Performing Vygotsky: Changing the ”Language-Games” of schools, organizations and institutions1

What is the difference between the verbs to behave, to act and to perform, and how can we change schools (and other institutions) in a way, that kids and adults, teachers, pupils and even parents can “perform a school” which makes it possible for not only the younger ones to learn from working with elders, but also the elders to learn from working with youngsters aswell (while the institution and society, as a whole, develops)? That’s the main question of my paper, and the purpose of my short symposium is, to give you an impression of how I see my work connected with Vygotsky.

Performing “a head taller than you are”, thereby becoming a person, a group, an institution in “evolution”, that is what I want us to look more closely at. Performing, as I see it, is a transformation of acting, and I wonder, if the genesis, from ‘to behave’ over ‘to act’ to ‘to perform’, has more than just similarities with the genesis of words in to thoughts, and thoughts completed in words.

My thoughts about this are just the beginning and I hope by showing you examples from within praxis, which will show people and institutions “performing in Zones of proximal development”, I will be able to start an ongoing dialogue about performing and its relations to acting and behaving. The examples from praxis are from my work with schools and social institutions (psychiatry), and hopefully I am able to paint a somehow clear picture with them, showing how and why Vygotskys thoughts are so essential to our work.

Building the scene

Five teachers (not in the role as teachers) are sitting in a restaurant, when one of them says: “Isn’t it fascinating. We are sitting here, eating a good dinner, and when I look around, I see, astonishingly, that the play of carnival, the performance of a restaurant is something, where the kids and not us, the teachers are in control of the situation.” “Yes, you are right”, another at the table answers, ”they are able to do much more on their own, in the middle of this chaotic three days of carnival, then I believed they would be able to.”

This is a scene from a project, where I2 tried to experiment with the creation of a method, which in many ways (cognitively, emotionally, socially) should make it possible to change an organization with the ambition that it will assist the institution and its members to grow and develop, and the organization to be prepared to meet the complex demands and possibilities of the future. The theory behind the method is inspired by post-modern readings of Vygotsky (1978, 2002, and 2004) and Wittgenstein (1961) (and many others3) and by experiences of collaborative- and joint-activities with researchers and practitioners at conferences and workshops taking place in different parts of the world (USA, Serbia, Bosnia, Denmark).

What I mean by post-modern, in contrast to more modern and late-modern readings of psychological texts and of interpreting the world and the things we work with, I have written more elaborately on in Bunzendahl (2002, 2004, 2006). Here though I will give a short explanation of what I mean by that. With the word “modern” I point at these theories, which believe in a positivistic program, which is to create a science that can be positive about the rules, data and laws it tries to pronounce as the right answers. Behaviorism is a good example for this kind of view, and today, though behaviorism as theory is dead, their approach to find or better strive for the right answers is part of the repertoire of many modern forms of psychotherapy and other forms for psychological practice (like cognitive therapies, see here Gergen, 1994, chapter 1). Modern voices in the house of psychology are in my picture the ones who want to be Scientists, in the American way of understanding this word (Science in opposition to cultural studies and philosophy).

Late modern voices are the ones, who see themselves in opposition to the ones just mentioned. The humanistic and existentialistic approaches, systemic family therapies, the Palo Alto group and many more, all see their views as a new and better answer to the questions, the positivistic approaches, from this viewpoint, respond in a way, which does not really help people in their more subjective matters of life. For late modern approaches it is important that the clients get help in understanding their own feelings and thoughts, their own meaning of life, and not, on the base of the proof of the right data, to receive the “right” treatment. The teacher, psychologist or educator tries, in this view, to establish a dialogical situation where the other, the client or pupil, finds his own ways to express what, deep inside the person, has to come into the light, or out of the shadow, as Jung would call it.

The strength of these late modern views are that they, in my opinion, view people in a more phenomenological, in a more subjective way, that is they view a person as someone we, as professionals, can help nearer to the right answers, which in one or another way are the persons (and/or all human beings) inner truth/essence. This focus on truth/essence as something “inside the person” is the point, where I and many postmodernists (see Gergen, 1994, Newman & Holzman, 1996, Parker, 1999) have trouble following the views, as the truth about the self, the individual is not (only) something which is inside the particle, here one person, it gets shaped in the social situations, together with other people and cultural signs, - signs which transmit the socio-cultural history into the situations.

I tell my students to learn about both views, or “language-games”, which I like to call these two ways of practicing psychology and research. The strength of the first one is the correctness, that what they dare to inform about a method, a way of learning, is, when they talk about it, proof, at least in their language-game of practicing research. When Skinner tells us that reinforcing is a way, animals and human beings, and even plants, learn, than we have good reason to take such words seriously. And when humanists are able to create a situation, where the client feels secure, unconditionally supported, listened to, I believe they are telling the phenomenological truth, at least seen as true in the stories of their language-games.

What I say here is a simplification of the complex relations between the theories mentioned, their practice in the laboratory or in the field. Vygotsky was in his book, Sprechen und Denken (speaking and thinking) (Vygotsky, 2002), very clear that, while we try to create a new way of, or new method of psychology, we have to avoid these games of dividing theories, approaches and people into dichotomized categories like winner-looser, scientific friends or enemies, dead or alive theories. Dahinter verbirgt sich nicht das Absterben, sondern die Geburt von einer neuen Form … (ibid., p. 421) (Behind this hides not a process of dying, it is the birth of a new form …; my translation)

Vygotsky showed us that, before we criticize, we must try to find what is suitable in the theories we wish to deconstruct. Deconstructing means not to eliminate, it means to complete what elder stories started to look at and to do research on. Therefore I see my way of trying to build a method in the line, Vygotsky showed us, which for us is to build on and with what others before us tried to establish. In this way Vygotsky (ibid., p. 399) did not eliminate what Pavlov, Piaget, Watson and Köhler had build, he, in contrast to elimination, completed their work, or tried the road to completion, this road, as I imagine, which is the path we all are able to march on, today, and even in the days to follow.

So, between on the one hand, modern theories, which prefer the laws of positivism, materialism and empirics, and on the other hand the late-modern theories, which take a phenomenological, idealistic and rationalistic position, I see a lot of diverse voices in and around psychology, that are critical as to what psychology has given to concrete people in their actual life circumstances (see here Gergen 1994, 1999, Newman & Holzman, 1996, 1997), while others in the language-games of academia try, from a critical realistic position, to establish a cultural historical division inside mainstream psychology (see here Cole, 1996, Bertelsen, 2000).

These two roads do have their inspiration by Vygotsky in common, though they do not agree about the realist/relativist and other important questions. While the first ones, the postmodern Vygotsky practitioners in many ways have turned away from mainstream psychology, though they are still in dialogue, the later ones try to create a place, inside mainstream psychology, with an attempt to continue on the project of scientific psychology, though now with a historical dialectical materialistic approach.

I don’t know what Vygotsky would say to a decision of saying yes or no to the project of establishing a whole new psychology we can be proud of, if he would be asked to do that outside or inside the walls of academia. Society nowadays is not the unity of people and state that Vygotsky, with inspiration by Marx, Lenin and Engels, dreamt of, and therefore it is hard to say which way Vygotsky would have preferred. For me, both paths seem to be fruitful, as I at times read a lot of academic stuff to keep myself “online” in the theoretical mode, and at other times create the here and now situation together with people, the social situation of learning, of performing, of meeting the others and my own zones of proximal development on the basis of “street-knowledge”.

In an article (Bunzendahl, 2004) on why I choose a post-modern stance, while at the same time I feel deep respect to the more skeptical academics, I wrote the following about why I am so inspired by the post-modern activists, I have met around the world4.

Postmodern voices in psychology: they are like Rap-music and hip hop, a sub cultural movement, which takes the responsibility on their shoulders that the creation of today and tomorrow is something we have to do together, with other people, our friends, brothers and sisters, in our neighborhood, and not only metaphorically speaking all over the world (McNamee & Gergen, 1999).

Postmodern voices say to me, as a psychologist: Stop lying and stop pretending that we, psychologists know how to give emotional wellness to all people around the globe. We have to be honest, we have to travel to “the end of knowing” (Newman & Holzman, 1997), we have to have a “not knowing attitude, a philosophical stance” (Anderson, 1997) while meeting people we want to help; we have to build “joint-activity” (Shotter, 2000) and “new forms of life – new language games” (Wittgenstein, 1948).

Postmodern voices open the ears of psychology for other voices than empirical and scientific data; it opens the eyes of psychology for art, music and other human signs, which shape our consciousness, our world and us.

So, I try to practice a non-dogmatic Marxism, a post-modern way of approaching Vygotsky (and Lewin, G.H. Mead, Bateson, Dewey) and Wittgenstein, where my goal is to help societal institutions and individuals to grow and develop, in times where the world, in many ways, is out of order (see here Baumann, 2002, 2004, 2005).

With this short theoretical excurse I hope I have prepared the reader to follow me to the more practical side of this paper. In the following I will try, though shortly, to describe how “my” school-changing-method, balances the modern/late-modern demands the school as societal institutions has to face, and through the “carnival” (the name of my/our project) to give this organization, as a whole, the possibility to do something new, something which is not either positivistic or phenomenological, but something which contains both and even more, which is the experience that the creation of something new is something you, as an individual, as a group and as a school have influence on.

The school project: “Carnival”

Grotesque realism (Bahktin 2001), which is the Meta Theory5 behind the carnival-method, is a contradicting term, which I here use to capture what our method in some ways is about. We wanted to invite, here a school, to a three days period6, where all that normally makes up a school (classes, lessons, teachers, pupils), was set on “stand by”, that is three days where the rules of carnival defined the roles you had, the functions and positions in the “play of the performing of a school” were new, and changed several times during the three days of carnival.

The idea was to give the school and its members a taste of (and hopefully an appetite for more): “a pedagogy whose aim is the holistic development of the child … which requires the restructuring of the whole life of adults and children. To use the terminology of Lev Vygotsky, what is required is the entire “situation of development” be changed “(Kravtsova & Kravtsov, 1996, here from: Holzman, L., 1997:84).

The kids and the teachers, assistants and others working in the school were in the three days of carnival asked: to use a new name; not to play the role they normally have at school (teacher, pupil, assistant,…); to be together in one of 12 groups with randomly ordered “strange” people in different ages; to perform within this new group on stage after 2½ hours; to create plays for the social institutions in the neighborhood of the school (gymnasium, kindergarten, City Hall, …); to “perform a restaurant” which prepares food for 350 potential customers; to establish connections to and be in dialogue with schools and young people in Argentina and Macedonia; and much more.

The purpose was to lead the organization and its members through a process, which dissolved all hierarchies, all structures and all beforehand given meaning, and instead to create a situation, where all participants had possibilities, in a common-joint-process, to look at oneself, to look at the organization’s “inner dynamics” and it’s relations to the local culture. The vision which, in my view, became true, is that the participants enjoyed and used the three days, as they created their own individual roles inside the play (carnival) while they observed all other participants creating their own roles, simultaneously in the ongoing play of the carnival, where all 12 groups’ interconnections were part of the process of being and becoming. Teachers were glad to experience themselves and “their” pupils in a, for them, new way, where the participants “saw” potentials they had not been able to see before.

Three days of carnival made it possible to change the school, its inner and outer relations, in a way which is more than just different from “normal”. The participants were “performing”, which for me means that you have to be aware of your own role and position, other’s roles and positions, and the whole (the play: carnival; the school) in one and the same time, while you are able to be in the moment (see Stern, 2004) you are in. It is a training of “reflecting on acting” (see Schön, 1980), which means, that you are able to see the performance of your behavior and acts in relation to the meaning of the situation you are in. Normally the structure of the school, the classes and lessons, helps you to behave and act in ways, which are appropriate to the demands of the situation. While you are in the play of carnival, these structures are removed; therefore you have to use your new ways of behaving, acting and performing, in companionships with others, as the tools which can help you to recreate meaning.

We had been in dialogue with all 350 participants for a one half year of preliminary activity to the carnival, and therefore we were able to create the carnival with the ideas that the participants themselves had wished to be included in the play. From the first minute of the carnival, where the participants passed through a symbolic portal and were given nametags with their “new” names on, we asked the participants to “perform”, simultaneously as individuals, as groups and in relation to the whole group of players as auditorium, for groups performing on stage.

As an initial performance we asked all 12 groups to perform a simple play, I learned from “Zdravo da ste”, a NGO group in Bosnia and Serbia, who shaped this exercise in their work with refuges and schools. Only 2½ hours into the carnival each group had created a collective picture made up of each group member’s individual picture, and the group had invented a play about hands, which were the subject they painted and made a play on stage about.

The result was that everybody quickly found a place, a new role, in a group they normally weren’t a part of. And they all succeeded in performing, on stage, in front of 300 other people, showing astonishing diversity in the 12 plays with the same starting point: paint your hand.

After the first performance as a group the un-freezing7 process went over into the moving, that is, now all groups created different identities (play-group, video-group, restaurant-group, …), different roles and functions, always in some relation to all other groups and partly with extern partners (City Hall, kindergartens, High School). Now they were “comfortable” in the play of carnival, ready to move, for interactive creation of reality. The process of freeze-again happened in the last hour of day three, where parents watched and participated, where the towns priests together with some children were allowed to end the play with a thought- and peaceful ceremony.

Three month after the three days of carnival, the school now in its “normal” structure, we asked for each class and the adults themselves, to present, on stage, but in front of the audience of 300 others, and journalists, the “performing of an evaluation”.

In a performatory way all participants described the three days as something they would love to do again in the near future. In daily life both teachers and pupils had experienced, that the relations between elder and younger, teachers and pupils had changed positively, because they, as they expressed it, had seen some of the good sides of each other which they did not know prior to the carnival.

The teachers talked about being able to see kids, who normally did not show many school relevant good sides, from angles which made it possible for them to respect the pupil in a new way; the kids said they experienced their teachers and the assistants much more friendly, more creative and “fun-making” then they ever had seen them before. And, as I believe, Vygotsky would comment, this is the chance for the teacher, where he/she can see what pupils (and teachers) can become, that is they can get an eye on these “buds” (Vygotsky, 1978:86) of development, which are just waiting to be nurtured.

As an organization, the school has grown, not only in the eyes of the participants (and the press), but likewise in the eyes of the local community, where neighbor institutions, parents and researchers watched and even participated in this event.

Perform, act, and behave

I hope you can follow me, when I now try to connect our activities with the teachings of Vygotsky. And surely I can point to “zones for proximal development”, or “Zonen der nächsten Möglichkeiten” (the zone of the next possibilities) (Vygotsky, 2002:253) which I mean, the carnival, and other projects in the same “style”, not here mentioned, has created through the days and even after the days of carnival. Those I will return to in a later paper.

My closing words here though will be about my young thoughts about what an examination of the relation between the terms behavior (automatic responses), acting and performing can show us, and how the latter don’t eliminates but builds on and completes the prior.

All animals, even plants behave, and it is common sense, that much, yes, most of what we do every day is not in need of a conscious attention, even if most of what we are now are able to do automatically, once had to be learned, very much with conscious operations (see Mead, 2005).

Acting is normally viewed in psychology as, in contrast to behavior, where the difference between animals and human beings has its starting point, because acting has to do with following an intention and/or purpose, which again demands that the individual is conscious about itself in the situation. We act in a cultural context, which is we have some kind of idea of how to act in different local situations, because we are able to “read” the cultural contexts we are in. The more understandable the social surroundings are for its inhabitants, the more harmony is performed in these language-games, which makes persons feel comfortable, and that easier it becomes to act, that is to do what everybody else would do in a similar situation. Culture shapes the way people behave and act, and in our days, where not all signs are easy to interpret, where not one leading idea of culture helps individuals on how to live and what to choose, I see the training of performance as one of the best “shots we’ve got8in learning to face a contingent future (see Newman, 1996, Newman & Holzman, 1996, 1997, Holzman, 1999, Strandberg, 2006, Scorc & Ognjenovic, 2003, Savic, 2000).

Performing is, in contrary to acting, not just the next step, it is more like the relation between speaking and thinking, where thinking is not just the next step to speaking. Performing contains both behavior and acting, and it combines natural and automatic behavior and cultural shaped acting, and the consciousness about the why and how of a situation’s meaning, and of how ones performance is received and usable by others.

Performing in a post-modern Vygotsky mode is not (very much) about the individuals individual development, it is more about building, creating, shaping, de- and reconstructing the group, the school, reality, which can be three days of carnival, and hopefully afterwards, a successful performance of an examination, or other important situations in the future, which can be the performing of a love affair, an education, a new way of being a teacher and/or pupil, leader or psychologist.

In one and the same time the performing persons are conscious about their contributions and partly not aware of how the person unfolds in a social situation, where their individual performance is part of a larger whole, which is the common performance of the group as a group, the common performance of the school performing carnival, and performing school after carnival. So the performer is on one hand very much aware of the others, the meaning of a situation, and the purpose of the act, while the performer tries to perform “a head taller then he/she is” and therefore has to dare to perform, to act before the person is able to be conscious about the act. Mead (2005) talked about the relation between I and me, where the I is the acting, or performing part, and the me is the reflecting person, who is mirroring the persons acts, the act of I, from the angle of me, the generalized other, the societal person. Therefore, it seems to me, and we have to do some research about his matter, that performance gives possibilities to train the relation between the I and me. The beginning of all this is the act we perform with others, and it is this “social room” of interconnection, we use as a reflecting background for the reflecting on acting while we perform with others.

In a world where the cultural signs, as Vygotsky believed and hoped for, would be quiet easy to read in a society who really understands sharing and acting and performing together, there would not be as much difference between performance and acting because such a societies performing would be seen as a creative form of acting with the purpose of creating developmental situations. In a world like our world, anno 2006, where no society alone, no theory alone is able to give the right interpretation of words and acts, carnival and other post-modern forms of joint-action, common de- and reconstruction is, in my view, a possibility to practice de- and reconstruction of reality in a contingent world, where the answers are the performances the participants dare to express in collaboration. Performance is in “family resemblance” (Wittgenstein, 1948) with jazz-music and other forms of art, where you, though you have some repertoire you have learned by training and imitation, experience yourself in situations, where you have to perform improvisatory (in contrast to “just” acting as you are told, or as you are used to do), this is where you and others first perform, and then, in nearly the same second, are reflecting on acting; you are all mirroring the situation in the light of a common meaning, the re-creation of community, the playing of a piece of music.

The “Jazz-metaphor” can be seen as a bridge between paradigms and language-games, because a real good musician has to have some trained repertoire of behavior (the ground rules of how to play the instrument based on praxis), which he/she can play with in a performatory setting. Theoretically this opens the doors for a chorus of different voices, both behaviorist/cognitive tendencies (training) and more humanistic, existentialistic ideas, combined in a more post-modern setting, where they complete each other in the strive for a better world and future.

Surely these thoughts need to be followed up by activities and research on the main points of this paper. For now though I dare to conclude, that I see a line of development, from the simple gesture, behavior, over the act as a person, that is to reflect on your acts with the eyes of a generalized other (Mead, 2005), and to performance, where the leading idea is not given beforehand but has to be created and recreated in collaboration with others, as a group, as a school, as an organization, as a society, as unified human beings on the planet earth.

I do not say, stop behavior, stop acting, I say let us alongside normal behavior and alongside normal acting try to perform behavior and acting in a new way, because the performance of today and tomorrow is the place where we can change, be and become, together, and where we can re-create the world. The problem with normal, in these post-modern days, are, that whenever some people (in power) try to prescribe what is normal and what is not, the danger of imperialism is just around the corner. A post-modern stance, a performatory approach does not proclaim to know what is normal. Its aim is the opposite of normal, it is the evolution and the revolution of mankind, where diversity is a plus, where a peaceful reality is performed while nobody proclaims to know what is normal, but everybody knows how it feels to be in a performatory, creative zone of next and new and proximal development.

As a tool, used to change language-games of schools (and others), the performatory method of changing and developing organizations, it seems to me, is a more human, and holistic, and complete way of working with an organization. Normally we would educate and work either exclusively with teachers only or students, even if the topic often is the relation to/with “the other”, communication and/or working in teams. The strength of a post-modern performatory approach is that the topics we normally talk about, we normally reflect on from a distance, with cognitive skepticism is not a theoretical construction, but is part of the whole, which is the common performance/play of becoming: the common re-construction of each other’s relations to each other and the whole.


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1Special thanks to student (teacher) Thomas Sørensen, for corrective reading of drafts of this paper.

2I worked on this project in collaboration with mag. art. (M.Sc. Art) Mogens Larsen Stenderup, CVU Nordjylland.

3Newman & Holzman, 1993, Strandberg, 2006, Savic, 2000, Scorc & Ogjenovic, 2003, Vygodskaja & Lifanova, 2000

4And here I think about, and I have to say thank you, to East Side Institute in New York, Zdravo da ste in Belgrade and Banja Luka, activists in Macedonia, Argentina and Sweden).

5Bahktin explains in his book Rabelais and His World, that earlier societies used the days of the carnival as a tool to de- and reconstruct societies daily life, that is in a grotesque form of performed realism, where the beautiful plays ugly, where the poor plays rich, where the powerful acts as an under cued person, where everybody is allowed to express their thoughts and feelings without a filter. We talk about Realism because it is about the real life circumstances; we use the word grotesque because the real facts of life are presented as grotesque caricatures of reality.

6The reader could here ask: why only three days of carnival and one day of evaluation, why are you not changing the school totally for example like The Golden Key Schools? The answer is though Danish public schools (there are a lot of private schools who dare to experiment more), compared with other schools in the Western World are much more dialogical and humanistic in their approach to teaching, though political influences these days have moved the schools to towards a more instrumental and discipline-focused mode. Therefore, in these political, new-liberalistic times it seems that a 3 days project is a good starting point, where people dare to join, and where they are able to smell the odour of change, in their own tempi, in their own ways. This gives the possibility for the ones who are not afraid of changes to be in the play in their mode of participation, where the more sceptical persons dare to join because they know that this experience will end, after three days, without a pressure to be something else, which is changed, on day four. – It is perhaps a “cheap trick”, because at the end the hope is to develop schools like Golden Key all over, every day, in every town.

7Lewin described the process of change with the following steps: Un-freeze – Move – Freeze again (Madsen, 2006), that is when you change a group or an organization, you first have (to prepare) to unfreeze the “normal” structures, secondly you get the participants to act in the new situation, which is the moving part, where the participants move from before to and in the now and new situation. Finally the moving has to end in a facilitating period, where the process get stabilized, the new acts are incorporated in the new, now frozen, again, in the structures which for now, and a period from now, will be the new normal structures of the organization. A special thanks to Søren Willert and Benedicte Madsen, Center for System Developing, Århus, who taught me to practice theory!

8By ”best shot we’ve got” (with nice thoughts about Fred Newman (1996), who loves this sentence too) I mean that we nowadays are in a situation, where most of the people in the world recognize, that the political and economic systems, which are ruling (not only) the world, are out of (moral) order, and not any longer in the hands of people with higher ethics. The commercialisation of peoples everyday lives, these 100s of TV-channels and the world wide web, though presenting a lot of (often empty) information, makes human beings more confused and less able to choose between the many possible roads, which not at all are healthy. When people recognize, that no system, no academic institution, no society alone can tell us, what is right and what is wrong (Bauman, 2002, 2004, 2005), you can choose to capitulate (you join the commercial consumer world as a consuming and/or selling member), or you can act performatory, that is you can play/pretend to be whom you are not (yet). Performing means to experiment with different ways of being (behaving), acting and responding with the purpose to re-create each other, with societal tools, but not on an empty ground, but on the grounds all human beings have in common, in their common project of reciprocal building of selves (about this matter not more here, but see Mead (2005) about gesture and gesture conversation, and Tønnesvang (2002) about what constitutes and facilitates a “healthy” self). Here I will conclude with words by the Swedish Psychologist Leif Strandberg who wrote a beautiful book about how to use Vygotsky in school environments: “People relate to reality in two ways. On the first road we recreate (reproduce) reality and on the second road we create something new. The first road helps us to adapt to the world. The second makes us become future orientated beings who develop and change over time” (Strandberg, 2006:99).