I recently tweeted about the successful outcome to a research funding application that will bring together a group of researchers to carry out an intervention study in the teacher education setting in Norway (a study we’re calling ‘LAB-Ted’). Here is some more information about the study, its background and the funding.
Reforms of teacher education in Norway from 2010 have emphasized the development of methodological competence for student teachers when working on research and development (R&D) assignments designed to improve their own practice. Subsequently, from autumn 2017, further reforms required all students undertaking upper primary/lower secondary teacher education to follow a Master’s degree programme culminating in a research-based thesis. Crucially, however, the research for this Master’s thesis had to be practice-based and professionally-oriented, developmental in intent and take as its starting point the formulation of a research problem connected to existing practice in the school setting. The overall aim was that teachers improve their teaching by developing deeper and more sophisticated R&D competence; by focusing on student teachers improving their methodological competence for the thesis, the expectation was that, eventually, higher methodological expectations would contribute to improved processes for developing teaching practices in schools on a continuous basis.
The aims of LAB-Ted
The overall aim of the project is two-fold: first, to develop collaboration between universities (teacher educators), schools (teachers and school leaders) and student teachers in order to build capacity for practice-based, professionally-oriented research in teacher education of the kind required by the 2017 reforms; second, to research these processes using an innovative methodology that will uncover obstacles and barriers to change that will be more widely useful across the system in Norway and, potentially, internationally. Overall, therefore, the project itself is conceptualized as R&D in the tradition of formative interventions (specifically, the variety known as Developmental Work Research [DWR] elaborated by the leading Finnish researcher Yrjӧ Engestrӧm, an advisor to the project). The professional context for the intervention will be teachers’ practices in five school subjects: English, social science, natural science, mathematics and physical education.
Additionally, LAB-Ted will seek to understand the distinct challenges in creating assessment criteria for Master’s level academic work that is practice-based and professionally-oriented, challenges often unaddressed even if frequently recognized in the development of Master’s-level teacher education systems globally. In developing such criteria, the project will also explore new potential new models of supervision towards the thesis. Further, LAB-Ted will seek to test and explore the specific methodology it deploys – DWR, informed by cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT). It is often claimed that DWR is uniquely well-equipped to stimulate and study change in practice settings through processes of historicisation and participant conscientisation and so the study will aim to understand the usefulness of a theory (CHAT) in stimulating change in practices in the contexts of educational reform.
Research team and funding
LAB-Ted is led by Rachel Jakhelln (University of Tromsø) along with Co-Principal Investigators May Britt Postholm (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) and Viv Ellis (King’s College London). LAB-TEd is funded by the Norwegian Research Council (FINNUT) to the value of 12 million NOK (£1.15 million) with additional funding of 5 million NOK from key stakeholders. The project will begin in August 2019 and continue for four years.
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.
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
In my previous post, I mentioned that I would be writing some stuff on here about cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT, for short) and specifically in connection with teacher education. I think it’s a particularly fertile field for exploration and the theoretical tool-kit that CHAT provides is rich with possibilities for both analysing the complex and political practice of teacher education and for doing something about the problems such an analysis can surface! And don’t just take my word for it: in the Education panel report from the last REF (Research Excellence Framework) audit in the UK (2014), CHAT-informed research into teacher ed was identified as one of a few successful areas of work in the field. And there has just been the first ever CHAT and Teacher Education winter/summer school for researchers in Melbourne (about more of which later).
In some respects, you’re on to a loser with CHAT, though. For a start, it is very theoretical (as theories are meant to be, I suppose); it has diagrams in it (‘ouch’, if you don’t like geometry particularly); it is derived from Vygotsky (‘yeuch’, we are supposed to say; ‘Vygotsky is so passé, irrelevant, stupid, etc etc’. If this is what you believe, this blog isn’t for you! Go and read blogs by the latest set of government lackeys. At least they might make you laugh. Before they fall out of the sky, their wings having melted ….
But if you’e interested in finding out a bit more about this approach and evaluating it for yourself, I am going to write 3 or 4 posts over the next couple of months with ‘CHAT blog’ in the title that are intended to be introductory to the theory and also try to show their relevance to the fields of teacher education, teacher development and professional learning.
In this post, below, I provide an extract from the introduction to Learning and Collective Creativity – a book I edited with Annalisa Sannino – that is now out in paperback. The section below is a sort of glossary of key terms that I wrote for the introduction and that passed muster with Annalisa (!) and a few more besides. Of course they are our interpretations of the terms and not ‘definitions’ per se. But if you are interested in finding out more about this theory, it might be a start. If you decide you want to quote any of these, please reference:
Sannino, A. & Ellis, V. (2013) ‘Activity-theoretical and sociocultural studies of learning and collective creativity: An introduction’, in Sannino, A. & Ellis, V. eds. Learning and Collective Creativity: Activity-theoretical and sociocultural studies, London & New York: Routledge.
But first, part of the problem, as I have seen it above. A triangle – a graphical representation of a human activity system.
The diagram is intended to show how some key concepts work together or against each other in order to explain how human activities (collective endeavours that have a cultural meaning in which individuals participate) evolve and change. Subjects are those individuals who are brought together to work on the same activity by potentially seeing and sharing the same object, an aspect of the social world that draws them in and motivates them (see below). Tools are the physical or symbolic resources those subjects/people to work on the object – or towards it. Their work together is governed by a division of labour – or the way in which the work is divided up and who gets to do which bit if it. Rules suggests that there are norms (which are value-laden) which influence how the members of the community (the collective of individual subjects) get their labour divided up. And if we substitute the straight lines of this triangle with double-headed arrows (something you will often see), that is to acknowledge that there are multi-level relationships between each of these concepts and they may be in contradiction.
Some of the key terms in depth, going back to Vygotsky and Leont’ev (an extract from Learning and Collective Creativity)
Zone of Proximal Development
The zone of proximal development is one of the most known concepts derived from Vygotsky’s work, usually referenced to the collection of papers published as Mind in Society in 1978 (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky defines the zone of proximal development as:
the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86)
From this definition, the distance between these levels is the “zone” or social space within which human development can be stimulated through collaboration. It was this distance that, for Vygotsky, constituted a more reliable and holistic assessment of the child’s development than the single measurement of an outcome. Vygotsky pointed out also that “with collaboration, direction, or some kind of help the child is always able to do more and solve more difficult tasks than he can independently” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 209). In these texts, Vygotsky’s interest was in development (rather than in the learning of specific skills or concepts) and in collaboration within collective, social situations (rather than prioritizing the influence of an expert or instructor). But whereas Vygotsky’s emphasis was on the development of the individual child in his or her social situation, more recent extensions of Vygotsky’s ideas (Engeström, 1987) have emphasized the development of the collective and the role of education in leading that development. These recent advances in sociocultural and activity theory have led to methodological innovations discussed in the chapters of this volume that demonstrate the potential of educational or formative interventions in collective activities through the creation of zones of proximal development.
A. N. Leont’ev, Vygotsky’s student and colleague, shifted analytic focus in studying human development from the individual to the collective. Leont’ev distinguished between the automatic operations of the individual subject, the individual’s or group’s goal-oriented actions, and the level of activity that was given cultural and historical meaning and significance by a shared object—its object-orientedness. Leont’ev’s interest was in human activity, and he was a major contributor to the Soviet line of activity theory, arguing that, as Stetsenko puts it, “human psychological processes . . . are object-related in opposition to conceptualizing them as a solipsistic mental realm” (Stetsenko, 2005, p. 75). For Leont’ev, the object of activity was actually its “object-motive,” and he explained it as follows:
The main thing which distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference in their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a predetermined direction. According to the terminology I have proposed, the object of the activity is its true motive. (Leont’ev, 1978, p. 62)
The importance of the object in activity theory derives from the interrelatedness of the two concepts, object and activity. Following Leont’ev, culturally or societally significant practices that have historically been undertaken by collectives and have a potentially shared object may be defined as activities. The object is both what engages and motivates the intentional participation of groups of people and what is fashioned and potentially transformed through their participation. As Kaptelinin points out, “the object of activity has a dual status; it is both a projection of the human mind onto the objective world and a projection of the world onto human mind” (Kaptelinin, 2005, p. 5). For researchers, as Kaptelinin also suggests, “the object of activity is a promising analytic tool providing the possibility of understanding not only what people are doing, but also why they are doing it” (Kaptelinin, 2005, p. 5).
This engagement of subjects by an object is what is referred to as object-orientation or object-relatedness. Object-orientation is a dialectical relationship through which both the subjects and the activity change. Davydov, Zinchenko, and Talyzina (1983) point out that “human activity is always directed towards the transformation of an object that is able to satisfy some specific need” (p. 32).
Expansive learning is essentially learning something that is not yet there. This goes beyond the acquisition of already well-established sets of knowledge and the participation in relatively stable practices. This is a creative type of learning in which learners join their forces to literally create something new. The metaphor of expansion depicts the multidirectional movement of learners constructing and implementing a new, wider, and more complex object for their activity. In expansive learning, the object of the activity is reconceptualized and transformed with the help of the mediating means employed and built throughout the process.
The theory of expansive learning is epistemologically grounded in the dialectics of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (Davydov, 1990; Il’enkov, 1977). At the beginning of a process of expansive learning, the object is only abstractly mastered as a partial entity, separated from the functionally interconnected system of the collective activity. By ascending to the concrete, an abstract object is progressively cultivated into concrete systemic manifestations and transformed into a material object that resonates with the needs of other human beings as well. These phases often require the subject to struggle and break out of previously acquired conceptions in conflict with new emerging ones (Sannino, 2010). This process opens up multiple possibilities for the learner to creatively experiment with new solutions and innovative ideas.
Expansive learning manifests itself in changes in the object of an activity. This can lead to qualitative transformations both at the level of individual actions and at the level of the collective activity and its broader context (Engeström & Sannino, 2010, p. 8). When human beings pursue and grasp the object of their activities, their long-term devoted engagement with the object can not only fulfill their lives, it can also have a significant societal impact.
From the perspective of activity theory, the prime unit of analysis is the activity system. The model of an activity system is a representation of the social and historical organization of the concept of “object-orientated, collective, and culturally-mediated human activity” (Engeström & Miettinen, 1999, p. 9). “Culturally-mediated” refers to the role of artifacts—semiotic and material—in the participating subjects’ joint work on the object of their activity. The basic components of an activity system, therefore, include the subject, the object, mediating artifacts, the rules of participation, the specific community, and the division of labor among participants (Engeström, 1987).
Modeling the activity system in interventionist efforts reveals the potential of the internal tensions and contradictions as motives for change and transformation. And, as participants are never in the subject position in only one activity system at any one time, their participation in multiple and intersecting activity systems increases the potential for generative contradictions to be experienced, surfaced, and examined both between and within activity systems. The relationship between multiple activity systems and their outcomes (and their multiple perspectives and voices) is presented as the foundation of what is known as the “third generation” of activity theory (Engeström, 1996).
Vygotsky’s search for new methodological instruments led him to elaborate what he referred to as the principle of double stimulation (Vygotsky, 1987, 1997c). His aim in undertaking this approach to experimental methods in psychology was to challenge the researcher to see psychological processes as dynamic and historical, “undertaking changes right before one’s eyes” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 61). Appropriating the language of behaviorism, Vygotsky described the researcher-set problem as the “stimulus-end” and the potentially helpful tools as the “stimulus-means” or “auxiliary means.” By studying the ways in which subjects appropriate these tools in their work on the problem—the object of their activity—Vygotsky argued that it was possible to reveal the ways in which those subjects made sense of the worlds they were acting in:
We simultaneously offer a second series of stimuli that have a special function. In this way, we are able to study the process of accomplishing a task by aid of the specific auxiliary means: Thus we are able to discover the inner structure and development of higher mental processes. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 74)
In recent activity-theoretical research, double stimulation is at the core of intervention methods such as the Change Laboratories (Engeström, 2007; Sannino, 2011). In a Change Laboratory intervention, the “auxiliary means” is often a model of the activity system, represented diagrammatically and used with participants in a joint analysis of data generated from the current practices.
In an activity-theoretical analysis of change, the concept of contradiction is of great importance. Although sometimes sociocultural and other analyses refer to “tensions” much more loosely, contradictions in activity-theoretical terms are not only personally experienced, ontological dilemmas but also systemic and structural constraints that need to be overcome and broken away from in order for human agency to be exercised and new forms of activity to emerge. The importance of contradiction as a concept reveals the influence of Marxian historical analysis in the elaboration of activity theory. Vygotsky’s analysis of human development draws on Marx’s (e.g., Marx & Engels, 1964) dialectical materialism and understanding of historical change as the sublation of simultaneously ideal and material oppositions by a synthesis that both supersedes and contains them.
Engeström’s theory of expansive learning (1987) poses contradictions as the generators of change in the development of activity systems. Historically new forms of activity emerge when internal contradictions within the activity system are resolved. Participants in activity systems, upon recognizing the constraints of their situation (sometimes expressed as a “double-bind” or a situation characterized by conflicting demands), appropriate available cultural tools in order to break away from that situation and to transform it. Engeström (1987) identified four types of contradictions within activity systems beginning with the primary contradiction (under capitalist conditions) between use value and exchange value, most importantly with reference to the shared object. Secondary contradictions emerge between components of the activity system. Tertiary contradictions arise from the introduction of qualitatively new forms of the activity that are resisted by deep-seated old dynamics in the system. And quaternary contradictions emerge between interacting activity systems that need to reorganize their relations.
The Russian philosopher Il’enkov noted that historically new modes of action and production, “before becoming generally accepted and recognized, first emerge[s] as a certain deviation from previously accepted and codified norms” (Il’enkov, 1982, pp. 83–84). Such historically new forms of activity across various social worlds, emerging as Il’enkov suggested out of contradictions, as exceptions from the rule, may be regarded as history-making creative endeavors.
In the next post, I’ll focus more on the methodology of CHAT and link it to a specific project and publication that will be available to download. And if you would like a reference list for the citations in the text above, well ……
Teacher rounds, education rounds, instructional rounds – whichever variety you choose, the word ’rounds’ points to an origin in medical education. Senior and more expert doctors gather together a group of less experienced and expert doctors around a particular case – a patient. The purpose of the round (or ward round) is to lead the development of a collective understanding of the case, to form a shared diagnosis and to design a treatment plan (an intervention). Rounds in medical education have somewhat fallen out of favour but the concept of a ’round’ in school education has started to take hold in various forms.
Instructional rounds are associated with school improvement and school effectiveness. Associated with an approach to network- or system-wide improvement developed at Harvard University (City et al 2009), the impetus for improvement is driven by school or district management and the aim is a development in some aspect of professional practice across the network.
Teacher rounds were developed by Tom del Prete at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Himself a graduate of the Harvard School of Education, del Prete has made the model more bottom-up, teacher-driven and focused on self-directed collaborative learning (del Prete 2013). Del Prete has pioneered the use of rounds in pre-service or initial teacher education at Clark and in the Worceseter public (i.e. state) schools.
Colleagues at Teachers College in New York and elsewhere and a small team of us at Brunel are exploring the use of rounds and we, at Brunel, have been theorising it using CHAT. ‘Formative interventions and practice-development: A methodological perspective on teacher rounds’ has just been published by the International Journal of Educational Research (on an open access basis so free for anyone to download). In fact, it is available to download in the Articles section of this website. The authors are Cathy Gower, Kenny Frederick, Ann Childs and myself.
Our article explores this tradition of formative intervention in connection with teacher rounds and asks three methodological issues about all types of formative intervention:
What is the role of theory?
What is the relationship between the individual and the collective when developing practice (which is, by definition, collective)?
What is the meaning of collaboration in this type of intervention focused on the development of practice?
Enjoy! Or hate! Let us know.
City, E., Elmore, R., Fiarman, S. & Teitel, L. (2009) Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
del Prete, T. (2013) Teacher Rounds: A Guide to Collaborative Learning in and from Practice. San Francisco: Corwin Press.
Brand New Ancients – I think now approaching the end of its tour – is a very unusual, ambitious and startling piece. Kate Tempest has put together a long, performed poem, set to music, partly social commentary and satire but with a narrative arc that aspires to epic. Having seen it – and thoroughly enjoyed it – I feel I now need to read it (it was published by Picador last year). Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Poetry Award in 2013.
The overwhelming power of Brand New Ancients comes from its call not to lose our histories and not to settle for the present. We are at risk of forgetting our myths, says Tempest, not in the sense of grand narratives, as such, but in the sense of losing grand patterns in ordinary narratives. We are making the mistake of believing that ‘the present is all that there is’. The story of the poem concerns two families, the friendship between two boys as they grow up in south-east London, where Tempest herself grew up. The families and friendship have quirks and twists and, at times, there were echoes of Achilles and Patroclus (but that might have just been me). We hear them talk; Tempest has a good ear for dialogue; there are some shocks; plenty of jokes, some nicely filthy. There are other characters and other rhythms. And then at times, we hear a chorus-like voice, more Tempest-as-poet or storyteller but also commenting on the action and urging us to see, in the small details, the mini-triumphs and little tragedies, the underlying dignity and ordinary heroism of the human species. It was, as I said, an extraordinary and ambitious project quite unlike anything I have seen. Sometimes Tempest is referred to as a performance poet (rather like John Hegley or Attila the Stockbroker); Brand New Ancients is in an entirely different genre. Perhaps it creates one.
It’s also a tour-de-force by Tempest herself. She not only delivers a strong, passionately performed reading of her text but manages to subvert the performer-audience barrier at several points in the show. Whether or not she is actually comfortable on stage, she certainly gives the impression she is and manages to combine intimate, apparently improvised conversation with the audience with the epic storytelling of everyday heroics underscored by violin, cello, tuba (yes tuba, wonderfully played) and drums. The extract below is so worth your while clicking on.
Brand New Ancients is brilliant and I am sure it will live its own life beyond Tempest’s performance. Kate Tempest has huge amount to offer poetry in the years ahead – not in the trivial sense of ‘making poetry cool’ or appropriately regionally accented but in coming up with new genres and forms of poetry that fuse classical and contemporary modes and speak to a wide audience. Brand new and ancient, indeed.
This post arises from some thinking I’ve been doing for the ‘Uses of Poetry’ AHRC project. It will be greatly enhanced by my colleague Dr Karen Simecek who will be incorporating complimentary ideas from philosophy and aesthetics. But this is where I have started….
In a project titled ‘The Uses of Poetry’, it is probably a good idea to have a working definition of what we mean by ‘poetry’. That doesn’t mean we need to have to pin it down precisely because one of the outcomes of the project and our exploratory attempts at measurement of poetry’s ‘effects’ may be to come up with a better idea of what we mean. Nonetheless, it might be useful to have some provisional definition or categorization to inform our activities and to make explicit understandings that have so far remained tacit. It is possible that discussion over such an attempt at definition may have a positive impact on what we are planning and may also take us off in some surprising new directions. Or not. Either way, it’s probably worth doing.
‘Poetry is whatever you think it is’?
One perspective that has been informing our project’s discussions is derived from ecological psychology and the work of James Gibson (1966). Gibson used the word ‘affordances’ to suggest that the meaning-making potential of any artifact arises in the interaction between human subject and that artifact. Affordances are a matter of perception. Both ‘perception’ and ‘interaction’ are important in this account of meaning-making in that artifacts are not held to have intrinsic, universal or transcendent meanings that can be uniformly decoded. The artifact itself is a product of a specific cultural system that has evolved historically; the artifact is also perceived by an individual who, in turn, is embedded in a particular sociocultural context, at a particular point in time.
Such a view of meaning-making allows for the affordances of the particular artifact to change within the lifecycle of the individual perceiver as well as over longer historical cycles. Understanding particular kinds of texts as having certain affordances (or as having greater affordances than other kinds of texts) allows us to make some categorisations that are based on their potential for certain kinds of meaning-making (the uses of poetry) rather than based on a text’s correspondence to any list of formal features or generic characteristics.
It is important to note that such an approach to categorizing poetry is not inevitably a relativistic one. Although there are no absolute rules that would allow for the historically unqualified determination of a text as ‘poetry’, the perception and evaluation of that text by language-users would inevitably draw on culturally and historically contingent criteria in the same way that is true of perception in the visual arts. So, words spoken by a US Secretary of State for Defense (Donald Rumsfeld) in a press conference six months after the September 11th attack on New York in 2001 were seen to have some poetic affordances at the time even if their affordances in the longer-term have diminished. We don’t regard Rumsfeld as a poet and the utterance is now seen more as a realistic comment on the limitations of intelligence gathering:
there are known knowns;
there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns;
that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
Such a view of the properties, potential or affordances of particular kinds of language-use can also be informed by a more broadly cultural psychology of the kind elaborated by Michael Cole (1996), by training a cognitive anthropologist of literacy. From this perspective, a poem would be regarded as a cultural artifact of a symbolic kind that is used to mediate the individual perceiver-subject’s activity in the social world. Again, the artifact does not have intrinsic meaning in and of itself but becomes the site for meaning-making as the person uses/reads/writes the poem in the process of acting on the world. The object or goal of the subject’s activity is a driving factor from this perspective – why is the artifact being used and for what ends? Used for the purposes of stimulating recall of food items during a visit to the supermarket, a poem is probably not as useful as a short list. But a poem would probably hit the spot more effectively if directed at a lover on Valentine’s day than a short list of the lover’s notable features. Again, the affordances of the text are related to the ways in which that text is perceived and used. The cultural psychological perspective also helps to understand the relationship between individual perception and the more public phenomenon of meaning-making – the semiotic heritage that enables individuals in similar cultural-historical contexts to share meanings. Seeing a poem as a mediating (between the person and an aspect of the world they seek to work on) artifact rather than an exhibit in the ‘canon of literature’ is a profoundly different understanding of the uses of poetry in any setting whether educational, therapeutic or literary. None of which is to say that meaning is determined by the single interaction of perceiver and artifact but that the affordances for meaning-making evolve historically as the perceiver-subject develops and as the collective, social evaluation of the artifact-in-use develops too.
Poetry as a mode of language use
Although we might say that anything that is recognized as poetry (on the basis of its meaning-making potential) is probably poetry, it is also worthwhile to try to account for differences in the language of texts recognized as poetry from language in other types of texts that usually are not. To address this question, the work of Britton (1972, 1982, etc.) is useful.
James Britton worked at the University of London Institute of Education and then Goldsmiths’ College until the early 1980s. He was writing about poetry and the teaching of poetry from as early as the 1950s but his later work became informed by various empirical projects (such as the study of the development of children’s writing abilities) as well as by long-standing philosophical interests (Langer, Polanyi, Rorty, etc.) and by the arrival, in 1962, of the first English translation of Russian psychologist Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. Vygotsky offered Britton a theory of mind itself derived from the empirical study of human development as well as the study of philosophy and literature. And Vygotsky was also to influence the work of Cole and his form of cultural psychology mentioned earlier. But Britton’s interests and resources were wider and more eclectic while at the same time being interested in improving educational practice.
The first distinction Britton made was between literary and non-literary discourse and in doing so he drew on linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson and semiotician Thomas Seboek. From Jakobson, Britton drew the different functions of language in speech situations and writing: expressive (or emotive); referential; poetic; phatic; metalingual; conative (related to action). The poetic function in this taxonomy was equivalent to ‘verbal arts’ and Britton followed Jakobson in insisting that one could only talk about or categorize on the basis of ‘dominant function’; all utterances and texts are informed by and characterized by structures from other functions. From Sebeok in particular, Britton took the position that the poetic function of language went wider than that deemed to be poetry:
Any attempt to reduce the sphere of poetic function to poetry or to confine poetry to poetic function would be a delusive over-simplification. Poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant, determining function, whereas in all other verbal activities it acts as a subsidiary, accessory constituent (Sebeok 1960; cited in Britton 1982, p. 62)
So how can we understand the ‘poetic function’ of language?
One of Britton’s earliest distinctions was between language in the spectator role and language in the participant role (1963). Participant role was characterized by language intended to recount or describe an event or past experience in order to get the listener/reader to do something or to change their opinion. Spectator role was characterized by language intended purely to interest or excite the listener/reader, re-presenting events or past experiences in language for their own sake. Britton argued that spectator role was not only confined to self-consciously literary discourse but also featured in non-literary discourse such as anecdote. At the time of making this distinction, Britton cited Suzanne Langer’s work on symbolization but he later found (retrospective) support in the work of British psychologist D.W. Harding (1937) who had already distinguished between the onlooker role and the participant role. Harding prompted Britton to consider the role of attention and evaluation in the listener/reader’s perception of language-in-use.
Britton related the spectator role to the findings of the empirical study he made of children’s writing. Examination of the writing samples produced three main categories: transactional (getting things done, in the participant role); expressive (articulation of emotion and first-hand experience, where the participant and spectator roles are mixed); and poetic (where, to use his formulation, we are ‘making something with language rather than doing something with it’; it was poetic discourse that met the demands of the spectator role).
The intention of making something with language suggested to Britton that the use of language would become more ‘organised’, more crafted to be complex (at a symbolic level) and it was from this interest in the organization of language that he came to the stylistics of Henry Widdowson (1975). Widdowson identified three organizational patterns at work in texts that set out to be literary: phonological (e.g. metre and rhyme); syntactic (e.g. parallel structures); and ‘patterns formed by semantic links between individual lexical items’ (e.g. puns). Britton, after Widdowson, suggested that the patterning created in self-consciously poetic language use (patterning of sound, syntax and meaning) went ‘over and above’ the everyday pattern of communication. Use of the systems of patterning drew attention to the language as a kind of invitation to take up the spectator role. Britton suggested (perhaps playfully) that poetry could therefore be considered ‘deviant discourse’ in that it drew attention, stylistically, to how it differs from non-literary discourse. Its deviancy, for Britton, was that poetry draws attention to how it works as communication and ‘drawing-attention-to-itself’ was a characteristic of language in the poetic mode.
Again, Britton comes back to Langer (1967) and her distinction between discursive and presentational symbolism, between a ‘message encoded in a symbol system’ and a message encoded in a unique complex symbol’ (p. 65) to illustrate the different ways in which language is used in the poetic function, the ‘deviant’ display of the symbol system as symbol; the self-conscious patterning to draw attention to its difference from everyday discourse as well as encoding meaning.
Patterning and meaning
The relationship between organizational patterning in language and the meaning-making affordances of a text can be illustrated by the quotation from Donald Rumsfeld’s press conference provided above. In the original transcript on the US Department of Defense website, the utterance is presented in continuous prose; a lengthy and somewhat tortuous answer to a journalist’s question. In making the quotation, I selected a stretch of the utterance and then edited it by changing the layout – creating separate lines and varying the length of lines in order to emphasise the three assertions (known knowns; known unknowns; and unknown unknowns) and the repetition of key words to create assonance and consonance and some sense of internal rhyme. As I did so, I also recalled, probably unconsciously at first, my own reading of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, in particular, and its ethos of existential questioning. Overall, the aim was to focus attention on the use of language – to invite the reader to take up the spectator role. My attempt was self-conscious and related to my aim of helping to contribute to our definition of poetry – or categorization of poetic functions of language – in our project.
But as poetry, the Rumsfeld quotation probably has limited affordances. Not only is it still strongly tied to another context and another mode of language use (press conferences, political justification) but it makes quite a limited and instrumental distinction between categories of knowledge, albeit in a repetitive way. The short stretch of Rumsfeld’s utterance doesn’t have much potential for meaning-making outside of a very specific set of circumstances. To use Langer’s formulation, it is a message encoded in a symbol system but it is not encoded as a unique complex symbol. None of which is to say that it is not poetic at all; like many utterances it has characteristics of the poetic function but I would argue that the poetic function does not dominate.
There are many examples of the poetic function in everyday utterances wider than poetry per se. Football songs and some stand-up comedy use language characteristic of the poetic function. Carol Fox (1993), in her landmark study of young children’s oral storytelling, argued that the poetic (metaphoric) was a major part of their language right from the start and, in doing so, she argued with Halliday (1973) who did not assign much importance to the poetic function in the process of developing adult language. Fox’s study raises the very important question as to why children seem to have such a strong need for the poetic right from the start, at the inception of language itself. Her argument, somewhat similar to Langer’s, was that the poetic function, rather than being the icing on the cake, is the cake itself. The poetic function of language meets the human need to symbolize.
The two perspectives discussed here can help us develop a working definition of poetry in ‘The Uses of Poetry’ project although they are clearly not the whole story. What they can help us to capture are the uses of speech and writing regarded as poetic; Gibson’s, Cole’s and Britton’s work encourage us to move away from an understanding of the poetic as a transcendental category of language and they can liberate us (if we need liberating) from a view of poetry as a cultural judgment passed down from on high. Instead, they can help us focus on the potential or the affordances of a text for meaning-making and on the relationship between meaning-making and the self-conscious organizational patterning of language. At the heart of this relationship is the role the reader/listener is invited to take up in perceiving and apprehending the poem as a cultural artifact – the spectator role. The deviance of poetic discourse derives from its self-conscious drawing-attention-to-itself in the course of communicating. The poetic function of language is ubiquitous in human communication but the category of language-use we describe as poetry is defined by its self-conscious effort to draw attention (through sound, syntax and patterns of meaning) to its symbolic nature.
Britton, J.N. (1963) The Arts and Current Tendencies in Education, London: Evans
Britton, J.N. (1982) Spectator role and the beginnings of writing. In Prospect and Retrospect: Selected Essays of James Britton, edited by G.M. Pradl, London: Heineman
Cole, M. (1996) Cultural Psychology: the Once and Future Discipline, Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.
Fox, C. (1993) At the Very Edge of the Forest: The Influence of Literature on Storytelling by Children, London: Cassell
Gibson, J.J. (1966) The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, Boston, Ma: Houghton Mifflin
Halliday, M.A.K. (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language, London: Edward Arnold
Harding, D.W. (1937) The Role of the Onlooker, Scrutiny 6: 247 – 258
Langer, S.K. (1967) Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Baltimore, Md: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Sebeok, T. (1960) Style in Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Vygotsky, L.S. (1962) Thought and Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Widdowson, H.G. (1975) Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature, London: Longman
My chapter in Gordon Wells and Anne Edward’s book Pedagogy in Higher Education: A Cultural-Historical Approach (Cambridge University Press) is now available in the Chapters section. The book was published recently in the CUP Psychology list.
In the chapter, I make an argument for the importance of teacher education within what are often known as ‘public universities’, that is, those with a public mission to educate, conduct research and contribute to a democratic society. (Sometimes they are distinguished from private colleges and research institutes but the main criterion, for me, is their public function and their role in advancing an open society). The book as a whole is written from a cultural-historical perspective but in my chapter I try to integrate work in critical sociology with activity theory and draw on the work of Michael Burawoy and Yrjö Engeström as well as recent arguments about higher education and public universities from the likes of John Holmwood, Stefan Collini and Amy Gutmann.
Other contributors to the book include Michael Cole, Honorine Nocon, David Russell and Monica Nilsson.