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:

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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)

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

March, 2009

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.

READ a review from the August 2009 issue of The Psychologist.Bringing Academia to the field

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.

Some Words from Ana Marjanovic-Shane

READ the Foreword to the book by Kenneth Gergen.