Performing Vygotsky to Change the World
Review of Vygotsky at Work and Play by Lois Holzman
To appear in Mind, Culture and Activity, 2010
Beth Ferholt, PhD
School of Education, Brooklyn College, CUNY
Lois Holzman’s Vygotsky at Work and Play is at once an overview of decades of the work of Holzman and several of her colleagues, from its roots to its future, and an introduction to this work that is accessible to both those within and outside of the academy. This feat of balance is in keeping with her argument: that we need others to see ourselves, that new ways of seeing emerge through new ways of being, and that performing is a particularly important and necessary new way of being because it does not prioritize thought over action, cognition over emotion, or being over becoming. Holzman’s writing is often accessible to several audiences, but Vygotsky at Work and Play, as it includes both theoretical argument and rich descriptions of varied settings of performance work that were inspired by the work of L.S. Vygotsky, becomes, itself, a narrative performance that accomplishes the bridging of “inside academia/outside academia” that Holzman rightly claims is so difficult.
It is through this accomplishment that Holzman makes one of her most valuable contributions. She shows us — as well as telling us — one way to include action, emotion and becoming while working from Vygotsky’s theory. Thus she successfully evades various restraints of the fields within which most scholars of Vygotsky’s work have written.
In this book Holzman describes how she came to understand Vygotsky’s work as containing “the seeds of a nonparadigmatic approach to human life” (p. 2). Her work, she argues, differs from that of other scholars of Cultural Historical Activity Theory because it provides “a new ontology that can do away with the need for paradigms” (p. 3). She did not make or transform paradigms through the work she will describe, but instead worked with groups of people to create “new forms and performances of life,” (p. 19): “new ways of being” (p. 19), not only new ways of seeing, thus avoiding the prioritization of thought over action.
Holzman argues that Vygotsky’s work challenges deeply rooted dualistic ways of seeing human development. She stresses Vygotsky’s challenge to the dualistic conceptualization of cognition and emotion, and she writes that it was this that allowed Holzman, working with Fred Newman, to argue for the creation of ““new ways of seeing” synthesized with “new ways of being”” (p. 3) Furthermore, inspired by Vygotsky’s challenge to the dualistic conceptualization of cognition and emotion, Newman and she have advocated “tool-and-result methodology” (p. 9). This methodology is in opposition to “tool-for-result methodology,” and is based on Vygotsky’s insistence on a method in which an activity generates tool and result simultaneously and as a continuous process. Instead of looking for problems and solving these problems with tools, one engages in a “more unified, emergent and continuous process approach” (p. 10).
In opposition to behavior and activity Holzman argues that Vygotsky’s work gives us a “theory of becoming,” that his work describes development as “the qualitative transformation of totalities.” She sees activity as providing the foundation for moving psychology towards a conception of human development as “the activity of becoming”, and towards a methodology for studying human development that is “tool-and-result”, and she states that these understandings can allow us to approach “the paradoxical nature of human development”: How can something be both what it is and what it is not? We create who we are by performing who we are not, and the zone of proximal development is an activity: simultaneously performance space and performance (p. 19).
Holzman’s continued explanation of these arguments takes place through introductions to several programs that she and her colleagues have built to create “new forms and performances of life” and “new ways of being.” She first describes social therapy at what is now the Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy in New York City, of which she is director, and at its connected projects. Here she describes creative imitation as a type of performance, and argues that social therapy is built upon Vygotsky’s observations of children’s ability to perform in play: that performing someone else is a source of development.
Holzman then takes us to the classroom, but argues that we should consider the teacher as therapist. She writes that she is in favor of dismantling schools, but that in the meantime she is working to bring development (as she has described it) into schools, to create spaces for developmental learning to flourish outside of schools, and to re-educate the public about these necessities. Holzman describes a training program for teachers headed by Carrie Lobman, in which teachers use improvisation to bring performative learning into the classroom.
Holzman also uses first-person accounts to describe some of the innovative outside of school performance programs that her institute has created, including Youth OnStage! (YO!). And Holzman describes the work of Performance of a Lifetime, which works with employees of corporations, when she turns to the workplace. She argues that the goal of this program is to improve a company’s financial success, not to foster meaningful personal or social activities. However, she concludes that businesses and organizations have significant potential to become “developmental environments.” This is because they do not segregate work and learning as schools segregate play from learning, and because they are designed to create social units.
As I am writing this review from squarely in the academy and am writing primarily for people working inside the academy, it seems to me that I am, here, faced with a dilemma. To approach Holzman’s contributions to CHAT with just a nod to the fact that these theories must remain rooted in Holzman’s practice outside the academy ignores a potentially revolutionary contribution. Furthermore, to miss this contribution is to completely miss the purpose of her performance, as through this story of her development Holzman is making clear, first and foremost, that she is contributing to a revolution: At the beginning of the story that is Vygotsky at Work and Play Holzman writes that her passion for human development comes from her, “belief that human beings must find a way to develop if our species is to survive and thrive, and from (her) desire to contribute to this revolutionary activity.”
What Holzman has undoubtedly done is to help to create wonderfully useful programs of all sorts outside of academia through which she has simultaneously developed her theory and brought her theory to practice. However, Holzman’s claim: “I left academia to work with him (Fred Newman) outside of the mainstream, bringing Vygotsky with me,” does not make sense if we take the rest of her arguments seriously. The Vygotsky that Holzman claims to have brought out of the academy is an open-ended, emotional, political conversation among people who are interested in Vygotsky’s work and life and who can be located both in and out of the academy. When Holzman writes that she “met” Vygotsky what she really means that she explored his ideas through written translations of his work with people who read and discussed these writings, and through joint practice in which this work evolved. And it is shaped by and through these activities — as well as others — that her relationship with Vygotsky continues.
Therefore, I am claiming for this book more than Holzman claims for it. She writes that her dream is to make Lev Vygotsky a household word, and that while this book may have a slightly wider audience than some of her writing, its contribution to her dream will be small. However, if we could put this book back in dialogue with work from within the academy without superceding the book’s turf and tone, we might be able to blur – instead of just bridging – the divide between “inside academia/outside academia”.
Holzman writes, “I want my story and interpretation of Vygotsky to inspire, provoke and/or resonate with you on its own, without being buttressed by any critical comments I might have on the work of others. To do otherwise, I feel, would be antithetical to the philosophy and method of my inquiry and to the practices that are its subject.” But we know from Holzman, and from this book most powerfully, that nothing can resonate on its own. I believe that we should find a way to bring this work back into direct dialogue with the work of those within the academy while moving beyond this antithesis.
To do this would allow us to clarify much (for those of us inside academia, at least) in the fascinating arguments in this book. Holzman, as she acknowledges, only briefly discusses several key concepts — mediation and mediational tools, for instance — while “radically transforming” several other concepts — performance, for instance — so that it is difficult to bring her arguments into useful dialogue without Holzman’s help. However, Holzman is presenting us with means of overcoming the emotion-cognition divide in the social scientific study of development and learning. She is presenting us with a method that avoids the dichotomy between thought and action. She is presenting us with a way of understanding creative development, in the sense that the endpoint is unknown. If we do not find a way to engage with these arguments, as well as several other of Holzman’s key arguments, fully, from within academia, it is certainly our loss — even if she does not consider it to be a loss for her!
There are several specific questions that the arguments in this book raise for me, which I cannot fully address unless we can find a way to bring this book back into dialogue with the work of those within the academy. I will not let the questions take center stage in this review, as this would be to disregard Holzman’s insistence that we let her “story and interpretation of Vygotsky … inspire, provoke and/or resonate with (us) on its own:” I believe that to create the dialogue I champion without erasing Holzman’s primary message requires a joint process, not my unilateral insistence. However, I will present three of these questions briefly. I will do this to show what we are missing if we forego this dialogue, and also to highlight the fact that the dichotomy between “inside academia/outside academia” that Holzman reifies is often fluid. The following few questions developed directly from my experiences “while taking the lab out of life” – as Holzman describes her work with Newman outside of the academy – and these experiences were also a part of a research project that produced results published in academic journals and presented at academic conferences.
Engestrom’s (1999) complex model of an activity system offers alternatives to several of the dichotomies that Holzman is arguing against. What would Holzman’s argument look like if she included the recurrent and cyclical nature of activity time (versus the linear time of action), and the importance of formative experiments, as she challenges dichotomies between thought and action, and being and becoming? If play is a way to challenge the present then we should turn to Vygotsky’s “Imagination and creativity in childhood” (2004) where he addresses this issue directly. How could we bring this text’s description of the recursive process of imagination and creativity in the development of the child into alignment with Holzman’s reversal of the traditional hierarchy, such that the individual is of less interest than the social? Vygotsky’s (1987, 2004) understanding of the role of emotions in imagination and creativity, and his (1978) insistence that a child’s world is not a play world, separate from and less real than our own world, are interrelated arguments that appear to me to be key to several of Holzman’s arguments. Holzman takes on mediation and motivation together and briefly in her critique of activity as an alternative to behavior as the subject matter of psychology, but how can we understand these arguments of Vygotsky’s if we do not focus on his concept of mediation?
If the conversation between this book and those within the academy could take place without Holzman’s arguments being “buttressed” — without these arguments being moved out of their home space, in which method of inquiry and practices that are the subject are inextricably intertwined — then a larger purpose of transforming academia itself might be furthered. Regardless of the author’s intentions, I do not see this book as outside of academia, or as simply appealing to two or more audiences, but as a potentially useful critique of academia. It is in this that I find the revolutionary spirit in Holzman’s work: here, I believe, she continues the essential, exciting, and barely-toddling work of questioning the exclusivity of the academy.
However, if this revolutionary work takes place only outside of the academy, then we are left without baby or bathwater. If productive dialogue is to be created between inside and outside, and between scholars who may be wary of claims concerning the ability to “do away with the need for paradigms” and Holzman and her collaborators, everyone will have to undergo a paradigm shift. Dwight Conquergood writes eloquently about similarly intentioned revolutionary work that is moving from inside and outside the academy simultaneously:
The performance studies project makes its most radical intervention, I believe, by embracing both written scholarship and creative work, papers and performances. We challenge the hegemony of the text best by reconfiguring texts and performances in horizontal , metonymic tension, not by replacing one hierarchy with another, the romance of performance for the authority of the text… Performance studies brings … into the academy, a commingling of analytical and artistic ways of knowing that un-settles the institutional organization of knowledge and disciplines. The constitutive liminality of performance studies lies in its capacity to bridge segregated and differently valued knowledges, drawing together legitimated as well as subjugated modes of inquiry. (2002, pp. 151-152)
Holzman concludes by reminding her readers that her goal throughout has been to practice psychology as a “cultural-performatory activity — a participatory process in which people exercise their collective power to create new environments, new social-emotional-intellectual growth, and new forms of social relational life.” (p.111) She stresses that this process itself is what is needed to “effect revolutionary developmental social change.” And she claims that to engage the paradox of experiencing what is social existence as a separate and individuated existence requires such performance. Academic scholarship is itself a form of performance. Therefore, it is possible that we could produce new environments, new social-emotional-intellectual growth, and new forms of social relational life in this arena that Holzman claims to have abandoned.
Conquergood, D. (2002). Performance studies: Interventions and radical research. The Drama Review, 46(2), 145-156.
Engestrom, Y. (1999). Activity theory and individual and social transformation. In. Y. Engestrom, R. Miettinen and R. Punamaki (Eds.), Perspectives on Activity Theory (pp. 19-38). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Imagination and its development in childhood. In R.W Rieber & A. S. Carton (Eds.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky, vol. 1, (pp. 339-350). New York: Plenum Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 42(1), 7-97.
The Daily Star
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Psychology in ordinary lives
Sardar M. Anwaruddin dwells on the many facets of a man
In her book Vygotsky at Work and Play, Lois Holzman brings the theories and insights of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, into the lives of ordinary people and their everyday activities. Vygotsky’s influence is enormous in the fields of psychology and education, but he seems to be too difficult for ordinary readers. Holzman does an excellent job in bringing him from academia into the field. In this book, her main purpose is to tell her own “story of bringing Vygotsky from the scientific laboratory to ordinary people and their communities.” Vygotsky at Work and Play can, therefore, be a great resource for teachers, psychologists, child development practitioners, and social workers.
Problem with scientific methodology: Holzman begins the book by referring to Vygotsky, who rejected dualistic divides in psychological conceptualization, and advocated a method of dialectics. Raising questions about contemporary scientific inquiry, he treated science as a cultural phenomenon open to scrutiny and radical transformation. He preferred to view science as a social-cultural-historical activity. Holzman informs us that “Vygotsky proposes a qualitatively different conception of methodnot a tool to be applied, but an activity (a ‘search’) that generates both tool and result at the same time and as continuous process.” Holzman calls this tool-and-result methodology to capture the dialectics of Vygotsky’s conception. This new conception is neither subjective nor objective, but definitely outside the dualistic box. This is a process of creating environments for development.
Vygotsky in therapy: Bothered by the cognitive-emotive divide, Holzman aims at creating a zone of emotional development. Referring to several studies she and her colleagues conducted, she concludes that “cognition… is a social and cultural achievement that occurs through a process of people collectively constructing environments in which to act on the world. It is located not in an individual’s head, but in the person-environment interface.” She discusses her techniques of social therapy which take a developmental approach, rather than a problem-solving one. In the social therapy, she organizes groupings of people collectively working together and creating the ‘emotional zone’ that is their new emotionality (their learning-leading- development). Bringing the psychological theories to everyday life, Holzman’s social therapy treats the group not its individual membersas the therapeutic unit.
In the classroom: Holzman’s thesis is “that education could be advanced if we consider the teacher as therapist.” Departing from the cognitive- emotive divide, she argues that most schools relate to emotion as a problem. Like Vygotsky, she criticizes the separation of intellect and effect, and argues that “schools function with an acquisitional learning model rather than a developmental one.” If schools are not developmental, what should we do? Her answer is to bring development into schools. In order to do so, she emphasizes the roles of play, but laments that “the official position on play is that it is irrelevant to school learning.” Holzman hopes for the unity of affect and cognition that is possible when children are learning to perform and performing to learn. In this regard, teachers should work as therapist and focus on “the entirety of a person’s makeup and not just his or her cognitive faculties.”
Outside of school: Holzman argues that schools hardly provide students with environments in which they can be creative on their own terms. Reporting on some outside-of-school programs, she emphasizes the importance of theatrical performance and play. Holzman elaborates “the Vygotskian claim that learning and development are fundamentally social activities.” She relates this to life outside of school by giving children and adolescents opportunities to do what they rarely can do in school. Performance, in this regard, can give expression to the unity of intellect and effect. At the workplace: Holzman uses a quote: “Relationships are more important than things,” and this seems to summarize her ideas. She explains how businesses prioritize collaborative learning strategies and the value of play more than schools do. Through her experience of working in professional development projects, she illustrates how participants engaged in creative imitation in what Vygotsky called the imaginative sphere. Holzman’s main argument is that “to the extent that business and organizations are structurally and functionally designed to relate to social units… and not to individuals, they are potentially developmental environments.”
Changing relationships: With some background information about the institute where she works and the kind of work it does, Holzman raises some questions about the inside academia versus outside academia debate. Responding to the critique that “only certain kinds of data produced under certain conditions count as legitimate,” she returns to her argument about the methodological problems. Holzman follows Vygotsky who, following Marx, recognized that “the object of psychology’s study was not the intra-psychic state of individuals as they are, but the social activity of producing their becoming.” She concludes the book with an optimistic view that we can change the world by working and playing together. Holzman is very successful in making Vygotsky accessible to the ordinary readers. And the book, written in easy-to-understand language, can be a great resource for those concerned with human development.
Sardar M. Anwaruddin is a Ph.D student at the University of Toronto in Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Review, British Journal of Educational Technology, 2010
Holzman, Lois (2009) Vygotsky at work and play Routledge (New York & London) ISBN 978-0-415- 42294-9 146 pp £29.95) http://www.routledge.com/0415422949
The influence of Lev Vygotsky’s thought, particularly in relation to social constructivism and socio- cultural theory, has become one of the most prominent methodologies associated with a reorientation of learning in the digital age. This book examines the development and impact of Vygotsky’s thought using an engaging first person narrative and personal account, and examines how it has been applied to a range of learning situations both inside and outside of traditional educational contexts. Although this is not a conventional academic introduction to Vygotsky’s thought then, key concepts such as the zone of proximal development (and the author’s idea of the zone of emotional development) are introduced, and Holzman skillfully interweaves theory and practice throughout the book’s six chapters.
These chapters focus on a wealth of intellectual and applied contexts that Vygotsky’s thought has influenced to date and has the potential to influence to a greater extent in the future. This includes its methodological beginnings and affiliations with Marxism (Chapter 1); applications in therapy (Chapter 2); implications in traditional classroom environments (Chapter 3); outside of school (Chapter 4); in the workplace (Chapter 5); and the final chapter that reflects on the Vygotsky-inspired approach at the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy in New York where the author works.
Running throughout the whole book is a reorientation towards “alternative and radically humanistic approaches” to the environments discussed in the book (psychology, therapeutics, pedagogy), in an attempt to provide a synthesis of academic theory with the lives of people in real community-based projects. Holzman’s view of Vygotsky’s socio- cultural activity theory is informed by Marx’s understanding of the social nature of human development—psychology is not therefore concerned with an individual’s “psychic state” but with the “social activity of producing their becoming” (p 107).
Vygotsky’s circumvention of the “cognition- emotion dualism” of western thought, the replacement of the problem-solving paradigm typically found in the western scientific worldview with the “tool-and-result method”, and the deconstruction of the institutional biases that support the notion that psychology is an academic science, have led Holzman to practice a Vygotskian psychology which she calls a “cultural-performatory activity”. The notion of performativity allied to learning pro- vides a particularly strong bond between the types of psychotherapy and education advocated and described across these chapters. Through short case studies and personal vignettes, Holzman shows how a curriculum provides not only “material to be learned, but also material for the creation of ongoing improvised performances” (p 66); in this way, learning is an active, interdisciplinary process that attempts to engage learners in a process rather than merely transmit content that cannot be changed or contribute to changing the learners themselves.
Consequently, the personal tone is rather refreshing for an academic book dealing with such a theoretical subject, and Holzman’s attempt to explore the “story of bringing Vygotsky from the scientific laboratory to ordinary people and their communities” (p xix) is in general successful. As a concise volume (only 115 pages excluding notes and references), it manages to avoid becoming a dry engagement with the subject matter, and, in discussing the wider significance of the Vygotskian approach to education and child development, the book should be of interest to academics from a range of interdisciplinary research areas.
Michael Thomas, Professor, Nagoya University of Commerce & Business, Japan email@example.com
Nomination for the Eleanor Maccoby Award given by the American Psychological Association submitted by an international team
- Ana Marjanovic-Shane Assistant Professor of Education Chestnut Hill College Philadelphia, PA
- Vesna Ognjenovic Director NGO Zdravo da ste/Hi Neighbour Programmes for social and cultural integration of children and youth Belgrade, Serbia
- Volker Bunzendahl Associate professor University College Nordjylland Aalborg, Denmark
- Lina Kostarova-Unkovska, Director Centar for Psychosocial and Crisis Action – Institute for Develoment of Youth Culture and Initiatives Skopje, Macedonia
- Bojana Skorc Professor of Psychology Faculty of Fine Arts University of Belgrade Belgrade, Serbia
- Leif Strandberg Psychologist and Writer Stockholm, Sweden
- Paul Murray Lecturer of Theatre and Applied Theatre, University of Winchester UK
We wish to nominate Lois Holzman’s book “Vygotsky at Work and Play”, 2009, for the 2010 Eleanor Maccoby Book Award. “Vygotsky at Work and Play” is a book about an approach to therapeutic and educational practices. Based on a cultural historical perspective of human development, this approach regards people as whole human beings — with the cognitive, emotional and social aspects of their beings deeply intertwined and inseparable. Moreover, this approach understands that individuals not only belong to social communities, but that their development is inseparable from the development of those communities and that the two are mutually constituting each other. The book describes two important aspects of this approach. First, it describes a theoretical perspective of human development that Holzman developed over the years based on her unique reading of the works of Vygotsky. Secondly, this theoretical approach also has grown through multiple programs and practices that Holzman developed or helped develop. These two aspects of the book are inseparable, forming a unique “tool-and- result” — a new concept that Holzman coined to describe a process of human becoming.
Although she claims that she only attempted to take Vygotsky “out of a scientific laboratory to ordinary people and their communities”, Holzman, in fact, moved some of Vygotsky’s concepts one step further and, in the process, developed her own perspective. In this short description, we wish to mention only a few of the concepts that are pivotal for Holzman’s approach to individual, group and cultural development. These are becoming, i.e. creating a “tool-and-result”; “creative imitation”; “performance as creating who you are by performing who you are not”, “social completion”; and “de-dualizing cognition and emotion”.
The concept of “tool-and-result” is deeply embedded in Holzman’s understanding of human development as becoming in which individuals and groups actively create both the environments and tools of their own development as well as their own development. Humans are transformers of totalities – not of isolated aspects or parts of their environments. Development, in Holzman’s understanding, “is the activity of creating who you are by performing who you are not.” Such activities are possible based on two complementary ways of interaction. On one hand, humans, especially young children, have a propensity for “creative imitation” and on the other hand the process of creating meaning and understanding is a process of social “completion” – a specific collaboration on creating meaningful, developmental events. The concept of “creative imitation, at first glance, contains a paradox. However, imitation is not and never can be a literal copy of someone else. The act of repetition itself, leads to transformations that are not immediately visible. A child learns by repeating the behavior of others, but in that repetition the behavior is reconstructed.
Creative imitation is an individual’s movement toward understanding the world by recreating it. However, the individual would not be able to create thought and feeling about the world, if there was no complementary movement from others to complete the newly constructed meaning. Completing other’s initial thoughts/feelings creates both understanding and builds the person by acknowledging her/his meaning making offers.Thus, completion and creative imitation together enable and create the zone of proximal development as a joint collective form of tool-and-result: the developmental environment and the development itself.
Holzman describes several projects and practices that she either initiated and/or helped develop, which were built upon these ideas and also helped develop them to their present form. Her theory and practice are inseparable. Holzman and her collaborators consistently carry out the Vygotskian principle that everyone can be a head taller than her/him-self. Because of that, their research is not done primarily or only to arrive at a scientific truth, but to build, to re-build and to keep building the society in which they live. The Social Therapy movement, the Barbara Taylor School, the All Stars Program and the Youth on Stage for urban youth, are all movements that are both developmental practices and the generators of the scientific truths that Holzman presents in “Vygotsky at Work and Play”.
A concept deeply embedded in Holzman’s book that we find the most revolutionary and provocative is her notion of a “shift away from paradigms of any kind”. This is a new and carefully crafted position of creating new “ways of seeing” synthesized with discovering new “ways of being”. This notion helps us overcome all paradigmatic constraints and biases that make it so difficult to give the right value to human development, wherever it happens and whatever form it takes.
Erasing dualities between thinking and emotions, between play and work, between thinking and acting is a distinctive mark of Holzman’s work. The book presents, to us, a series of examples of constant building of new tool-and-results and new developments, thus transforming what we know about education, about emotional well being and about work as a source of knowledge and prosperity. It also leads to creating new realities for and with children and adults. In these realities they can become more of who they are by creating themselves as individuals and as groups. For Holzman, a revolution becomes an activity of social re-construction. Reading her book, one realizes that a revolution without violence is possible.
A review from the August 2009 issue of The Psychologist
WATCH a clip of recorded comments on Vygotsky at Work and Play by Ana Marjanovic-Shane, Vygotskian researcher and past president of the AERA Special Interest Group on Cultural Historical Research.
READ the Foreword to the book by Kenneth Gergen.