Tuesday, 14 October 2014


Not yet a new science of learning?

Following some discussion on Facebook Norman Perrin has made a posting on the above matter on new blog, Moving on. I do so wish that more people in Conductive Education would write and dispute publicly in this way – otherwise the field of Conductive Education might look to outsiders who meet it on the Internet for the first time, well... intellectually moribund . One would not wish people to think that.

Norman touches upon a question fundamental to the very existence of the idea of there being a field of psychology at all, one that has been a battleground over the century and more that has seen the hope for a science of the human mind (and its denial). Most of it beats me (except of course like most people I know what I think). I can merely sit on the sidelines as the big guns fight it out.

In safe historical retrospect I have gawped in amazement at the struggles of the reflexologists and the reactologists and the neo-Pavlovians and the like. In my own living memory I have disregarded the Freudians and the other psycho-analysists with the contempt that I consider their claims to science deserve, and I tiptoed around the scrapping on the fringes of the Behaviourist invasion of the early seventies (though I did once represent Vygotskii in a clinical psychologists' balloon debate (the other teams were for Skinner and Piaget – Vygotskii and I won).

And like everyone in the United Kingdom my life is persistently touched by the pervasive biologism of society here. I do make my own little individual stands, like refusing to fill in forms that ask about my 'race', and feel guilty about not doing more, but what? Fads pass.

Commenting on Norman's position

On his blog, Norman writes –
As an account of the functioning of the brain, neuroplasticity demolishes two strong and long-held learning and teaching positions: that, with ageing, the brain somehow seized up and that certain children were born ‘ineducable’. As illustrations, the former is neatly expressed in the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and the latter in the persistence in the UK until the early 1970s of schools for the ‘educationally sub-normal’.

Let me respond the second of these points first, since it involves no more that inaccurate historical reporting. In fairness to Norman, this is hardly his fault since the whole topic was shrouded in the UK forty years ago by sloppy euphemisation and official cant that made it very hard to see who and what were actually being talked about when it came to what was then called special education (not that unlike nowadays in fact).

The category Educationally Sub-Normal lay by definition within the education system and therefore did not incluse the concept of ineducable. There was no ineducability following the Education (Handicapped Children) Act 1971 Act, when the junior training centres run by the health department were brought under education as ESN(S) schools (i.e. for pupils, note the word, who were now to be regarded as severely educationally subnormal rather than simply trainable.).

This may all seem very distant now, but at the time it was widely hailed as a major step forward. Forces behind these changes were political and the shifting social attitudes that political action reflected (also like now).

As for animal-training (including for old dogs), that is completely outside my experience – though in other contexts I do tend to hold to the principle that is dangerous to try to generalise from the learning of lower animals to that of humans.

I have no quibble with Norman's central point. Political change and a developing Zeitgeist saw off the intelligence-testers (with the help of a nasty case of scientific fraud) and for a while at least biologism seemed on the run. Things might be as bas as ever now (or worse) with 'a dispiriting and defeatist view of humankind and human potential' doing rather well in all sorts of fields, but there was a window of opportunity and Conductive Education was perhaps fortunate in arriving in the UK at around that time. And the neurofolk also arrived on the scene.

I do not know whether there is or ever has been such a being as a 'typical neuroscientist', or a typical anyone else for that matter, but my own personal paranoia about the biologisation of understanding why people tick as they do leads me to see would-be neuro-explanations everywhere. I do not of course mean that neuro-explanations have any necessary tendency towards reactionary, anti-humane, illiberal values and political views, any more than has, for example, intelligence-testing per se. Indeed, both may have been conceived with quite contrary intentions. Both, however, might also be all too readily appropriated by the Dark Side.

Who needs ya, baby?

The Facebook comments from which Norman's posting had arisen began with a focus far far removed from neuroscience (what that, anyway?). It concerned three fundamental pedagogical principles proposedly identifiable in tranformative philosophies of education:

These were summarised as faith, hope and charity. It may be hard to see and what neuroscience might have to contribute towards the understanding of these and, more importantly, towards their creation and enrichment out of the processes of pedagogy and human upbringing. Next week, Norman promises, neuroscientists will have their chance to show their all with respect to cerebral palsy. We may yet be surprised.

As for myself, Norman, I feel that you are being too generous about the potential contribution of neuroscience and that there is no immediate concrete reason to add your cautious qualifier 'as yet'. Meanwhile, the burden of proof remains very much on the side of the neuroscientists and their enthusiastic supporters.

It is perhaps far less hard – and far more exciting – to think of how development of a proper field of pedagogic science might contribute to the sum of human welfare... 


Perrin, N. (2014) Brain plasticity and pedagogy – not yet a new science of learning? Moving on, 13 October,

Sutton, A. (2014) Transformative education: three ancient principles, Conductive World, 4 October

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