Demystifying Social Pedagogy
As a paradigm, social pedagogy is very complex (as other disciplines are too) and indivisibly connected to a given culture (so we can’t fully understand it without understanding the society in which it has emerged). Walter Lorenz, one of the most notable contemporary academics in social pedagogy, suggests that ‘social pedagogy is an important but widely misunderstood member of the social professions’ (Lorenz 2008, p.625). To help readers understand it a little bit better we elaborate on some of the most common misconceptions about what social pedagogy is or isn’t. This list of ‘fake news’ is by no means complete, so if you have more please let us know!
First of all, a note of caution on the inflationary use of the term ‘traumatised’ when talking about children in care. Martin Woodhead (1990) comments on the cultural construction of children’s needs, stating that we frequently use pathological terms to describe children and that we need to be conscious of where this is a cultural construction rather than based on facts. Using terms like ‘traumatised’ can become a form of justifying one’s practice that doesn’t aim to fully understand the complexity. This is not to say that children in care haven’t experienced trauma, but that working with the whole child means working with more than just the sum of the child’s traumatic experiences. Social pedagogy is not at all in contradiction with therapeutic child care, although its emphasis is less on the therapeutic and more on the positive aspects of care. As Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000) note, most of the therapeutic work done by psychologists is actually building on strengths, not treating damage. In a similar fashion, social pedagogy is effective by not focusing on what’s wrong with children but highlighting what’s right with them, thus strengthening their self-esteem and supporting healing. Some children who have had traumatic life experiences will of course require specialist therapeutic support, and it is important for professionals to understand trauma. Practitioners working with traumatized children can use social pedagogy to ensure the children feel safe by having strong supportive relationships and a nurturing environment. None of the principles and aims of social pedagogy would not apply to children with traumas.
Contrary to how social pedagogy is often portrayed in the media, this isn’t really true. There is a longstanding tradition of social pedagogy in continental Europe that is closely linked to welfare traditions, and there are a range of reasons why social pedagogy has, until recently, not developed in the UK as distinctly as in other countries. Yet, there are traditions in the UK that relate to social pedagogy, and various professionals have begun to explore these, most notably Smith (2009) and Smith & Whyte (2008). This means that there is a lot to build social pedagogy on and from which to develop a UK tradition of social pedagogy. And it would not be pedagogic to dismiss or erase this! If you would like to find out more on the history of social pedagogy, please look at this section.