Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Pavlov (1849-1936) – Behaviourism begins....

Ivan Pavlova Russian physiologist, won the Nobel Prize for his work on digestion in 1904. The father of behaviourism, he identified conditioned reflexes in dogs using pouches that collected their saliva. In an interesting aside, Pavlov killed off 30 dogs before getting his surgical procedure right for these experiments and got his dogs from thieves who routinely included collared pets in their supposed round ups of street dogs. His discovery of the physiological response to external stimuli (Conditioned reflexes) was to shape the study of learning for most of the early and middle 20th century. Positively, it resulted in the detailed study of innate and conditioned, stimulus-led behaviour. Negatively, it relied too much on animal studies and ignored the importance of mental events and an over-simplistic model of learning shaped by control through conditioning.

Classical conditioning

Observing that dogs salivate as soon as they see their feeder or food, or smell the food, Pavlov speculated on whether a natural stimulus could be associated with another unrelated stimulus, eliciting the same response. The experiment starts with an ‘unconditioned stimulus’ (UCS) that causes a natural response, namely the sight or smell of food that causes the dog to salivate, the ‘unconditioned response’ (UCR). If we then ring a bell, immediately followed by food, repeated several times, after a time, the dog will salivate, a ‘conditioned response’ (CR) at just the sound of the bell, the ‘conditioned stimulus’ (CS). The dog has now associated the bell with food. If the experiment is reversed and no food accompanies the bell, the response eventually disappears. This is called extinction.

Dark side of Pavlov’s research

Few know of Pavlov’s later research into the deliberate use of disorientation in humans to create disordered states. As a behaviourist Pavlov was supported by the Communists and fueled research into control mechanisms, as their aim was mind control on a global scale. He concentrated on conflicting stimuli, forcing the subject choose. This would be familiar to anyone involved in psychological warfare and torture.
Another odd Pavlovian legacy is, as some have argued, Pavlov’s later research that influenced the German psychologist, Kurt Lewin, who moved to the US in1933, and influenced Dewey, leading to ‘whole-word’ teaching of literacy, now regarded as having had a massive negative effect on literacy. So although Pavlov’s work had no real direct bearing on education and training, indirectly its impact was huge. He had set in motion a school of psychology that was to dominate psychology for decades – ‘behaviourism’ which still has strong vestigial effects.


Pavlov was an excellent physiologist but physiology is not the same as psychology. His work led to a rather mechanistic view of psychology, relying too much on animal experiments, ultimately ignoring the sophistication of the brain and mind. Behaviourism tried to cope with this and modified theories, known as S-O-R theories (Stimulus-Organism-Response), recognised that a person's motivation and other dispositions need to be taken into account. However, it remained limited by its narrow definitions of what constituted evidence – observed behaviour, a strictly positivist definition of evidence around behaviour. In human terms we can see that his work accounts for learning by association.Bandura and others showed that this was a very much more complex affair than simple reflexes.
More specifically, behaviourism lives on in Mager’s ‘performance objectives’ and Gagne’s recommendation that ‘learning objectives’ be placed at the start of every course. It is also the basis of end-point evaluation in the Kirkpatrick model. Ultimately, however, it was dealt a serious blow by Chomsky in 1959 and the fresher approaches of cognitive psychology.


Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Boakes, R. A. (1984). From Darwin to behaviourism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Luria A. L. (1932) The Nature of Human Conflicts

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Monday, February 17, 2020

Burt - farm schools and employment

Michael Burt was the Mayor of Asuncion in Paraguay and founder of a successful micro-credit organization. Used to the volatile nature of national politics (he faced down tanks as Mayor), he saw that much of what we call ‘schooling’ simply schooled people to remain in poverty. They went to school but school wasn’t lifting them out of poverty. In fact, the time taken often exacerbates poverty by teaching irrelevant knowledge and failing to sustain itself. As a successful entrepreneur he was determined to create schools that were successful in the sense of being self-sustainable.

School as a business

Strapped for cash with low completion rates and real poverty, Burt wanted a sustainable solution and farm schools where academic subjects were taught alongside vocational skills, such as business, animal husbandry, making cheese, fermenting yoghurt and crop fertilization, was his goal. The school pays for itself by selling its own produce in their roadside shop. They also run a small, rural hotel.
They teach conceptual skills in the classroom, such as finance, marketing, selling and customer service, then apply that knowledge by doing, selling and earning. Learners are cycled through the school’s 15 business units and then specialise, to develop specific skills suited to their needs. It is this mixture of academic and vocational skills that produces the best results and students get two, separate certificated when they graduate. Burt’s simple aim is to get every student into a job or further study. Students graduate with a business plan and access to small loans and many go back to improve their family business or go on to start a business of their own or on to further study.


The idea of self-financing schools as businesses is novel and heartening. Where funding is low and rural poverty endemic, traditional schooling is often disengaged from the local needs and community, hence the student and teacher absenteeism. Burt sees farm schools as a genuine solution to rural poverty, teaching entrepreneurial and business skills. It is easy in the affluent, developed world to be sniffy about education being and end-in-itself, unrelated to employment but for Burt, this is a conceit. The reality of poverty soon puts an end to such idealism. We have much to learn, even in the developed world from his respect for vocational skills
Schooling has been subjected to much debate and discussion but those who have tried to subvert, alter and change schooling have mostly been pushed to the fringes. In practice schooling has become globalized. Sure there are differences, some wear uniforms, others don’t, curriculum differences and so on. But the fundamentals have become universal and homogenized. Schools remain stubbornly resistant to reform and it is sometimes those who reform from necessity, seeing the irrelevance of a one-size-fits-all model for their own culture and needs.


Burt, M. Who owns poverty?
Maak, T. and Stoetter, N., 2012. Social entrepreneurs as responsible leaders:‘Fundación Paraguaya’and the case of Martin Burt. Journal of Business Ethics, 111(3), pp.413-430.
Burt, M. and Hammler, K., 2014. The Poverty Stoplight: Does Personalized Coaching in Microfinance Help Clients Overcome Poverty?. Unpublished internal document. Asunción, Paraguay: Fundación Paraguaya.

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Colbert – New Schools… innovation in South America...

Vicky Colbert works in Colombia, largely in rural schools, where she achieved astounding results with her New School (Escuela Nueva) model. It is recognised as one of the most important innovations and successes, in the education of the poor, by the World Bank. Colombia’s rural schools were plagued by familiar problems in low-funded, rural schooling; a low population density (small single, mixed-age classes), lack of materials, lack of completion, rote learning, teacher absenteeism, low teacher morale and high teacher turnover. Schools also had to cope with a long-term armed conflict, a displaced population of two million and the drug trade. On top of this was frequent political change. 

New School approach

Colbert implemented a bold but holistic plan, that put students at the centre of her efforts, but was widely inclusive, with many other stakeholders; teachers, administrators, parents, employers and the community at large. In particular, she forged links with local employers, such as coffee growers. Setting up a ‘Foundation’ was also critical, as it protected the initiative from constant political interference, although she was keen to keep the government as key stakeholders.
She wanted a consistent approach that was flexible, yet cost-effective, replicable and scalable. Above all her approach focused on the real needs of the community, sensitive to context and the reality of their everyday lives. Far from being traditional schooling, Colbert wanted relevant and sustainable education that made a real difference to people’s lives.


Learners learn in small groups with independent, self-paced, interactive modules, so that they can catch up if they need to be absent. As harvests are a real feature in the lives of these rural communities, the self-paced modules were designed to cope with the reality of such absences. The students map their local area and have to learn about their local agricultural calendar and farming needs. Vocational skills are as important as academic skills. Relevant entrepreneurial skills are also central to the curriculum, so learning how to learn, critical skills, teamwork and decision making are part of the process.


Teachers no longer stand up front doing only direct instruction and rote learning with questions and chanted responses. They are facilitators and receive practical, experiential, teacher training, coming together in ‘microcenters’ for workshops and the sharing of experiences and best practice. Teachers must feel part of a teaching community giving each other mutual support. They must learn the method but also be flexible enough to apply the method to their local circumstances. This, Colbert believes, is a necessary condition for success.


It is a testimony to the success and flexibility of the model, that it has been copied in Panama, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Salvador, Honduras, Guyana, and the Philippines. To succeed in this environment, it is clear that one must take an all-inclusive approach, that involves as many people as possible, is relevant to the realities of rural life, with real skills and strong teacher training. It works because it is deeply embedded in the whole community and not isolated ‘schooling’ separate, academic and remote from the realities of life. Schooling is still dominated by the European, Huboldtian model that fails, time and time again in contexts where ‘schooling’ goes through the motions, defying the realities of local culture and economics.


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Sunday, February 16, 2020

Neill (1883 – 1973) - Summerhill...

Alexander Sutherland Neill was a Scottish learning theorist, son of parents who were both teachers, who we know mostly through his book and school of the same name ‘Summerhill’, actually a collation of four earlier books on the school. Although in the tradition of Rousseau, he had never read Rousseau until fifty years after he opened his school and even then thought that Emile was too teacher-led. His real influences were the progressive schools movements in the UK and Germany, and in terms of theory, Sigmund Freud.

Freudian repression

Following Freud, he thought children become maladjusted and unhappy when they are repressed by outside forces. The resentful emotions within the child cannot be expressed towards parents and teachers, so turns into self-loathing and unhappiness. In school these repressive forces are discipline, a fixed timetable, moral and religious instruction. When you free a child from these constraints, he believed, the end result is ‘well-being’. This was part of his overall belief that we underestimate the role of emotion in education, with its focus on reason; all head, no heart.

Innate goodness

As a believer in the innate goodness of children, he saw no need for moral instruction and certainly no need for punishment, which he saw literally as an act of hate. In a sense Neill had no systematic theory to expound but he was clear that he believed strongly that children should be allowed to develop independently of the normal strictures of formal education. They were free to choose lessons and free to be themselves. It was inner motivation he wanted to foster not external compulsion.


At Summerhill, children could choose whether to attend lessons or not. The curriculum was broad, with academic subjects but also an emphasis on the arts, dance, drama and so on, which he saw as both therapeutic and useful for children who were not academic. The school was democratic with decisions made by voting at weekly meetings, where Neill had just one vote. On punishment, they took up Wollstonecraft’s idea of peer-punishment, where the democratic group determined the reprimand, which was never physical punishment.


Classes at Summerhill, despite the reputation, were rather traditional and some thought that his interest in teaching as such, was minimal, as it was the happiness of the child that mattered more than pedagogy. The reason for Summerhill’s continued existence as an experiment that never scaled, is that there is no satisfactory solution to the actual problem of structured learning, so that the ethos can be accused of being anti-academic.


Summerhill started in Germany, then Austria, Lyme Regis, then Suffolk, where it is still going. Its numbers fell to as low as 25 in the 50s but on publishing his books the school attracted a huge amount of international attention and it flourished in the 1960s, although coach loads of observers turned out to be too much of an intrusion and the school rejected its celebrity status to return to normal. As the spirit of the 60s faded, in the 70s and 80s pupil numbers declined. It is still practicing pupil freedom and will celebrate its centenary next year with around 100 pupils. 
Summerhill, published in 1960 in the US then 1962 in the UK was a hugely popular book but Summerhill as a concept never took off. Students certainly seemed to like the experience but parents and government never really took its model seriously. Nevertheless, Neill has had a lasting effect on educational theory. He was the leading light in progressive schooling and provides a model that, although not popular, promoted ideas around the student voice, children’s rights and a balanced curriculum.


Neill, A.S., 1995. Summerhill School: A new view of childhood. Macmillan.

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Saturday, February 15, 2020

Steiner (1861-1925) - Mysticism & eurythmics…

Rudolph Steiner, a Hungarian, developed his own philosophical system,‘Anthroposophy’ based on spirituality. It is, in fact, a mish-mash of Eastern thought, neo-Platonism, Christianity and Hegel. There is much talk of ‘inner experience’ and its amplification through the ‘secret society’ but its philosophical ideas are based on three realms, the physical, soul and spiritual. From this rather unlikely theoretical basis, Steiner schools have grown to be one of the biggest not-for-profit school systems in the world, headquartered in Switzerland. Founded in 1919 in Germany they grew, initially after being funded by a cigarette tycoon, and have flourished for nearly 100 years. Note that Steiner schools often go under the name of Waldorf schools.

Education as development

Education, for Steiner, is not so much teaching, or even learning, as a process of spiritual development defined within Steiner’s ‘Anthroposophy’. The system assumes ‘three births of men’, in three, seven-year periods. Up to 7, 7-14 then 14-21. These stages are based on obscure and esoteric ‘astral’ and ‘ethereal’ principles. There is a curious neo-Platonic idea of the soul, where the mind needs to recover the soul’s memory through a gentle, empathetic education. There is also a curious throwback, where teachers use ‘cholericphlegmaticmelancholic and sanguine’ to judge the temperaments of their pupils, a sort of Medieval learning styles.
Children start school at seven and are encouraged to play, as well develop their creative and imaginative abilities. Early competition is avoided in favour of collaboration and students are allowed to develop at their own pace. The curriculum from 7 onwards covers common academic subjects but, compared to mainstream schooling, has more emphasis on the arts, with the addition of a subject unique to Steiner schools, ‘eurythmics’, a form of slow-motion dance.

Radical appeal

Whatever the occult origins of the Steiner philosophy, it has some radical approaches to learning that have some appeal to progressive learning theorists. Children start schooling later (7) with reading is held off until that age, there is no marking or grading and the developmental process studiously avoids placing pressure and stress on children. They are taught in groups, often by the same teacher, for up to seven years, to foster the idea of the school as a family and the teacher a parent. They are non-selective, co-educational, teachers are given a great deal of autonomy and parents encouraged to be part of the school community. Long regarded by parents as an alternative to the pressurised environment of state schooling, it seems to satisfy a need for parents who see schools, whether they be state or private, as too rigid, uncaring, non-spiritual and obsessed with assessment.


Steiner’s philosophy is derivative and scarcely credible, clairvoyance, the astral and ethereal being just a few of his mystical ideas. He has also been criticised for racism, believing that reincarnation proceeds through three races, African, Asian and European, in that order. People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools (PLANS) is a group of former Steiner students, parents, teachers and administrators who want to expose the hidden missionary and religious agenda in the movement. Does it work? There is no definitive evidence as little real comparative research has been done. However, in several countries, independent reports are favourable towards Steiner (Waldorf) schools in terms of English, literacy and the arts.


Esoteric claims about the soul, spirituality and process aside, Steiner schools do practice some methods that many regard as positive and progressive. They have a counter-cultural appeal that avoids the commonly held view that education is a grind, designed to filter and fail, rather than develop children into autonomous adults. It is not unusual, in the history of educational theory to come across outliers, that have survived despite their sometimes naïve, even bizarre, underlying theory. They survive because they develop strong brands, financial models that work, their own teacher training and an appeal to a clearly defined need or group.


Steiner R. (1973)Theosophy Rudolph Steiner Press.
Wilkinson R. (1993)Rudolf Steiner on Education: A compendium. Hawthorn.

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Friday, February 14, 2020

Montessori (1870-1952) – Idiosyncratic method and materials

The founders of Google and Amazon, have Montessori schooling in common. Sergei Brin and Larry Page both attended Montessori schools. Both credit their Montessori education for much of their success. It was the Montessori experience, they claim, that made them self-directed, think for themselves and pursue their real interests. Jeff Bezos's mother tells of his single-mindedness at his Montessori school, being so absorbed in the tasks he chose, that they had to drag him off to give him a change, the same, self-directed, single-mindedness that was a feature of his Amazon adventure.

Casa dei Bambini

As the first woman to graduate as a Doctor in Italy, Maria Montessori, worked with children with special needs, but quickly drifted towards education, as she saw in her patients the results of a constricted approach to education and learning. She opened a school for the poor of Rome, the Casa dei Bambini, and developed her theory and practice from this real experience, first captured in the Montessori Method in 1909. It was a worldwide sensation but the Second World War came and Mussolini closed down all of her schools and the educational establishment in the US closed ranks and attacked her work. It is a testament to her theory that the movements, and Montessori schools, are still a feature of the educational landscape in many countries around the world.

Montessori method

As a modern heir to Rousseau, she sees the need to let children develop naturally with a strong emphasis on individualised learning. This is based on her belief that a child learns best when left to make their own choices within given constraints. Children have ‘tendencies’ to behave and learn and we must let them develop these tendencies to realise their potential. The method is perhaps best known as a system of auto-education where children are taught in mixed-age groups and not coerced into learning but given choices within a range of options. There is a great emphasis on discovery and learning by doing, making and manipulating things, rather than direct instruction, and the specific use of Montessori learning materials.


Classrooms are open environments and, as children do not have assigned seats, they work on floor mats or at low tables. These are in specific areas that contain selected and designed materials, carefully placed, in different subjects in a specific order and children are encouraged to work with their hands. Montessori materials are often made of wood but painted and made attractive to children. Low shelves are provided, as children are encouraged to tidy away materials after use.


Lessons are given but the structure is not rigid and teaching takes place with individuals or small groups, not to the whole class. Although assessment is largely through observation and not tests, the learning process is far from being unstructured. In fact it is highly organised. Children learn to write before they read and Montessori long encouraged the phonetic approach, as opposed to the whole word method, that became so disastrously popular elsewhere.

Home from home

Context matters and this means designing schools, not to be institutions separate from the world but part of the real world, like a real home with an extended family. Montessori schools are designed to be orderly, clean and aesthetically pleasing but also allow freedom of movement and exposure to relevant, learning materials. They are often deliberately remodelled to resemble a home, with small furniture and the feel of a family home.
This has become an issue in education, as schools, since the industrial revolution, have had to deal with absent working fathers, and increasingly, mothers. Montessori recognised this need with an emphasis on domestic activity. She did not want school to be cleaved off from the real world. It should, rather, be a home from home. With ideas similar to Rousseau and Dewey she was also keen on adolescents living in the country, running a farm or shop, and learning from making things and problem solving.


Stoll Lillard's claims that Montessori’s methods are confirmed by research in psychology and education, on eight points: 1. movement can enhance thinking and learning; 2. learning and well-being are improved when we have a sense of control; 3. we learn better when we are interested; 4. extrinsic rewards such as test scores, negatively impact motivation; 5. collaboration is conducive to learning; 6. learning is deeper and richer when situated in meaningful contexts; 7. adult interaction helps with learning and 8. order in the environment is beneficial to children. It has not been easy to determine through research whether Montessori methods are inferior or superior, as the schools have been selected by parents. Further difficulties arise from the lack of clear classroom and pedagogic structures that can be compared with other mainstream forms of schooling.


Dewey thought the method too restrictive and this has been echoed by others, who see strict adherence to the Montessori materials a limit to creativity. They have been accused to being too attached to a method devised by one person on the basis of limited experience and research. Interestingly, others have seen Montessori schools as too unstructured. As one would expect with a movement with a controlled method, disputes also arise within the movement about the rights and wrongs of marking homework and so on.


Montessori certainly influenced Piaget with her belief in careful, structured child development but her main legacy endures through Montessori schools, with around 20,000 schools around the world (700 in UK). Many see virtue in its softer, more child-centred concept of education and school. They want their children to be free from the strictures of institutional schooling and let them develop at their own pace in a caring and personalised environment. In practice, modern schools have inadvertently absorbed many of these lessons into mainstream schooling. But ultimately, the movement has never moved beyond a niche position in the overall schools landscape.


Montessori , M. The Montessori Method
Montessori , M. Education and Peace
Montessori , M. From Childhood to Adolescence
Montessori , M. The Absorbent Mind
Montessori , M. The Secret of Childhood
Kramer, Rita (1976), Maria Montessori: a biography, University of Chicago Press.

Stoll Lillard A. (2005) Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Oxford University Press

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Humboldt (1767-1825) – Prussian schooling and Higher Education… hugely influential…

After Napoleon had defeated Prussia in 1806, the Prussian state reflected on what had caused this catastrophe and out of that trauma came a reformed system of schooling designed by Wilhelm von Humboldt. The aim was not to produce rounded, autonomous citizens but young men obedient to a military culture and, oddly as he never attended school himself, he set about standardising many of the features of schooling we still see today.
Influenced by the ancient Greeks, his vision of education revolved around ‘character’ and the Platonic idea that education develops and leads one towards a fruitful life. This lde to him defining a school and University system that persists to this day.

Systematic schooling

The schooling that is still prevalent today is largely based on this Prussian model; a set school day, set syllabus, several subjects taught in periods across the day, rows of seats and bells to signal class changes. This stretched to standardised textbooks, state exams and inspections. Although his plans for reform were not published until after his death, along with a piece from a planned ‘Treatise of Human Education’. He saw education as providing a means to an end, the student’s interaction with the world, and not as an end-in-itself. The individual must do more than just satisfy their personal curiosity, they have personal, social and state responsibilities. He was, essentially, an Enlightenment thinker who saw progress of the individual, state and state of man, as the purpose of education.
However, his views on academic versus vocational education strongly influenced education today. He thought of education as a preparation for a life of skills and saw individuals as being prepared for vocations by receiving an academic education. First, vocational skills being easily acquired later. This was to have a profound effect on education globally, diminishing the vocational for the academic approach. Horace Mann, an American, who visited Prussia in 1843, brought this system back to the US and in 1852 Massachusetts adopted the system statewide.

Higher education

His greater influence was on Higher Education, where his combined model of research and teaching became and is now the global norm. This ‘Humboldtian Model’ was an Enlightenment idea, based on the freedom, cultivation and autonomy of the individual. To this end teaching should be informed by research.


Unfortunately, it has led to the downgrading of vocational learning, apart, of course, from those Universities teach, like medicine, engineering and, oddly, dentistry. Bryan Caplan has shown the that this approach is wasteful for many students and society as a whole. As much of it is signalling for the employment market, it does not conform to the Humboldtian ideal of intellectual inquiry. Few students ever attend any other lectures than those mandated and even then drop-out is substantial. The cost to society is great in terms of cost and national debt. Caplan argues that much of this money could be better spent on other areas of social good, such as healthcare and vocational education. Even Germany, a strong economy, made sure that the academic and vocational systems were both robust.
Another criticism is the link between research and teaching. The evidence suggests that teaching skills, such as communications, presentation skills, interpersonal skills are not often high in those whose speciality is systematic research. The modern academic has two jobs research and teaching, their passion, training and skills are in the former, with little in the way of training in the latter.


Humboldt’s influence has been profound, in both schools and Universities. He set the tone for a system that aims to prepare and get young people into University, as a grounding for good citizenship. This has become the model for most countries in the developed world. No other figure matches him for direct causal influence on the structures and methods for education. Yet that influence may be the problem. It has become a mantra which Schank, Caplan, Thiel and many others consider wasteful.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Harris – Amazing research on peer pressure in education...

Judith Harris, unaffiliated with any University and fighting chronic illness, turned conventional wisdom, and certainly a tradition that emerged out of psychoanalysis, about childrearing. on its head. For her solid research and critique of prevailing theories, she was awarded the prestigious George A Miller Award in 1998 (ironically he was also the person who turned her down for research at Harvard). Her 1995 Psychological Review article trawled the relevant data, and found that parents matter a great deal less in the development of the character or personality of a child than we had thought. In fact, they play a relatively minor role. Harvard’s Stephen Pinker sees her book The Nurture Assumption, as a turning point in the history of psychology. 

Peers Matter More

She took her cue from the fact that children invariably adopt the accent and language of their peers and not parents. Could this also be true of the non-hereditary portion of personality and character? Her thesis is neatly summed up in the subtitle to her book The Nurture Assumption; ‘Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do; Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More.’ Finally destroying the last vestiges of Freud’s theories about infant development and many other developmental myths, most notably the influence of parents on the personality of their children, she saw that most research fails to identify controls for heredity. In fact most of the studies that claimed to support parental influence lacked controls, had too little data and inadequate statistical analysis. Children behave like their parents because they are genetically related and not because parents treat them in any special way or because of some childhood trauma. In fact growing up in any particular household doesn’t seem to have any significant affect on one’s intellect or personality. The ‘nurture’ assumption, by which she meant the environment, including parents, had been grossly exaggerated.


On schools, she explains why classrooms are full of children who ‘play up’. They are appealing to their fans, their peer group, the other children. ‘To children in school, the most important people in the classroom are other children`’. ‘Groupness’ is a powerful force, both good and bad in the classroom. Schools encourage group contrasts between the sexes as group contrast effect start to work. The contrast effects put wedges between different groups and within each group the child adopts its norms and attitudes. These effects are cumulative and often harmful. For example, slow learners adopt the norms that make them avoid getting smarter. Smart kids get smarter. Other groups can be tribal some activity based, some class and race based.  
Interventions aimed at changing parents’ behaviour don’t seem to have impact. What matters is changing the behaviour and attitudes of groups of children. She is in favour of a unisex school uniform, as it stops harmful ‘group’ behaviour from forming. Smaller schools and smaller classes also prevent dominant groups from forming. Downplaying cultural differences (the opposite of current practice) is recommended on the basis of not forming harmful racial and religious groups within a school. Teachers can split people up into randomized groups that cut across the existing group structures or regard the whole class and whole school as a group.

No Two Alike

In her book ‘No Two Alike’ she tackles another big issue – individuality, asking why people are so ‘different’. Her attacks on the significance of birth order (it makes no difference to personality) along with many other plausible hypotheses are powerful. But it’s her ideas around a ‘status’ system that is fascinating. This seems like a good candidate for explaining why even identical twins are different.


Rather than disinterested parents abandoning offspring to their fate, her theories take the pressure off parents, seeing the evolved, natural process of parenting largely adequate. Parents need not give in to their every whim nor subject them to excessive praise. It offers an empirically strong alternative to the Freudian idea that parents are the primary causal factor in the development of their children. In fact, she claims that parental pressure has produced less happy children and more mental illness. Neither did Harris claim that parents don’t matter. They can choose peer groups and play a role in regulating relationships in the home.


Harris, J.R., 1995. Where is the child's environment? A group socialization theory of development. Psychological review102(3), p.458.
Harris, J.R., 2011. The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. Simon and Schuster.
Harris, J.R., 2010. No two alike: Human nature and human individuality. WW Norton & Company.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Bandler – NLP - training’s fraudulent cult…

Richard Bandler, a cocaine addict, was arrested for murdering a prostitute by shooting her in the head, the girlfriend of his drug dealer. Despite the presence of her blood on Bandler’s shirt both he and the drug dealer admitted being in the room when she died but as each accused each other, both were acquitted. No one has been charged with the crime. He's one of the founders of NLP. These founders and their heirs have been involved in incredibly bitter disputes about the so-called theory and ownership of the NLP brand. Great start – it gets worse…

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming)

NLP propelled itself into the heart of the training world. Yet NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) has little to do with serious neuroscience or linguistics, and is not taken seriously by academics in either field. However, it certainly is a programme. Indeed it has been criticised for being a ‘programme’, many seeing it as not more than a well-marketed cult.
NLP is not a unified theory, it is a mixed bag of modeling techniques, where tutors diagnose people through keywords (predicates) and eye movements. The claim is that rapport can be enhanced using these techniques, therefore fooling people into doing what you want; working harder, buying your product etc. So can we tell from simple scientific trails whether this is all true or not?
Heap did exactly this. He looked at the scientific literature and found that PRS is not serious science. He found that 'keywords' are not indicators in the way NLP practitioners claim and ‘eye movement’ theories are, in particular, widely rejected. On establishing rapport Heap also found that there was no scientific evidence for the claim that these techniques improve rapport. Cody found that NLP therapists, using language matching, were actually rated as untrustworthy and ineffective. Heap concludes that NLP is “found to be lacking” and that “there is not, and never has been, any substance to the conjecture that people represent their world internally in a preferred mode which may be inferred from their choice of predicates and from their eye movements”.
Sharpley’s 1984 literature review found "little research evidence supporting its usefulness as an effective counseling tool" no support for preferred representational systems (PRS) and predicate matching, then in a 1987 study states "there are conclusive data from the research on NLP, and the conclusion is that the principles and procedures of NLP have failed to be supported by those data".
USNRC produced an academic report stating that "individually, and as a group, these studies fail to provide an empirical base of support for NLP assumptions...or NLP effectiveness.". The whole edifice of influence and rapport techniques, "instead of being grounded in contemporary, scientifically derived neurological theory, NLP is based on outdated metaphors of brain functioning and is laced with numerous factual errors".
NLP is also dismissed as a method for improving performance by the US Army (Swets & Bjork, 1990). “The conclusion was that little if any evidence exists either to support NLP’s assumptions or to indicate that it is effective as a strategy for social influence.”


Efran and Lukens (1990) stated that the "original interest in NLP turned to disillusionment after the research and now it is rarely even mentioned in psychotherapy". In his book, The Death of Psychotherapy, Eisner couldn’t find “one iota of clinical research” to support NLP. Even Albert Ellis, the grandfather of cognitive behavioral therapy, specifically identified NLP as one of those techniques to be avoided. This was the one therapy he abhorred because of its “dubious validity”. Tomasz Witkowski in his paper Thirty-Five Years of Research on Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP Research Data Base. State of the Art or Pseudoscientific Decoration? puts the theory to the test. Despite its aggressive marketing and application in training, Witkowski asks; ‘Why is NLP completely absent from psychology textbooks?
Rather conveniently, Bandler didn't think that empirical testing was necessary and is openly contemptuous of such an approach. However, it is important to look at the theory from a perspective that is free from the biases of its practitioners (as they believe the theory and make money from the practice) and the patients (who may be subject to manipulation and false belief). However, after subjecting NLP research to the filters of reputable, peer-reviewed journals he finds, quite simply, that that is “pseudoscience” and should be “mothballed”.

New age fakery

Corballis (1999) is even more scathing, "NLP is a thoroughly fake title, designed to give the impression of scientific respectability. NLP has little to do with neurology, linguistics, or even the respectable sub-discipline of neurolinguistics". Others, such as Beyerstein, accuse NLP of being a total con, new-age fakery to be classed alongside scientology and astrology. Beyerstein (1990) asserts that, "though it claims neuroscience in its pedigree, NLP's outmoded view of the relationship between cognitive style and brain function ultimately boils down to crude analogies."


So, having been abandoned by serious theorists it is still hanging around in education and HR. Von Bergen et al (1997) showed that NLP had been abandoned by researchers in experimental psychology and Devilly (2005) makes the point that NLP has disappeared from clinical psychology and academic research only surviving “in the world of pseudo new-age fakery and, although no longer as prevalent as it was in the 1970s or 1980s… is still practiced in small pockets of the human resource community”. The science has come and gone, yet the belief still remains. 
So why is a theory with no credible academic basis in psychology, linguistics and neuroscience still being delivered as serious training? NLP rose on the back of a recent movement that saw marketing trump science. Aggressive selling of pop psychology has led to an explosion of ‘courses’ on NLP, learning styles, brain gym and dozens of other non-validated theories. It would seem that the training world is sometimes happy buying and selling cleverly marketed classroom ‘performance’ products that are, in fact, pseudoscience.


Heap, M. (1988). Neuro-linguistic programming, In M. Heap (Ed.) Hypnosis: Current Clinical, Experimental and Forensic Practices. London: Croom Helm, pp 268-280.
Heap, M. (1989). Neuro-linguistic programming: What is the evidence? In D Waxman D. Pederson. I.
Sharpley, C. F. (1984). Predicate matching in NLP: A review of research on the preferred representational system. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 31(2), 238-248.
Sharpley C.F. (1987). "Research Findings on Neuro-linguistic Programming: Non supportive Data or an Untestable Theory".Communication and Cognition Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1987 Vol. 34, No. 1: 103-107,105.
Druckman and Swets (eds) (l988) Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories, and Techniques, National Academy Press.
Krugman, Kirsch, Wickless, Milling, Golicz, & Toth (1985). Neuro-linguistic programming treatment for anxiety: Magic or myth? Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology. Vol 53(4), 526-530.
Efran, J S. Lukens M.D. (1990) Language, structure, and change: frameworks of meaning in psychotherapy, Published by W.W. Norton, New York. p.122

Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, Jeffrey M. Lohr (eds) (2004) Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology

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Monday, February 10, 2020

Rogers (1902 - 1987) - Teacher as facilitator and therapist…

Carl Rogers is known as the founder of 'client-centred' therapy and his promotion of counseling. He also had a keen interest in education and his therapy-oriented methods became widely adopted in education and training through coaching, mentoring and other student-centred, Socratic techniques. Roger’s influence can be felt everywhere in modern learning with from open questioning techniques by tutors to counseling itself in schools and the workplace.

Teaching as facilitation

Influenced by Dewey, he emphasised the relationship between learner and facilitator. As early as 1951 Rogers had looked at 'student-centred teaching' in Client-Centered Therapy (1951), where he claimed that teaching is really ‘facilitation’ and that we must allow the learner to relax to learn and feel free from any form of threat. Freedom to Learn (1969) takes counseling principles and applies them to education. It explores facilitation and person-centred learning in schools. A collection of papers, it described preparation, creating an environment of trust and provocative input to stimulate discussion. Facilitation involved certain qualities and attitudes and realness in the facilitator of learning.
The facilitator must treat the learner with genuine respect and open up as one person genuinely communicating with another. When the mask of the professional or expert drops, facilitation is at its most effective. Facilitators must be themselves, in direct person-to-person encounters. More than this realness, is a feeling of prizing the learner, without being condescending. It is this, along with an acceptance that it’s fine to not know things, that promotes trust. Empathy, in the sense of understanding what is going on in the mind of the learner, seeing it from their perspective, is another feature of good facilitation. Learners need to be understood and not just judged.


However, non-directed teaching can have a debilitating effect on learners due to the lack of specific, directed feedback. It can also lead to too much reliance on the subjective reports of the learner, which are not always accurate or trustworthy. Being too empathetic can negate constructive criticism. Facilitated learning may benefit more from the honest dissolution of misconceptions rather than an abundance of empathy. Unfortunately, the therapy-oriented techniques aimed at troubled minds do not always apply to people who simply want to learn. Not knowing something is not an illness to be cured by therapy. Many learners also want a less moderated approach to learning. Dialogue may be more appropriate than pure empathy. In counseling, the idea that the client knew more than the counselor became the prevalent model. Unfortunately, this extreme form of the Socratic method is difficult in learning, where by definition, the learner doesn’t have the knowledge or skill to start with.


Rogers's influence on therapy, counseling and education is enormous. The general tone of learning through facilitation was set by him and continues to this day in the counselor/teacher/trainer/HR role. This has been positive, leading to a more sophisticated relationship between learner and teacher/trainer. On the negative side there is a difference between learner-centric and self-centred.
What seems like a sensible approach to human interaction, namely facilitation through authenticity in the facilitator of learning, has turned into its opposite - a sort of conformity of emotional control, where every sphere of life has become subject to a new emotional culture with therapeutic cures. Everyone is ill until proven healthy. Facilitated learning may benefit more from the honest dissolution of misconceptions rather than an abundance of empathy. Unfortunately, the therapy-oriented techniques aimed at troubled minds do not always apply to people who simply want to learn. Not knowing something is not an illness to be cured by therapy.


Rogers, C. R. (1961) On Becoming a Person. A therapist's view of psychotherapy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1967 - London: Constable).
Rogers, C. (1970) Encounter Groups, New York: Harper and Row; London: Penguin.
Rogers, C. R. (1980) A Way of Being, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Rogers, C. and Freiberg, H. J. (1993) Freedom to Learn (3rd edn.), New York: Merrill.
Furedi, F. (2004) Therapy Culture Routledge.
Kirschenbaum, H. (1979) On Becoming Carl Rogers, New York: Delacorte Press.

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Saturday, February 08, 2020

Freud (1856 – 1923) – Fraudulent origin of therapy culture

Freud (alongside Marx) is credited as being a theorist who practically shaped 20th century thought. He has had a deep and lasting influence in learning, not only through his theories on childhood development but also through psychoanalysis and therapy which in turn influenced counseling, coaching and mentoring.

Freud and childhood

Although he wrote no specific text on education, childhood development is, for Freud fundamental and formative. But his theory is pathological as adults inhibit, prohibit and repress desires and instincts, especially sexuality, in the face of reality. As he said, ‘The main aim of all education is to teach the child to control its instincts.’ The danger is in neuroses, the potential harmful effect of much parenting and education. We internalise and the ego becomes education’s enabler as it battles the id. It was then, through the ever more obscure theorising of Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and Lacan, among others, that Freudian theory was related directly to education and the convolutions of ‘psychopedagogy‘.

Therapy culture

The general rise of psychoanalytic and therapeutic culture led to the public vocabulary of self-esteem, counseling and syndromes entering the learning sphere in the 80s. The state, through education, took an interest in our internal, emotional lives of students. On the one hand this led to an increase in pastoral care in schools and an increase in the interest of parenting. However, many see this pathological view of education as having led to an obsessive interest in over-bearing parenting, the over-diagnosis of certain syndromes and the overuse of drugs on children perceived to be problematic.


Freud’s theories largely depend on an idea he did not create, the concept of the ‘unconscious’. The idea that learning can be forgotten, but still exist and be the cause of action from the unconscious mind, was not unique to Freud. What Freud did was attribute reluctance by his patients to talk about sex, and other personal memories as evidence for a whole edifice of unconscious structures and processes.

Freud debunked

Little of Freud’s theories are now used in modern psychology. Popper’s critique of his theory on philosophical grounds and for failing to satisfy even minimal scientific standards prepared the way for serious scientific critiques. On the whole they show that Freud’s theories are poorly researched, based on single cases tiny samples and his own self-analysis. They claim his theories are speculative, subjective, self-fulfilling and not scientific in the sense that Freud claimed they were. Critiques have come from Grunbaum, Frederick Crews, Macmillan and Frank Cioffi. He has also come under serious attack from feminists for reducing women to ‘castrated’, reserve players in his psycho-sexual world.
Freud’s methods were far from science and at times downright dangerous. Emma Eckstein had a bone surgically removed from her nose, which led to suppuration for days. Another surgeon found that a gauze had been left in the wound and its removal almost killed the patient. Freud had diagnosed her as having a ‘nasal neurosis’ based on excessive masturbation and when he heard about her reaction to her months of pain and misery diagnosed this behaviour as hysteria.
In fact the scale of the debunking is astonishing. Little, if any, of Freud’s work has survived the scrutiny of later research. Macmillan in Freud Evaluated and many other texts have knocked off the theories one by one. The list of debunked theories include: Freudian slips, Free association, Id, Ego Superego, Repression, Regression, Projection, Sublimation, Denial, Transference (and counter-transference), Penis envy, Oedipus complex and Infantile sexuality.


Grayling puts his vast appeal down to his writing talent, the sense that readers are having deep secrets revealed, its appearance as a theory of human nature and, above all his focus on the taboo subject of sex.  However the Id, Ego and Superego hypotheses have, like most Freudian psychological concepts, been abandoned by serious, scientific psychology. It turned out to be a non-scientific mess (despite Freud’s belief that it was science) which built a theoretical structure that was hugely speculative. It over-reached itself so far that little was salvageable other than a recognition that important processes do lie beneath consciousness, something that was not a Freudian discovery.

A narrative that underlies not the psychological but psychoanalytic, even the psychiatric input to learning, whether happiness, wellness or happiness, is the therapeutic narrative that goes back to Freud. This narrative draws on a Freudian view of the world that we are flawed beings and sees almost everyone in need of therapy.

This narrative refuses to die and has morphed from fairly benign mentoring to more intrusive counseling and now onto wellness, happiness and mindfulness Descriptive definitions suddenly become prescriptive techniques to be applied to all. Just as the underlying Freudian theory fades (almost nothing has survived) this narrative, the therapeutic narrative, described well by Frank Furedi in Therapy Culture (2004) gets resurrected. It has even resulted in rather foolish attempts by HR to read our unconscious, namely unconscious bias.


Freud, S (1977). On sexuality: Three essays on the theory of sexuality and other works. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Freud, S. (1952). Totem and taboo: Some points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics. New York: Norton
Freud, S. (2004). Civilization and its discontents. London: Penguin.
Freud, S (1965). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. New York: Norton.
Popper, K. R. (1966). The open society and its enemies. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Macmillan, M. (1997). Freud evaluated: The completed arc. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press
Crews, F. C. (1995).The memory wars: Freud's legacy in dispute. New York: New York Review of Books
Cioffi, F. (1998). Freud and the question of pseudoscience. Chicago: Open Court
Furedi, F. (2004) Therapy Culture. Routledge

Grayling A.C. Scientist or storyteller?

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