A voice far ahead of her time

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
Susan Isaacs(1885-1948)

Emotional literacy and freedom of expression may sound modern phrases, but they were not news to one Victorian. Hilary Wilce reports

Most teachers have scarcely heard of her. Yet the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says Susan Isaacs is probably the most influential educationist of the last century.

How can this be? Especially given that her ideas were neither original, nor easily boiled down into simple classroom aphorisms.

The answer lies in the way that her views about play, about the importance of learning from real life, and the way that children's emotional life shapes how they develop intellectually, have come to permeate today's view of childhood. "Children's most urgent need," she said, "is freedom to grow and think."

Philip Graham, emeritus professor of child psychiatry at the Institute of Child Health, London, is just finishing a biography of her and points out that she was extremely influential among teachers in the 1940s and 1950s.

The continuing growth of child-centred-ness, and the way it has become a continuous strand in our thinking - despite the politicians' best efforts to stamp it out - is why she is so important."

Isaacs was also the first person to bring together education, psychology and psychoanalysis. "She was a trained child analyst, and believed in the importance of emotional factors in learning," says Mr Graham.

"At the time she was the main translator of psychological theory into educational comprehension. Her goal was to bridge these different worlds."

In addition, she was a thinker far in advance of her time, and many of her writings strike chords today. She saw the dangers of too much institutional care for pre-school children and also warned of introducing children to reading and writing too early, at the expense of play and fantasy. Yet her own early years gave no clue of what her future would be.

Susan Isaacs was born in 1885, the ninth child of a middle-class family.

She was withdrawn from school by her journalist father who feared that education was giving her atheistic ideas.

She worked as a governess and was allowed to train as an infant teacher at Manchester university, where she switched to studying philosophy, met some of the greatest education thinkers of the day, and came out with a first-class degree. From there she moved to study psychology for a year at Cambridge, then moved to Darlington, with her first husband, where she ran the infant department of a teacher training college.

In 1924 she answered an advertisement for "an educated young woman" to work in a small experimental school "as a piece of scientific work and research". For several years she helped run the Malting House school, in Cambridge, funded by the eccentric millionaire Geoffrey Pike, where the rules included no punishment, and that "things should be put away".

This was the great era of progressive schooling, with similar experiments taking place at Dartington Hall, Beacon Hill school and Summerhill.

In the years of rapid social change after the First World War many people, often with unhappy memories of school themselves, were searching for a less restrictive way to educate children. However, Isaacs also took the time to watch what was going on with both pupils and teachers at Malting House, and her close observations of their daily lives became the foundation of her two major books - The Intellectual Growth in Young Children and Social Development in Young Children.

Mary Jane Drummond, an early years expert and former lecturer at Cambridge university, says Isaacs' books have allowed generations of readers to discover "these full-blooded, living, learning children" and have emphasised how, left to themselves, children love movement and developing bodily skills, delight in make-believe and fantasy, and show a keen interest in discovering the world around them. These spontaneous activities, Isaacs believed, welled up from their natural physical and intellectual energies, and their deep desire to understand. They also, Drummond points out, add up to a complete and well-rounded curriculum.

On the basis of this work, Susan Isaacs was appointed to teach child development at University College, London, and then taught at the Institute of Education from 1933 to 1943, where she set up the department of child development. At the same time she also spread her ideas to parents and others, in advice columns written for popular magazines, such as The Nursery World, under the pen name Ursula Wise.

But her educational ideas developed in close tandem with her abiding interest in the new science of psychoanalysis. She was analysed three times, and drew heavily on the work of Melanie Klein, a close friend, who although a Freudian, departed from his ideas to emphasise the importance of the mother-child relationship in early development.

Isaacs came to believe that even very young children had complex and strong emotions, and that fantasy helped them bridge their interior and external worlds. In fact, her ideas about children's unconscious fantasy lives are today considered a lasting contribution to psychoanalysis.

However, in educational terms, she also came to see that, although children needed freedom to develop, this had to be balanced with structure and restraint, otherwise aggression and rivalry, and the resulting guilt that children can feel about demonstrating these, can come to inhibit learning.

Her close association with Klein drew her into a fierce battle within the psychoanalytical community with that other luminary of child analysis, Anna Freud, and she became known as Klein's most trusted lieutenant.

Years after her death, her ideas fed directly into the influential 1965 Plowden Report, when her husband Nathan, who had helped run Malting House with her, submitted a memorandum via the Froebel Foundation pleading for a reconstruction of the primary school system to take account of the natural needs of children.

Philip Graham points out that Isaacs was neither a rigorous academic, nor an original thinker. Many of her ideas had been outlined earlier by the American John Dewey, and others. But he emphasises that she was a voice far ahead of her time in the way she believed that the first two years of life shaped development.

"In many ways this is now being validated by research into the active development of the brain," he says.

As today's teachers struggle to reintroduce more creativity into classrooms, her voice is a wise one, pointing them back to how children really are, and what it is they most need.

Next week: Ted Wragg


* On the aim of education:"To create people who are not only self-disciplined and free in spirit, gifted in work and enjoyment, worthy and desirable as persons, but also responsible and generous in social life, able to give and take freely from others, willing to serve social ends and to lose themselves in social purposes greater than themselves."

* On the 3Rs:"The time would be far better employed in allowing the children to pursue the activities they so much seek connected with the business of living -washing, cooking, searching out facts about the way the home is kept going and the life of the town maintained. Today the school deliberately deadens interest in these things and idolatorises the formal tools of learning.

* On make-believe: "It must be remembered that this world is only unreal because it is an alien world to the adult who comes suddenly into contact with it. To the child it is the real world in which he lives, the world of his self-created subjective experience."

* On nursery schools. "Primary schools may come to regard these as institutions from which they may expect a continuous stream of children broken in to school life as they see it."

* There is an extraordinary disproportion between the time and trouble put into teaching children to read and write at far too early an age, and our concern with the real use of these things to serve personal and social life."

* On play:"(It's) the child's means of living and understanding life."

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