Words, Ideas and Realities

David LaneMost of the time we have no great difficulty understanding each other, but once in a while we face a new concept and we have a real struggle. They had this problem back in the seventeenth century when travellers brought the first pineapples to England. They could say what they look like. But how could you describe the taste of a pineapple to someone who had never tasted one? It’s a fruit. It can be sharpish to taste, or sweet, or both at the same time, like an orange. But the taste is quite different from an orange. It’s not quite like anything else.

Occasionally we face a similar problem in working with children. When someone has a new idea, how can they describe the concept? We have to talk around the subject for a while to get a grasp of how it is defined, what it is not, how it affects children, what its implications are, and so on. Eventually the new concept is lodged in our minds, and we understand it in relation to similar concepts.

We are facing that in the UK at present in relation to social pedagogy. What is its definition? What about the fact that it means slightly different things in different countries? How does it differ from social education? Or from child care? If social pedagogy is seen essentially as the northern European term for southern Europe’s social education, which term should the UK adopt? Or should it use an entirely different term?

These were some of the issues being addressed at a recent day conference run by the NCB. The day was being used to hear of ideas being applied in Europe in work with children, young people and their families, and social pedagogy figured large in the day.

Over the last two or three years, social pedagogy has figured extensively in literature put out by the Government. The research undertaken by the Thomas Coram Research Unit has gradually had an effect, and the term has come into common parlance. But it has also had its detractors. Professor June Thoburn spoke against its use, pointing out that pedagogy was a term widely in use in education, with a didactic flavour to it. Indeed, not many years ago, there was a distinct slur attached to the use of the word, as representing out of date methods of teaching, by rote for example.

Lars Steinov, from Denmark, argued for the use of social education as the English term, and this was the line taken in the Radisson Report in 2001, to avoid the unhelpful connotations of social pedagogy. However, social education is well established as a term to mean the teaching of civics in schools or of social skills for people with learning difficulties. To bring in another meaning of the term might simply cause ongoing confusion. What is more, the Government seems to be pushing social pedagogy, and maybe the advocates of social education will simply lose out, whatever their arguments.

But, said June Thoburn, we already have the term social care, and it is certainly well established in law, in training and in the names of the SCA and the GSCC. People are registering as social care workers. How does social care differ from social pedagogy? Some people have reacted against the word care as being patronising and demeaning to the recipients, but others have fought back to defend the concern and altruism implicit in the word.

It is at this point that we need to look at the meanings and the underlying concepts behind social pedagogy. In its simplest terms, said Janet Boddy, it is education of the whole child using education in its broadest sense. The French use the word education broadly. In the UK it tends to be equated with schooling, teaching in classes, often divided into subject areas.

Social pedagogy assumes a holistic approach to children’s needs – health, schooling, leisure, family life, spiritual life and so on – the whole child. In the UK, some people claim to treat children and young people holistically, but the approach has certainly not permeated our national way of thinking. That is why it was assumed at first that, unlike nursery schools, childminders could not educate children, presumably because they did not provide little desks for children to sit at. It is one of the factors in the row about faith schools, and the splitting of spiritual life from secular activities.

Social pedagogy also assumes that people respect each other, whether they are adults or children. Starting with such an assumption creates an entirely different approach from the top-down traditional hierarchies in schools. Discipline is then not down to the head keeping order but down to the whole group of adults and children sharing responsibility for the way they relate in their educational community.

As long as these ideas permeate our practice, in one sense it does not matter what terminology we use. It is more important to understand and apply the ideas than to be picky about words.

But when we want to communicate our ideas, in the end we do need commonly accepted terms. We cannot afford the time to talk round the concepts every time that we want to communicate. We may have applied many of the concepts underlying social pedagogy, but we have not put them together as a single philosophy to underpin our work with children and young people.

Without a common philosophy in the UK, we do not have a commonly accepted term which everyone understands. The nearest we get in current English to finding a term for what parents do in helping their children grow up, develop and mature is that parents bring children up. Is it accidental that the other major usage of the term, bringing something up, means the rejection of something pretty unpleasant?

We have now attended two conferences where social pedagogy has been a major focus, and the fascinating thing is that in both people who are working with children have become enthused by the notion of social pedagogy. It has made sense to them of what they are trying to achieve. If language can do that, motivating people to work well with children and young people, it is worth adopting. Plato would have liked that.

So, in summary, this is an area where English, one of the most flexible and useful languages in the world, has no established term, probably because there is no established understanding or adoption of the concepts underlying it. It is time to start using the term social pedagogy, and for people to start understanding and applying it.

And while we are about it, let us be clear that pedagogue has two hard Gs (gog), and that pedagogy has one hard G and one soft G (gojy).

You can follow up David’s thoughts on social pedagogy by taking a look at the page on Social Pedagogy UK – a virtual world meeting point ….

2 thoughts on “Words, Ideas and Realities”

  1. And interesting perspective, As a foster parent and Holistic therapist, im simply agog and the verbal diarrhea, that is used in today’s language, and After googling the word and meaning,I frankly prefer the word Holistic, and most understand what that means, The whole person, lets keep it soft and simple to understand. The problem i find is not the understanding that’s the problem,its the meaning, it the need to try and use correct laugage, but most left not realy understanding the meaning,or implementing the value, who care how it is spelt, im dyslexic, luckily spell check is available,ironically dyslexic is not an easy word to spell..considering the apparent meaning…I rest my observation here.


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