Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Terminological exactitudes

Can we begin to agree some basic terms?

The English term ‘Conductive Education’ is now used around the world to denote a wide range of activities aiming to implement aspects of a system developed in Hungary, unsurprisingly in the Hungarian language.

Conductive Education

In the Hungarian there are two terms in common usage, encompassed two related but distinct processes:

konduktív pedagógia (‘conductive pedagogy’), covering activities, skills, personal attributes etc., relevant to teaching according to a particular educational philosophy ( a ‘conductive’ one);

konduktív nevelés (‘conductive upbringing’), the long-term task of bringing up children, in the family, in schools etc. and in society, according to this philosophy.

Sometimes the English term ‘Conductive Education’ is used to indicate ‘education in its widest sense’, incorporating the cross-generational transmission of values, behaviour, habits etc at home, in society and at school, along with the specifically academic content of formal school curricula. When this is the case then the English term 'Conductive Education' is being used synonymously with the original Hungarian konduktív nevelés. It is only rarely used in this sense, however.

Often the English term ‘Conductive Education’ is used to refer to specifics (or supposed specifics) of conductive pedagogy. This is confusing and incorrect and has probably come about because most English-speaking people, including most relevant professionals and academics, have little or no apparent concept of pedagogy or pedagogic science in any context. Without this concept it is hard, no impossible for them really to discuss this system, its practice and its training (that rarely stops them, though!).

The English term ‘Conductive Education’ is therefore often used in a blurred generic sense, incorporating aspects of both conductive pedagogy and conductive upbringing. Moreover, in the contemporary international spread of the system to new social contexts, the English term ‘Conductive Education’ has suffered further meaning creep, to cover not only pedagogy and upbringing but also issues relating to the implementation of the conductive system as a whole (administrative, organisational, regulatory, financial, ethical etc}.

No similar portmanteau expression seem to have arisen in Hungarian (here as elsewhere, correction would be very welcome).


Many English-speakers (and others) now simply refer to aspects of all three as ‘the conductive’. This word too has been much misunderstood. The original Latin root word, conducere, has often been interpreted in terms of how teaching should ‘lead’ development. The image probably comes from Vygotskii and may not therefore have been known to András Pető. Mária Hári, however, did interpret and explain the word konduktív in the sense of ‘leading’. That does not mean that she was right.

The Latin verb conducere means more than simply ‘to lead’ or ‘to guide’ – the verb ducere does for that on its own, without the prefix con-. Conducere means ‘to bring together’ (in the present British child-care terminology, ‘to join up’) and refers here to intervention that teaches motor-disordered children to integrate psychological functions of motivation, attention, movement, speech etc. into a unified and effective whole. This is achieved by means of a pedagogy that is channeled through a single, unifying, conductive pedagogue, a ‘conductor’.


Many writers and speakers have offended against these particular terminological exactitudes and I have to confess to my own past sins of missing all three of these distinctions in the past. From time to time I may still do so – ingrained habits can be hard to shake off.. If we wish globalised Conductive Education to hang together as a coherent whole, however, we ought all to be working towards a consistent and coherent vocabulary to describe what we do. We could all do better.

Does this matter?

Yes it does, and it may be having real effects on you.

Academic researchers (usually evaluators) have usually investigated ‘Conductive Educatio’, with little or no account of what the expression is being used for either in the often limited literature that that have sought out under this rubric or even from the programme that is subject to their attentions. Thus, an evaluation of a several-week programme of conductive pedagogy (an ‘intensive block’, say), however good the conductive pedagogy provided or the research design and techniques deployed, can in no way amount to an evaluation of conductive upbringing. The research results will none the less be churned back into the growing mixture of reports described as ‘evaluations of Conductive Education’.

Many apparently clever, well trained and (by the standards of the most of the programmes that they are evaluating) well-trained people, have devoted so much meticulous attention to the specifics of their actual evaluation and manage. How is it that they have so often kept their gaze steadfastly averted from the most basic question of what it is they mean when they say that they are researching Conductive Education? Of course the reasons for this lacuna are more complex than simply a matter of linguistic philosophy. The matter of the actual meanings of the words that researchers use, however, does often play an important part – and may be more transparent and therefore open to question and debate than are some of other issues that might be involved.

If well situated academics, with all their advantages in accessing and scrutinising information, can get things so disastrously wrong, then pity the poor parents, the grass-roots professionals and all other people, like the politicians and the media that have cause to deal with 'Conductive Education'. They really ought to know what it is that they are talking about when they turn their attention to this, form their own opinions and then make sometimes very important decisions. They will have heard about 'the conductive' or 'Conductive Education' through whatever means, maybe also that it is ‘a good thing’, to be obtained at all costs (or ‘a bad thing’ to be resisted at all costs). They may have little chance, however, of tracking down what these words might actually mean (and the Internet is now less help than hindrance in this). No wonder so much snake oil is successfully sold.

I’m with Ludwig Wittgenstein on this one: Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeutet die grenzen meiner Welt (‘The limits of my speech mean the limits of my world’). The world of Conductive Education is limited by so many factors, many of them quite beyond our control. Here’s one that conductivists might just possible do something about by being rather stricter about the words that they themselves use, and rather less tolerant of the misusages of others.


Wittgenstein, L. (1922) Tractatus logico-philosophicus, p. 148

Postscript on ‘Peto’

Recent years have seen spread of the spoken expression of ‘Peto’ as a synonym for ‘the conductive’, to cover equally aspects of the pedagogy, the upbringing and the wider social phenomenon. Along with this comes the expression ‘the Peto’, to refer to the Pető Institute in Budapest.

Note that this is almost invariably spelt like the English surname, not the Hungarian.

There is a directly analogous usage in Hungary now, referring to the Pető Institute as a Pető.

To avoid confusion with Peto, the Peto and a Pető. I have adopted the personal convention of always referring to Pető the man by his full name, as András Pető.



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