Social pedagogy: asking questions about implicit choices
By Floor Verhaeghe and Carmen Draghici
Prof. dr. Michel Vandenbroeck is the head of the department of Social Work and Social Pedagogy at Ghent University. His main research interests are early childhood, parent support, diversity and social in/exclusion. He is also Chairman of the Centre for Innovation in the Early Years (VBJK), an organization that works on policy-oriented studies and pedagogical innovations in early childhood care, education, and parent support.
Professor Vandenbroeck, what could we learn from a social pedagogical perspective when studying migration and integration?
Let me first say that I do not believe in strict discipline boundaries. I think those boundaries are merely a way to preserve one’s own career. So, I can tell you something about what I think is important from a social pedagogical perspective and how that might relate to migration and integration research, but I will do so without claiming that this is a strictly social pedagogical perspective.
That being said, I think a quote from Paulo Freire sums it up very well: ‘The parent-child relationship always reflects the wider social environment.’ I would broaden up the ‘parent-child relationship’ to ‘the adult-child relationship’, where the ‘adult’ can be a parent, but also a professional educator. This quote has a very deep meaning: you cannot study pedagogical relations or pedagogical interventions without looking at the wider social, historical, political and economic context in which they take place.
For the research in our department, this means that we pay a lot of attention to what we call ‘the social construction of problems’, in other words, to the question why certain phenomena are constructed as a problem here and now. Let’s take for instance the example of integration: the owner of Volvo Cars Ghent is a Chinese man who lives in Ghent. Nobody expects him to learn Dutch, to integrate. There is thus a specific construction of the ‘integration problem’, with very specific target groups. This concept of ‘the social construction of problems’ also applies to our own research questions: why do we think these research questions are relevant here and now, more than any others? In social work research, this means going back and forth between the concrete reality of children and adults, considering the way we intervene and how that relates to the wider picture. This going back and forth helps us reflect not only on whether we do things right, but also on whether we do the right things. That is my take on social pedagogy, which requires us to always ask both questions: do we do things right and do we do the right things?
Could you give an example that relates to research on migration and integration?
I will give an example from the field that I know best, early childhood education and care. According to the new PISA results, Flanders [the northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium] is in the top ten of the world. It showed that on average we are very good. It also showed that the difference between the good students and the bad students is larger than in any other European country. The extent to which this gap is related to the home situation of the children is also larger than in any other European country. Thirdly, the PISA results showed that the group of top scorers in mathematics in Flanders has become smaller over the years.
This is a very good example of what I was saying, for two reasons. First, in the reactions that followed the results’ publication, it was shown very clearly that psychological and pedagogical experts chose to focus on certain topics, according to their political orientation. Second, there is a strong statistical correlation between language spoken at home and children’s PISA test results, in the sense that children who do not have Dutch as a home language do much worse than those who do have Dutch as a home language. That is a given fact. However, the way this finding is interpreted depends much more on ideology than on empirical facts. We know, for example, that there is a strong correlation between home language and socio-economic status. So, do we have to teach these children more Dutch, do we have to start to teach Dutch at an earlier age, or do we have to tackle the socio-economic gap in society? Is it a pedagogical problem or is it a social one? These are different opinions.
And even if we would agree to have these children learn Dutch at an earlier age, there is still much debate on how we should do so. Very often people think that these children should have less of their native language in their daily lives in order to learn more Dutch. Consequently, parents who do not speak Dutch are persuaded to send their children more often to kindergarten. Many decisions are upstream of this concrete action, and these choices are not discussed in public: the choice that this is a language issue rather than an economic issue, the choice that education should be monolingual and the choice that education should start before primary school age. All of these choices are implicit. The fact that they are implicit is not a coincidence, because they are ‘dans l’air du temps’, i.e., our dominant way of thinking. The dominant way of thinking is that (school) careers are an individual responsibility, thus the solution to inequality has to be an individual solution. This is why these choices are not discussed, because it is self-evident that everything is an individual responsibility.
What social pedagogy has to do, is to row upstream of these problems and to ask questions about the implicit choices that were made in relation to concrete practices or interventions. I am not saying that we should not help children to learn Dutch, but I am saying that one always has to think about the broader picture.
It seems that this tension between the concrete things that you have to do with the individual child and the wider context is also an inherent tension in social work in general.
It is not necessarily a tension, although it is sometimes. I think we can work on the individual level and question societal assumptions at the same time. Relating to the example I gave, I think it is a genuine concern that migrant children are more often absent from kindergarten. It is a problem and I think we should address it. While we address it, we contribute – whether we want it or not – to the idea that the educational gap is to be treated outside of the educational system, in the pre-educational system. In this way, we take the responsibilities of the primary school away.
The same goes for homework. Homework is a discriminating thing. There are many initiatives to help immigrant children with homework, but by doing that they keep the system as it is. Is that a reason not to help these children? Of course not! So yes, very often there are these tensions and difficult choices to make. There is no one right answer on what to do either. The only thing one could say is that people need places where they can discuss these issues and where they can disagree with colleagues.
 Brazilian philosopher and educator, founding father of the critical pedagogy, who wrote the famous and recommendable book ‘The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’
Short-bio of the authors
Floor Verhaeghe is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at the Department of Social Work and Social Welfare studies at Ghent University (http://www.ugent.be/pp/swsp/en). She is also affiliated to CESSMIR, the Centre for the Social Study of Migration and Refugees at Ghent University (http://www.ugent.be/cessmir/en). Her research focuses on the integration processes of migrants, their children and grandchildren.
Carmen C. Draghici is a PhD candidate at University Paris 13-Sorbonne Paris Cite, in France, and member of the research centre EXPERICE (https://experice.univ-paris13.fr/). Her project in Education Sciences focuses on early childhood education and migration in France and aims to analyse everyday experiences of children of migrants in école maternelle (nursery school). She was appointed as the PhD Representative of the IMISCOE PhD Network for 2016-2017.