Friday, 18 December 2009

Balderdash today – 3

Engaging the mouth before the mind
An empirical study


This is one of those expressions that I hate to read and to hear in the context of Conductive Education. Unaccountably, I left it out of the list of these published in September (Sutton, 2009a).

'Hands-on' doubtless has all sorts of valid applications in all sorts of walks of life. My aversion come to the fore when it relates uncritically and undifferentiatedly to the upbringing and education of disabled children with motor disorders (and activities on behalf of disabled adults too).

The really awful thing to see is when it is applied to Conductive Education. No, the really, really awful thing is to see this expression applied to Conductive Education by some of those responsible for providing this.

Whoever says it, it is 'balderdash' (Sutton 2009a, 2009b)

Don't they hear what they are saying?

Who knows? I suspect not in all cases, hence the title 'Engaging the mouth...' We could all be more self-critical about what we write, some perhaps more so than others.

The problem comes when the audience of this stuff does hear it, fits it into existing preconceptions, believes that this is what Conductive Education is about, notes it down, stores it away, regurgitates it in second-, third- and fourth- generation versions. Another nail in Conductive Education's coffin. 

Do they believe what they are saying and writing?

Probably some of those who speak and write about 'hands on' in relation to Conductive Education really do believe this. This is not necessarily their 'fault' because they may have always heard and read this expression in this context. Whether they just do not stop and think, or whether they really do believe that Conductive Education is 'hands on', either way for them 'Conductive Education' is simply a commodity that they deal in, with little or no care for what it is.

Probably, though, some who use this expression do not actually believe it. They are, one presumes, just using an expression widely current in the English language without thought for what it actually means and for what others might understand of Conductive Education when it is described in this way. Or maybe they do give it a thought, but think that it does not matter what one says or writes: just words, to be used casually..

Does this matter?

In some situations perhaps not (though given the context, some qualification of this expression might often be in order)

In others, though, unqualified and uncritical use of this expression is perhaps index of erosion of the sense and meaning of what CE is all about. There is erosion enough of these elsewhere without people in Conductive Education adding to it in this way.
Language is a powerful tool. and tools can be dangerous if used unguardedly or irresponsibly.

An empirical enquiry

I was drawn to this issue by landing by chance upon an egregious example this morning. Time for some 'quick-and-dirty' exploratory research!

Research questions

1.   Is the spread of this usage widespread enough to justify concern?

2.   Where it does occur, is it to be found in places that might be considered authoritative?


A quick Advanced Search was made of my local version of Google <> for the search terms “conductive education” AND “ hands on”.


This version of Google came up with 'about 1,800' results:


The entries in the first two results pages (20 hits) were put into three ad hoc categories:
  • innocuous or unclear                    4
  • specifically denies 'hands on'      1
  • conformed to my aversions      15
They were also considered for whether the source might be regarded as particularly authoritative.

The one specific denial came from a magazine article that I myself had written nearly a year ago ( I had not been told that this had been subsequently published on line!).

Here are some gems from the 15 'aversives':

  • higher level clinical knowledge and experience as well as hands-on clinical skills

  • hands-on and stimulating activities

  • even as an observer, it's hands on

  • participate in a hands-on assessment

  • specific ‘hands on’ manual facilitation

  • physical assistance – Hands-on guidance

  • hands on activities

  • four-year university based “hands on” training

  • a hands-on approach is carried out in each session

  • hands on techniques and emotional support to families

  • the intensity of its "hands-on" training in functional and motor skills

Among the fifteen aversive results mentioned here, two were related to university-level institutions, others came from national and even governmental bodies.


Granting the unspecified and subjective nature of the classification, the items identified by Google seemed to fall readily into the three ad hoc categories proposed.
Only 20 hits out of the the potential 1,800 were selected. These may nor may nor be representative of the total 1,800 but a quick random glance at later Google pages suggests that this hands-on theme goes on and on and on, for page after Google page.

This may or may not be representative of usage in the real rather than the virtual world.

No names, no pack-drill but look for yourself if you wish to (bearing in mind that the ordering of entries on specific pages will likely change):

Perhaps other local versions of Google (.com, .de, for example) might possibly throw up a somewhat different pattern.


Returning to the two research questions:

  1. The spread of this usage, at least on the Internet, does seem widespread enough to justify concern.

  2. This includes usage by what some might regard as authoritative sources.

This investigation neither confirms nor denies concerns expressed about what people mean and hear when this expression 'hands on' is used in conjunction with Conductive Education. It is of course at the very most a pilot study: more research is needed.

What the Doktornő ordered

More research is needed? Well, actually No, not of this kind, which recounts how things are. Again here, the most favourable paradigm for researching Conductive Education would be to intervene purposively in reality to test the best achievable ways of changing it.

To present this in the ritual form of 'research' as she is so often spoke is no more than a piece of whimsy. Common judgement is enough to know that the outcome is yet another research-generated 'statement of the bleeding obvious' (Sutton, 2009d). Conductive Education, the movement is shooting itself in the foot. Well, we are used to that. Does the 'hands on' ideal really make any difference, one way or the other, is there indeed a principled pedagogic position here and, if so, how might this be fine-tuned to enhance the processes of pedagogy and upbringing?

Mária Hári uses to express her position on this question with characteristically over-the-top directness:

The good conductor does not touch the child.

So much for the literal meaning of that dreadful word 'support' (on my hate list).

But what are the principled qualifications and exceptions to this ideal? How is this ideal best adopted to the exigencies of pedagogic reality and, if it is so adapted, what role should Mária's extreme position have in guiding pedagogic practice? Rather more, I suspect, than the creeping hands-on hegemony might suggest.

Hands off Conductive Education!


Sutton, A. (2009a) Some warm fuzzy weasels that I hate: some thoughts about language, Conductive World, 22 September

Sutton, A. (2009b) Balderdash today – 1. Start of a sad occasional series, Conductive World, 13 December

Sutton, A. (2009c) Balderdash today – 2. Mud sticks, tosh spreads, Conductive World, 13 December

Sutton, A. (2009d) The wrong kind of research, Conductive World, 5 September


  1. What a wonderful read to start my weekend.
    Thank you.

    Just yesterday afternoon I was begging the parents of young children to take their hands off their children. Even as they helped to do up the coats there were too many hands touching too many parts of too many children's bodies.

    As I asked for the children to be allowed to stand on their own two feet I too thought of Doctornö. I am often reminded of her words as I encourage mums, dads, teachers, grandmas and grandads to take a step back to give everyone space to discover what can be achieved using the "hands off" method.

    I am about to take a look to find out if there is a German equivalent of this phrase. It doesn't come to mind immediately.I imagine that the English version has been taken over and is used in the fashionable "Neudeutsch" language, leading to more confusion.

    "New Deutsch", the use of English words and phrases in German sentences is incredibly difficult to understand especially for English speakers. So if "hands on" has crept into the the German CE literature then it will not only be misleading but totally incomprehensible.



    It is not only in the written word that the "hands on" approach is advocated in CE. Even if conductors don't verbally express it, it is all too often demonstrated in the images that are shown to the public.

    Take a look at some them.

    I am sure you will find some showing children lying on the floor, as safe as houses, with nowhere to fall, but never-the-less with an adult very close beside them with a tight grip somewhere on the child's body.

    I know from experience that this often isn't the fault of conductors. It is usually someone else who puts together the flyer without consulting us before it goes to press.

    We need to be more careful and insist on vetting how our work is represented.

  2. What's the source of the Hári quote?