical concepts of the nineteen eighties. Then we would spend a some more sessions on Mária Hári's psycho-pedagogy, and get back on the floor. It never took long for someone to come out with ‘They’re the same!’ Some details excepted, so broadly they are.

This proves nothing of course but it is an interesting experience. Try it. You might even try mapping CE against some other theoretical systems and see how comprehensively they fit. I suspect that you will not find such a match. You will not therefore find any theoretical to so able to explain, predict and develop conductive practice.

And none of your opposition will have such a ‘good theory’ to weald as a practical tool in return.
* An important distinction

I do not of course mean the enfeebled college-liberal ‘Vygotsky’ (‘Vygotskii with a -y’) and so-called 'activity theory' that has seeped into the Anglo-American psychology and education text books over the last couple of decades.


  1. Your comment on Theory gave much food for thought. Perhaps then we could think about what really distinguishes CE from other forms of educative practice. What is the purpose of education per se? British primary or Hungarian? particularly with respect to motor disorders. What would a Vygotskian CE classroom look like for example?

  2. Are CE classrooms not nearer to Vygotskian than anything else?


  3. Phew! I shall try to answer Susie's first, partly because it's just on a single topic, partly because I think that I know where she is coming from.

    Susie's short question prompts a response rather more complex that can be clearly presented in a narrow Comments box.

    I shall therefore make it the subject of a separate posting on Conductive World. look out for it there later today.

    If anonymous can focus the question a bit, then I shall have a go at that too...