A Different Vygotsky: New Book on Drama, Learning and the Work of Classrooms

There are many different Vygotskies. There is the Vygotsky whose theoretical speculations on the relationship between thinking and speech have sometimes become barely recognizable justifications for ‘group work’ in schools. There is the Vygotsky whose experiments with stroke patients, among others, paved the way for a new methodology in psychology. There is the Vygotsky associated with the Russian field of ‘defectology’; the Vygotsky introduced to English teachers in England by James Britton; the Vygotsky wrongly accredited with term ‘scaffolding’. And the Vygotsky whose work was selected, translated and assembled in an idiosyncratic order by American cognitive psychologists in the 1970s, four decades after the man himself had died. Oh, and the philosopher’s Vygotsky, the one spoken about in connection with Hegel and Kant and, more recently, Brandom and McDowell.

But what of the Vygotsky who was, first, a humanities scholar, closely involved in his local theatre? The same Vygotsky who studied Hamlet for his doctorate and who borrowed concepts from the great Russian director Stanislavsky? It falls to a fascinating new volume edited by Davis, Fertholt, Grainger Clemson, Jansson and Marjanovic-Shane – Dramatic Interaction in Education: Vygotskian and Sociocultural Approaches to Drama, Education and Research – to show the life-long importance of drama and theatre in Lev Vygotsky’s work. The book’s great achievement over its 14 chapters is to show how the early interest in theatre set the ground for Vygotsky’s major theoretical and empirical studies of human development. And then how, in his final years (although still a young man: he died at 37) he turned once again to the drama of development and the importance of creativity and play throughout life. And, just for the purposes of full disclosure, Hannah Grainger Clemson (one of the editors and authors) was a doctoral student of mine and did a fascinating study in this area.

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Vygotsky’s approach to human development is characterized by some particularly ‘dramatic’ dynamics. A key characteristic is the importance placed on social interaction and the ‘lending’ of consciousness between individuals in what he described as a ‘zone of proximal development’. ‘We become ourselves through others’ captures some of this dynamic between the inner self and the outer realm of shared experience. The role of artifacts in creating this dynamic is also key: a stick can prop open a door or it can become a horse or, for that matter, a light sabre. In other words, ‘things’ can have functional or symbolic meanings and symbolic meanings can open doors to new ideas and new ways of doing things. And in this process, imagination is central and exercised in the agentic engagement of people both with things and other people as they work together to solve problems or overcome crises. Thinking – cognitive activity, if you like – has a social and material basis for Vygotsky: it is a living and embodied performance that relies on people’s wants, needs and desires as motives. The drama of learning, then, is the drama of human development.

The book’s chapters are organized in four sections. The first takes a generally historical approach to Vygotsky’s life and influences, insofar as they show a relationship between the ‘problem of the actor’ and the problem of the learner’s work. A central concept is that of perezivhanie, a concept Vygotsky appropriated from Stanislavsky, meaning the frame of emotional experience through which we perceive our environments and their opportunities for our development. As with many chapters throughout the book, the contribution by Fertholt in this section draws on empirical research, in this case, an early childhood education setting. Section 2 consists of three chapters reporting on the transformative potential of classroom drama, particularly in connection to motivation and identity formation. The third section continues the emphasis on classroom studies of drama in education, across secondary education generally and with particular attention to second-language learning, multicultural classrooms and the use of new technologies. Section three is generally more successful than section two in integrating the Vygotskian theory with data analysis and Chapter 7 (by Ewing), in particular, offers a good example of how data can be used to illustrate and develop readers’ understandings of these theories. The final section includes two chapters by Jansson that bring together Vygotskian interests in the ‘drama of learning’ and development with the neo-Vygotskian, activity theoretical approach to intervention research in workplace settings, known as Developmental Work Research (DWR). Other chapters in this section (by Franks and Sawyer) draw on theories of multimodality and group creativity.

As an edited collection of 14 chapters, the editors have generally done a good job of building coherence across the whole book as well as within the four sections. This is particularly true of the first section and it is probably one of the reasons why it is so successful. There are one or two referencing issues that should have been picked up during production (missing or incomplete references, for example), especially for an academic book at this price. Personally, I would also have appreciated a final chapter (even if presented simply as an epilogue or ‘afterword’) that brought the whole book together and synthesized what the editors believed to be the key messages: how might we define specifically Vygotskian and sociocultural approaches to drama education and drama education research? These are small quibbles with what is an excellent book, however. It merits serious attention as a scholarly collection dedicated to revealing and explaining the Vygotsky for whom an early interest in theatre provided many of the concepts and underlying social dynamics of his later psychology, a psychology that – for all its limits – has become so influential in education.

A version of this post will appear as a review in Research in Drama Education this year.

 

Dramatic Interaction in Education: Vygotskian and Sociocultural Approaches to Drama, Education and Research

Edited by Susan Davis, Beth Fertholt, Hannah Grainger Clemson, Satu-Mari Jansson & Ana Marjanovic-Shame

London: Bloomsbury Academic; 290 pages

ISBN: 978 1-4725-7689-7