I’m spending December finishing writing some new chapters for my 2009 book Vygotsky at Work and Play, due to my editor at Routledge by year’s end. It’s been challenging to immerse myself in and again create with the voice of that book. It’s only one of my writing voices, and quite different from the one I’ve been performing in for the past year and a half writing chapters of The Overweight Brain. It’s taken a while but I think I’ve finally “found my voice”—which makes the writing now fun.
My publisher would not be pleased if I were to post part of what will be in the new edition here. So instead I’ll share some of what I am building on. The excerpt below from Chapter 6. Changing Relationships (pp. 111-113), encapsulates the methodological and political importance of Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development (zpd) in the work that my colleagues and I do in our cultural-performatory practice as developmentalists. In the new chapters I’ll be sharing programs and people new since 2009, and how they’ve expanded the zpd-creating activity and deepened and broadened my understanding of its importance.
This deconstruction-reconstruction of the individuated learning and development model has political implications as well, for it does not limit us to repeating the past nor to imagining only the possible. The zpd is the socially-historically-culturally produced environment in which and how human beings – determined, to be sure, by sometimes empirically observable circumstances – totally transform these very circumstances, creating something new. The zpd, then, is dialectics in everyday mundane practice, simultaneously the collective producing of development and the environment that makes development possible. The work of the Institute and the programs it has influenced are efforts to create, in all areas of life, continuously overlapping zpds, because in this relational activity forms of life that have become alienated and fossilized are transformed into new forms of life (Newman and Holzman, 2006/1996).
Creating continuously overlapping zpds is a constant running into the folk psychology version of dualistic conceptions of learning and development. To fully accept Vygotsky’s claim that people learn and develop socially and his unit of study as social-cultural activity, is to engage the paradoxes it entails: that while life is lived socially it is experienced and related to individualistically; while life is continuous process, it is experienced and related to as space-time products. People live, learn and develop in social units, but are not instructed in ways of creating or functioning effectively in them, or even in how to talk about such things. Conversations are rare among family members on how they want to live together, among students and teachers on how they want to create their classroom, among work groups on how they could function to maximize productivity and creativity, and so on.
Vygotsky’s writings have served to inspire and support a paradigm shift in our understanding of human development and learning from ahistorical, acultural, individualistic unfoldings to cultural-historical socially created processes. This new understanding has been a source of inspiration for me and my co-workers and close colleagues to invite children, youth and adults to engage these paradoxes directly and practically – by participating in activities in which discovering how to create a group cannot be avoided (for example, creating the social therapeutic environment, performing school, improvising learning, playing with identity, performing a lifetime). If there is a “classic” tool-and-result activity, this is it, for no method exists independent of its unique creation by the group members who are participating and who “discover” their result as their method unfolds.
Socialized to an individuated learning and development model, people enter therapy groups, classrooms, after school programs and other learning or development environments believing that the way they will learn or get help to change is as individuals. They are given the task of creating a social unit in which they can learn and/or develop, something they not only do not know how to do but think is impossible. They, nevertheless, participate in this collective process. They come face to face with the limitations of trying to learn and grow as individuals as they participate in the process of collective learning and growing. Their new learning and development (a unity of cognition and affect) is both tool and result of the activity of creating the group/ensemble/social unit.
I have come to believe that it is as performers that people are able to engage, in a developmental way, the paradox of experiencing what is a social existence as a separate and individuated one. Children become, Vygotsky showed, through their joint performances as other than who they are (speakers, artists, readers, caregivers, and so on). If they were not simultaneously being and becoming, there would be no human civilization. Without any awareness of it, children “create the ensemble” through their relational activity. Their performance as learners leads their development. Once socialized as individuals, this ability to create ensembles for learning-leading-development needs to be rekindled. Conscious performance is a method to do so because it intensifies the relationship between being and becoming. Performance reminds us that we are social beings. Playing with psychological discourse, I characterize the human developmental process as one of creating stages for development rather than going through stages of development (Holzman, 1997b).
Here’s the cover of the 2009 book (both English and Japanese). I’m sure we’ll have a new cover for the new edition. Any ideas? Please send them along!