When Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor chose to mention her favorite after school program—and President Obama chose to repeat it in his nomination of her—I was really happy. Maybe this publicity would open up the dialogue on after school programs (and other outside of school activities). There’s research and evaluation going on about after school programs and what makes an effective program, but people hardly ever hear about it. Not even teachers and educators. So great is the concern with school learning that it gets all the press and other learning environments are ignored. From what I’ve seen and heard, Obama doesn’t ignore them (whether he is kept informed about the most successful and innovative programs is another matter). Outside of school learning and its relationship to schooling is a long-time interest of mine, personally and professionally. In my work, I try to get people from different places and fields and orientations to talk to each other, and this area—in which outside of school educators and researchers and inside of school educators and researchers rarely communicate with each other—is no different. In the the excerpt below from a chapter I just completed for a book on sociocultural activity theory approaches to creativity, I describe where I’ve come to at the present moment based on my research and practice. I’d love to hear what you think about what I wrote and about after school programs/outside of school learning and its impact of the learning and development of children and adolescents.
In the extreme, schooling transforms not knowing into a deficit; creative imitation into individualized accomplishments, rote learning and testing; and completion into correction and competition.This is the current situation. This is what schools do and don’t do. I am as concerned as the next person about it, but I am equally concerned with bringing outside of school learning to the forefront of dialogue and debate among educators, researchers, policy makers and the public. This is because that is where creativity still lives. Putting on a play or concert and playing basketball as a team require the members to create a collective form of working together. Unfortunately, doing well in school does not. My reading of the literature on outside of school programs, along with my own intervention research, shows that outside of school programs (in particular, those involving the arts or sports) are more often than not learning-leading-development environments, methodologically analogous to early childhood ZPDs in a manner appropriate to school-aged children and adolescents. Whether deliberately or not, they continue to relate to young people as creative, in both mundane and appreciative senses.
These kinds of cultural outside of school programs share important features, most notably, those that foster activities that create ZPDs: freedom from knowing and socially imitative and completive activity. First, kids come to them to learn how to do something they do not know how to do. Maybe they want to perform in a play, make music videos, play the flute, dance, or play basketball. They bring with them some expectation that they will learn. They are related to by skilled outside of school instructors, often practitioners themselves, as capable of learning, regardless of how much they know coming in to the program. Thus, while there are of course differences in skills and experience that young people bring to outside of school programs, the playing field is more level than in school. Really good programs, in fact, use such heterogeneity for everyone’s advantage (Gordon, Bowman, and Mejia, 2003; Holzman, 2006, 2009).
Second, in these programs it’s OK to imitate and complete. In fact, it’s essential. The presumption is that how one becomes an actor, music producer, musician, dancer and athlete is by doing what others do and building on it. From the fundamentals through advanced techniques and forms, creatively imitating instructors and peers — and being completed by them— is what is expected and reinforced.
I have come to view outside of school programs that have these features as learning environments created by, and allowing for, learning playfully. They are, in this sense, a synthesis of Vygotsky’s ZPDs of learning-instruction and of play, not as spatio-temporal zones but as mundane creative activity. For, as in the free or pretend play of early childhood, the players (both students and instructors) are more directly the producers of their environment-activity, in charge of generating and coordinating the perceptual, cognitive and emotional elements of their learning and playing. Most psychologists and educators value play for how it facilitates the learning of social roles, with socio-cultural researchers taking play to be an instrumental tool that mediates between the individual and the culture and, thereby, a particular culture is appropriated (as in the work of Nicolopoulou and Cole, 1993; Rogoff, 1990; Rogoff and Lave, 1984; Wertsch, 1985). Through acting out roles (play-acting), children try out the roles they will soon take on in “real life.” I am sympathetic to this understanding and yet I think there is more that play contributes to development than this. Being a head taller is an ensemble performance, not “an act.” After all, we don’t say the babbling baby is acting out a role.
I see play as both appropriating culture and creating culture, a performing of who we are becoming (Newman and Holzman, 1993; Holzman, 1997, 2009). I see creative imitation as a type of performance. When they are playing with language very young children are simultaneously performing – becoming – themselves. In the theatrical sense of the word, performing is a way of taking “who we are” and creating something new – in this case a newly emerging speaker, on the stage a newly emerging character, in an outside of school program a skilled dancer or athlete – through incorporating “the other.”
In his essay on the development of personality and world view in children, Vygotsky wrote that the preschool child “can be somebody else just as easily as he can be himself” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 249). Vygotsky attributed this to the child’s lack of recognition that s/he is an “I” and went on to discuss how personality and play transform through later childhood. I take Vygotsky to be saying that performing as someone else is an essential source of development, at the time of life before “I.”
Early childhood is the time before “I” and the time before “I know.” We can never completely replicate the type of lived activity out of which learning-leading-development occurs and “I” and “I know” are created. Nor should we want to. But outside of school programs, to the extent that they are spaces and stages for creativity (mundane and otherwise), appear to support young people’s learning-leading-development through revitalizing play and performance. Such programs are precisely the kind of support schools need, for as long as schools continue to discourage creativity.