Saturday, 30 August 2014


Behavioural and conductive approaches

Jing Chenrui's recent master's dissertation in education from Taiwan raises again the question of the possible relationship between conductive pedagogy and behavioural approaches:

An especial aspect of such a possible relationship brings in children and adults with intellectual difficulties (with or without motor disorders):

The long-standing alienation between CE and special education has precluded dialogue in the Western world. Indeed there seems to have been only one public exchange, a brief one at that, with English educational psychologist John Presland, in 1990.

Following a visit to the satellite institute in Kikunhalas, he wrote a letter to The Conductor magazine, in 1990 –
Dear Editors,
One of the problems that I have found with Conductive Education is the absence of a reasonably comprehensive theory to help me understand what is happening.

On a recent visit to the Pető Institute in Kiskunhalas, my observations suggest that almost everything could be interpreted in terms of something that has had a major influence in schools for children with severe learning difficulties in our country (i.e. a different population from that provided for by the Pető Institutes).

For instance, Conductive Education establishes general aims (orthofunction, integration) and derives more specific objectives from them (sitting, standing, walking etc.). It utilises task analysis – the analysis of a complex task into smaller items to be mastered in sequence. I saw many examples of what we would call prompting (i.e. such methods of guiding children in the action required for learning as verbal instruction and explanation, demonstration and gestures indicating action, and physically moving parts of the body in the ways required. Their systematic use of praise could be interpreted within our concept of reinforcement as some consequence of behaviour use in a planned way to change the frequency of a behaviour. The building of one task upon another in Conductive Education echoed with our own concern to teach in such a way that the results of learning transfer from one situation to another, so that generalisation of the learning occurs.

Overall the impressive work that I observed seemed to have much in common with approached which I have described (Presland, 1989), which were based on a combination of research findings,practice in schools for children with severe learning difficulties, and the work and writings of physiotherapists. Could it be that a combination of our theory and Hungarian practice could bring benefits to both countries?
John Presland
Wiltshire School Psychological Service
Presland, J. L. (1992) Paths to mobility in 'special care': a guide to teaching gross motor skills to children with very severe learning difficulties, 2nd edition, Kidderminster, BIMH Publications

 I replied in the same issue –
Dear John,
Like you I await a comprehensive yet concise statement of the psychopedagogic and neuropsychological theory of Conductive Education. In the meantime I should like to comment on the possible relationship between Conductive Education and the Behavioural approach.
I know that you yourself favour a behavioural view and would therefore expect you to be able to interpret Conductive Education (as everything else) according to that viewpoint. I have been astonished at the technical naïvity of many professionals who appear to have regarded task analysis as somehow uniquely characteristic of Conductive Education, and I can certainly see how so much of what you observed in Hungary can be readily described in terms of objectives, prompting, reinforcement and transfer. Some of the allegedly conductive practice that I have observed or seen practised in this country would have benefited incalculably from such elementary analytic tools, which might have clearly demonstrated even to those implementing them that the children were actually learning the very opposite from what was stated and intended! 
Forgive me if, despite my respect for your theoretical position, I personally take a more cognitivist approach to Conductive Education. But there is one area in which I feel that practitioners have a clear duty to examine your approach very closely, in children for whom a profound mental handicap constitutes their primary disability.

In the United Kingdom particularly there is a band of enthusiasts who advocate most sharply that 'the principles of Conductive Education' as they understand them are applicable to his population, implying that there is no other approach available. From my own theoretical viewpoint, of course, I would assert that the behavioural approach loses out to the conductive when it comes to children with greater mental potential but you and I would probably agree wholeheartedly on its superior applicability to profound multiple disability.
Whatever our personal differences at the technical level I am sure that we find it equally shocking that there are still so many who argue so vehemently in favour of 'conductive principles' for multiple disability with no apparent theoretical account nor empirical experience of the behavioural approach. The first edition of your own book and check-list appeared in this country back in 1982 and the American experience of elaborate behavioural approaches to movement disorders goes back much further.
The organisational implications of the behavioural approach are evocatively familiar, as the following passage from Bender and Valetutti illustrates –
The job of totally educating the handicapped to a large extent was assumed by the therapeutic disciplines, including physical, occupational, speech and hearing therapies. Gross and fine motor development thus became the exclusive domain of physical and occupational therapy. Communication skill development became the particular province of speech and hearing therapy... Educators can no longer ignore the total needs of all students... no longer should the student be split into parts, with his tongue allotted to the speech therapist, his hands to the occupational therapist, and his legs to the physical therapist. Educators must assume, at long last, the inherent responsibility for teaching the whole person.
Why oh why do many professionals working with profoundly multiply disabled children rush eagerly to 'Conductive Education' courses to learn task analysis, learning programmes and new professional arrangements when, within a well defined and familiar theoretical structure they could learn so much more, more relevantly, more thoroughly, more locally? It can hardly be for technical reasons alone.
Andrew Sutton
Presland, J. L. (1989) Children with profound handicaps: a role for educational psychologists, Educational Psychology in Practice, July, pp. 79-86
Anderson, D. R. et al. (1975) Instructional Programming for the Handicapped Student, Springfield, Illinois, Thomas (esp. pp. 658-704)
Bender, M., Valetutti, P. J. (1976) Teaching the Moderately and Severely Handicapped, vol.1, Baltimore, University Park Press

What changes?

In 1990, nobody else responded. Not much change there. Nor has the question arisen again.

Short courses in 'the principles of Conductive Education' for teachers and other staff working in schools (and their enthusiastic but indiscriminate take-up) were a feature of the time and the place.

The major issue, as summarised by Bender and Valetutti, that teachers, special educators especially, should reclaim their whole-child purpose, has been more general – never more so surely than in the England of 2014.

In 2014, from the viewpoint of what has happened since to special education in England (abolished), these considerations look rather otherworldly. I do not know today's position elsewhere.


[Letters: John Presland and Andrew Sutton] (1990) The Conductor, vol. 3, nos. 1-2, pp. 8-9

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