Peter Sedgwick

School Psychology

(Autumn 1963)

Peter Sedgwick, School Psychology, International Socialism (1st series), No.14, Autumn 1963. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Educational Psychology in the USSR, Edited with an Introduction by Brian and Joan Simon. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 40s.

Next to, genetics, psychology has been the branch of Soviet science most seriously undermined by administrative edicts from above. The physiological behaviourism of Pavlov (which bypasses any reference to consciousness) has been a particularly unfortunate orthodoxy; and since 1936 the practice of psychometry (which seems to have included not only the testing of abilities but also statistics and correlational research) has been banned by Party decree. A quote from one Soviet article in this book is most revealing here: ‘The Central Educational Laboratory, established during these years (the 1930’s) in Moscow, attempting to analyse the causes of pupils’ failure, was led to initiate wide-ranging “research”, the essence of which was to seek coefficients of correlation between success in school and other factors such as the amount of living space available to children and the amount of meat they consumed. Such “research” took the place of genuine scientific study of children’ (p.106). It is understandable that research into the diet and living conditions of city children should have been regarded as unsafe during the privations of the early Five-Year Plans. So it is that, among all the fascinating and sometimes excellent psychological papers collected in this volume, not one attempts to assess whether its experimental results are of more than chance probability.

Frustrated in the perfection of quantitative methods of assessment, the talents of Soviet educationists have swung, with some success, to the analysis of qualitative and especially developmental categories. Some of the issues raised by contributors to this collection have received little or no attention in the West. For example, one technique used by Soviet educational psychologists is to evaluate the methods of an outstandingly good teacher. Other valuable questions discussed here include: What is the best way of combining the verbal and the visual components of audio-visual methods? What constitutes ‘technical thinking’ among older children learning an industrial skill? On the other hand (as one might expect) some articles are closely paralleled by research in similar fields by Western psychologists and teachers; such are the contributions on mastering the elements of reading and on the psychological prerequisites for success in arithmetic, both of which, with the addition of some hard statistical assessment, could fit fairly well into a current British journal of educational research.

This observation should not be taken as implying that Western science stands as some kind of norm by which Soviet performance is to be measured. Coming away from this anthology, one is struck above all by the extraordinary resilience and richness of child-centred psychology even when operating within non-scientific or anti-scientific constraints (ours as well as theirs).

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 20.8.2007