Functional Education

By Yehudah Zeilberger.

A Translation from Hebrew to English, of the entry "Functional Education", Educational Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia Khinukhit) v. 1 706-710, published by The Israel Ministry of Education and Mossad Bialik, Jerusalem, Israel, 1961.

Translated by Doron Zeilberger, Dec. 29, 1999.

Functional Education.-

a. Its meaning; b. Its psychological background; c. its principles; d. Functional Instruction; e. Evaluating Functional Education.

A. The Meaning of Functional Education.-

The terms "Functional Education" (education fonctionnelle) and "Functional Instructions" have several meanings:

(1) In the United States and in Germany (starting around 1920), the adjective "functional" refers to education that comes spontaneously from the influence of the environment; It is a kind of undirected, "natural" education, that is different from the deliberate, goal-oriented education, that is directed by man.

(2) In Western Europe this term refers to education that comes from the child's needs, and that uses the child's interest as a mechanism for activating him and towards his desirable activities; Its purpose is to develop the life of the mind, that acts from the wholeness of organic life, with relation to practical life in the present and in the future.

(3) Functional Instruction, that arose in the United States and England, takes as its starting point the activity of the child (see under "activity as an educational principle" in this volume), and it is based on a practical work-plan that is intended to have the child master the subject-matter. The subject-matter to be taught is considered according to the importance in the life of the human in his childhood and adulthood. The instruction is based on phases in the life of the student: the county, the environment, the daily life.

Directed (Goal-Oriented) Education and Functional Education are two basic processes in shaping a human, and they have to be combined. For his educational success, a teacher has to consider Functional Education in its first meaning, that is present everywhere and at all times (even without organized educational institutions), and its essence- the mutual influence of the members of society and of their life-styles that acts on every human; The very example teaches, even without intention. Thus, Tolstoy distinguishes between traditional school and the natural school, where life is the source of instruction (the newspaper, the museum, the theater, the street etc.). See under Progressive Education (in this volume).

B. The Psychological Background of Functional Education.-

The psychological basis of Functional Education is Functional Psychology, as it was first expressed by William James, and was extended later by Eduard Claparede. The functional world-view claims to the wholeness of the psychic phenomena, and attributes value to their role in the adaptation of an organism to its natural and social environment. To "educate" means therefore: to adapt the child to his environment, while emphasizing his needs and inclinations, as they are revealed in his developmental stages. According to Claparede, a living organism is a system that strives to preserve its wholeness and equilibrium; when it is in danger of collapse, it tends to bring itself back to its former state.

From these follow laws that clarify the functional activity:

(a) The law of the biological need. "Every need activates the reactions that may satisfy it" (Claparede). The actual needs change with the development of the child.

(b) The law of the expansion of the spiritual life. The larger the gap between the needs and the means that are needed to satisfy them, the more active becomes the life of the mind that are needed to overcome this gap.

(c) The law of conscious understanding. The baby acts like a little personality, with a big ego; but the recognition of the ego will only come after the simple reflexes become insufficient. To this is related the following phenomenon: when the organism must adapt to a new situation, it does so as a conscious act, since an automatic, reflexive, unconscious act is not enough.

(d) The law of anticipation. The organism senses states ahead of time, thereby maintaining its equilibrium and keeping it from collapsing. Every need, that requires spiritual activity appears before its time. For example: the curiosity of the child, and his playful activity (that come from the act of growing) give rise to interests that appear before they are needed for actual behavior; it follows hence that they benefit future development.

(e) The law of "interest". All behavior is conditioned on interest; every activity is done in order to reach a goal, that is important to the person at that moment. The interest is therefore the "fundamental principle of spiritual activity". In order to teach a child, one has, therefore, to arouse in him cognitive needs (interests). When the interest is satisfied, it makes room to another interest.

(f) The law of the present interest. When several needs and interests arise at the same time, "the organism acts, at any given time, in the direction of the greatest interest".

(g) The law of repeats. "Every need tends to bring out reactions (or states) that were useful in the past, and to repeat a behavior that was successful in similar previous circumstances."

(h) The law of groping. "When the state is so new, that it does not bring forth any association... The need activates searching reactions, groping, and experimenting."

(j) The law of functional autonomy. "In every stage of his development, the living creature consists of a whole unit, with functional integrity, i.e. having reaction connections adapted to his needs". This law also applies to the child: "The education must enable the child to train his functioning according to Nature - as a condition to the development and emerging of additional, and more refined, functions, for example: "the development of the senses comes before the development of the intelligence".

The principles of Functional Education. -

(1) One has to judge the child from the standpoint of his own world-view, and to describe him in terms of concepts drawn from his experience and to teach him according to his criteria: one has to relate to him like a person, that ought to be respected and nourished.

(2) The Functional Education is based on the natural need of the child to enquire and to know, to observe and to work, and especially to play; it strives to arouse in the child spiritual longing, like the love of the good and of work, that will not come by force, but rather in a free atmosphere and in suitable living conditions; for that purpose, the school should create a lively and happy environment, where the child will act enthusiastically.

(3) One has to put the child in the center of the curriculum, that will no longer be made according to principles exterior to the child; this will form a "Copernican transition in Education" (Claparede).

(4) The educator should get to know properly the child's interests and the changes that he undergoes as he grows up physically and emotionally; hence the teacher should adapt his teaching to the natural growth of the child.

(5) One should not demand from the child an action, unless he has a natural need for it. In order to activate the child, the teacher has to place the child in conditions that will naturally induce that action, by satisfying a need. The motivation of the child should not be external (fear of punishment or hope for a reward), but internal (out of genuine interest in the discussed question and in the activities connected with it). The internal (self-) discipline (from his own volition) will replace the external, forced, discipline.

(6) The Education will develop the intellectual and moral abilities of the child rather than force-feeding him many facts, that are quickly forgotten, or are accumulated in the memory like a foreign substance, without any connection to his life. Any fact is interesting, if it is related to the current social activity of the one learning it. Hence one should not separate between theoretical studies and the child's natural action.

(7) An "active school" (ecole active) is needed, where the classroom would be a kind of laboratory. The art of the teacher will be reflected by his ability to bridge between the studied material, that is not very attractive, and the natural needs of the child: "the best way for achieving that goal is play" (Decroly).

(8) Because the child must in the future live in a social framework, one must introduce the child to work and to subjects that prepare for social activity.

(9) The teacher should stimulate moral and spiritual needs, cooperate with his students, rather than lecture at them; he will aid them in acquiring knowledge through self-study and personal experiences; his main quality should be enthusiasm rather than scholarship; and for that is needed a completely new kind of teacher training, that would be mainly psychological, and will focus on the understanding of the child and of his needs.

(10) There is no point in trying to develop skills that not everyone has a talent for; the school should have a minimum of a common, core, curriculum, and leave other subjects as free electives; the ideal should be "a school made to fit the size of the child" (ecole sure mesure), in every stage of his development; because every individual is different from another to a certain extent, in his physical and psychological traits (Claparede). From this also follows an approach to teaching of the gifted: Democracy needs a moral and educated elite, and hence it should be interested in developing gifted children in conditions that are suitable to their talents. "Education is not preparation for life, but life itself" (Claparede). Only to the extent that the future trends express themselves as present needs, is Education a preparation for his life as an adult.

(11) One should no longer have exams, that are but a burden on the memory; instead one has to introduce an "achievement summary" that were achieved during the school year. For that the teacher has to use diagnostics and tests, in order to check his own teaching method and to summarize the achievements of his students.

D. Functional Instruction.-

Some of these ideas can be found in the functional way that is current in Anglo-Saxon countries. This way opposes the traditional formal training, that claims to develop academic skills by drilling, without due regard to the student's interest, and that believed that most of the training should be in efforts that develop the brain. On the other hand, the theory of Material Education emphasizes the mastering of specific subject-matters.

The functional way is different from both of these approaches. On the one hand, if refuses to view the psychological skills "as machines that could be directed to any object or subject" (Dewey). On the other hand, it is also opposed to the opinion that views education as merely learning the subject-matter. Functional Instruction connects all study with specific needs and roles, towards which the child's interest should be directed. In this way the child will gain thinking habits and develop the technical means needed for them, that will improve as time goes on, and that will aid him in solving his practical problems.

Formal Knowledge has no educational value, because the activity of the mind is separated from life, and does not arouse interest in the outcome of the performed work. In this way, learning becomes an end for itself. This is not the case in Functional Education, that attempts at non-formal goals - to train students towards a practical mastery of the subject, to get them into the habit to adapt to any situation, to bring them to experience first-hand with the studied subject by do-it-yourself work and experiments. The teacher is just a "go-between" between the subject and the student, and he enables the functioning- the live relation between the student and the studied subject, and the relation between them.

The Functional way has lead to important innovations, for example: functional grammar in the teaching of foreign languages, the way of the subject, and the method of operation in teaching methods etc.

E. Evaluation of Functional Education.-

The Functional Education is an important factor in the New Education - first of all as a scientific foundation to the intuitive views of Rousso, that put in the educational center-stage the child and his needs. The foundations that complement it are the pedagogy of Kerschensteiner and the psychology of Ferriere that are based on theoretical-philosophical principles, and also the theories of Montessory, Decroly, and Freud and his students, whose staring points are in the medical-educational domain. The method of Dewey is a connecting link between the two, for two reasons. First because its practical and biological approach is very close to Functional Education, and second because of its moral and social world-view that wishes to make the houses of learning into houses of education and to promote the creative spirit.


Ferriere, A.: The ABC of the New Education (Hakhinukh 1951-52, v.24, 305-330 (Hebrew translation); Dewey J., Democracy and Education, Jerusalem, 1960.

Vauquelin R., Les aptitudes fonctionelles et l'education, Paris [1924?]; Ferriere Ad., L'ecole sur mesure, a la mesure du maitre, Geneve 1931; Decroly O. and Monchamp P., L'initiation a l'activite par les jeux educatifs, Neuchatel 1937; Bovet P., Pedagogie religieuse et education fonctionelle, Lausanne 1942; Meylan L., Education fonctionelle, Geneve [1946]; Ferriere Ad., L'ecole active, Neuchatel 1947; Bloch M. A., Philosophie de l'education nouvelle, Paris 1948; Claparede Ed. , L'education fonctionelle, Neuchatel 1950; Dewey J., School and the Child, London 1944 (1947 in French).

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