The following text was originally published in Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIV, no. 3/4, 1994, p. 787-800. ©UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000 This document may be reproduced free of charge as long as acknowledgement is made of the source.
1In the history of ideas in this century, Henri Wallon is remembered much more as a psychologist than as an educator. And yet his name, in association with that of the illustrious physicist Paul Langevin, is today to be found inscribed on the façade of numerous schools in France. Together with Langevin, he was the originator of a project to reform French education that, though never put intopractice, remains the most comprehensive and original scheme of the century. Widely known in France and in some other countries, this project had a direct or indirect influence on many other projects and inspired a number of partial reforms. In this study we shall try to follow the intellectual journey of a scholar whose life’s work was devoted to the study of children, the conditions in whichthey develop, the way they behave and their evolution.
Landmarks of a career
Born in Paris in 1879 into an upper middle-class family from the north of France, Henri Wallon was brought up with his six brothers and sisters ‘in a republican and democratic atmosphere’. Admitted to the Ecole normale supérieure in 1899, he obtained his agrégation in philosophy in 1902: his future seemed to lie inteaching. After a year teaching at the lycée of Bar-le-Duc, however, he decided to embark on the study of medicine before eventually turning, like his older contemporary, Georges Dumas, to psychology. But it was psychiatry, more particularly child psychiatry, that absorbed him for many years in various hospitals where he showed particular interest in the motor and mental anomalies of children,concerning which he recorded numerous observations between 1908 and 1914. After mobilization as a doctor during the First World War, he returned to civilian life to find that his observations now seemed completely out of date to him. He therefore rewrote his doctoral thesis on ‘stages and disturbances in the motor and mental development of the child’, which he upheld in 1925 and subsequently publishedunder the title L’enfant turbulent [The Troublesome Child]. From as early as 1919, his strong interest in child psychology—rather exceptional for the time—led to him being asked to give a series of lectures at the Sorbonne on the subject. Despite the prestige attached to these teaching duties, he was not entirely satisfied. Thus he gave medical and psychological consultations in a dispensary in aworking-class district of Paris and, in 1922, in a school at Boulogne-Billancourt in the Paris suburbs, set up a small laboratory for the purposes of both teaching and research with the assistance of a few primary teachers. There he took in degree students and future inspectors of education and embarked on research into the psychological development of children by means of interviews and surveyson their adaptation to school and social life, using some of the first tests known. At the same time, he collaborated closely with the Deaf and Dumb Institute, then located at Asnières, not far from Paris.
From 1925, when he was appointed Director of the first Child Psychobiology Laboratory at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris, Wallon continued his twin activities ofresearch and teaching. But in his research, he was always mindful of its practical and sometimes immediate applications in the education of children. This was so in particular for his studies in psychomotricity, the mechanisms of memory or moral judgement. In addition to his laboratory work, he soon started giving consultations for ‘pupils subject to intellectual or behavioral disorders’ and founded a...
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