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An interview with a University Lecturer: An experience of being in the Zone of Proximal Development

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

Kaisa Hahl meets Kauko Komulainen

Kauko Komulainen from the Playing beyond CLIL (PbC) project team shares personal insights and experiences from the earlier days of the project when the PbC pedagogy was designed and tested in workshops in which the project team immersed themselves in hands-on explorations of newly designed Show-What-You-Know Events. As Kauko’s reflections in the interview with his colleague Kaisa Hahl reveal, the Show-What-You-Know Events can be formats to encourage languaging practice and meta reflection not only for school-age learners but also for experienced educators.

In the interview, Kauko takes the opportunity to reflect on his own experiences he made during working with the SWYK-task “The Trailer”. Reflecting on very personal learning experience, Kauko gives insights into a crucial moment when he became aware of how the task propelled him right into what he retrospectively understood to be his very own Zone of Proximal Development. Kauko, an ardent advocate of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of learning through scaffolding and reflection, imparts how he gained a renewed and deeper and a more thorough understanding of a number of abstract and complex sociological concepts that have for a long time been part and parcel of the curriculum in the drama classes he teaches. Kauko explores how the abstract notion of the “aesthetic experience” found in Scott Lash’s theory of postmodernism turned out to be a useful thinking tool for himself to make sense of his initial sense of unease when he first had to engage with a Show-What-You-Know Event as a learning task. He describes in his own terms how his understanding transformed from knowing about the concept of “aesthetic experience” to deep understanding by way of actually going through an experience that this concept aims to capture.

This exceptional interview is a showcase-piece of languaging and metacognitive thinking of an experienced teacher who – by engaging with the PbC pedagogy – goes on an adventure of meaningful learning. Even if there were at the beginning feelings of reservation and unease, they were yet worth it. The interview is an encouragement for teachers to engage with Playing beyond CLIL for the design of learning events in their own classroom teaching, but also to bring momentum to their own professional development.

Kaisa: So, Kauko, you are a University Lecturer of Performing Arts Didactics and a teacher educator at the University of Helsinki. You wanted to share a personal experience of the zone of proximal development. First, can you explain what the zone of proximal development is?

Kauko: The zone of proximal development was first introduced by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930’s. It is also known as the zone of potential development. In short, it is the gap between what a learner has mastered and what she or he can potentially master with support and assistance from the teacher or more skilled peers.

Kaisa: How do you deal with the topic of the zone of proximal development with your university students?

Kauko: Over the years, I have taught and dealt with Vygotsky's zone of proximal development with the students numerous times. When discussing it, we often find how useful the theory still is. However, as a teacher, I have not always reflected on Vygotsky's theory in a deeper way, but passed it often too quickly with only a few explanations.

Kaisa: What do you mean?

Kauko: Well, let me tell you. I attended a Playing beyond CLIL project workshop where the purpose was to test the design of new SWYK events. My group's task was to design a metatrailer – in other words, we were to produce a trailer that introduces and presents “The Trailer” as a SWYK. As a literature researcher, one part of my expertise is metafiction, so the challenges of metathinking are mostly well known for me. However, I was not so familiar with the particular “genre” of a trailer. When the metalevel was in the centre of the task, the challenge for the whole group was very big.

Kaisa: So how did you go about the task?

Kauko: First the group suggested and analysed different options, and in the beginning, none of our ideas really took off. Afterwards this state of affairs reminded me of Scott Lash’s reflexive modernization. In the beginning of the 1990’s, Lash created an aesthetic theory of the changes and challenges in postmodern culture. The theory showed that aesthetic experiences had an important role in the postmodern change during the 1990’s. Nowadays, it is easier to see their effects on the development of human thinking in general. That is why, I think, Lash’s concept of aesthetic reflexivity is useful, when analysing the potential of Vygotsky’s theory in explaining creative human processes like the one in our group when dealing with the task of a metatrailer.

Kaisa: What is this Lash’s theory then?

Kauko: Lash’s aesthetic theory makes it possible to bring up fundamental questions: How much is the concept of aesthetic still based on the old esoteric-modern, Kantian, definition? And how much can one see features of a broader postmodern definition of the aesthetics of popular culture and everyday life? In any case, postmodern culture offers more and more situations (for instance within the different brands and commercial culture in a city) in which people can get aesthetic experiences even in the daily life. So, we all are actually quite well trained for facing aesthetic phenomena. It can be presumed that, in contemporary culture, aesthetic phenomena are representations of people’s experiences of the aesthetic dimensions in the postmodern and popular cultures in the everyday life. Thoughts and concepts will arise later on.

Kaisa: This is getting complicated! What is the concept of aesthetic in the postmodern culture?

Kauko: The concept of aesthetics has many definitions and a long tradition from antiquity, ancient Greece to postmodern culture. Aesthetics has been defined as the science of sense perception, sensation and about how to feel, to sense, in an aesthetic way. In the Western world, the notions of aesthetics were dominated by the Kantian definition for almost the whole 20th century, but at the end of it, modernization strengthened so much that it also changed the traditional definitions of aesthetics. One of the largest turning points was the end of the Cold War in the beginning of the 1990’s, when the discourse in economics of New Liberalism started conquering different fields of societies all over the world. Upheavals, especially in Western industrialized societies, were so rapid and huge that scientists started to discuss the risky character of the changes. Scholars claimed that ‘revolution’ was so rapid and strong that changes in industrialized societies often happened secretly in ignorance, in an unconscious way. According to the sociologist Ulrich Beck, the process had a mostly unplanned reflexive character, and it led cultural change into the direction of a ‘risk society’. Beck called his analysis of the theory “reflexive modernization”.

Kaisa: And what does reflexive mean?

Kauko: Reflexive in Beck’s thinking refers to the way a human being is “meeting him- or herself” in confusing, puzzling situations in the postmodern culture. In this sense, reflexive is not the same as reflection (deep, critical, conscious thinking within concepts), but an imaginational opposite of it.

Kaisa: How did Beck’s thinking influence Lash’s theory then?

Kauko: Scott Lash used Beck’s views when developing his aesthetic theory of the postmodern change. Lash pointed out that reflexive modernization also had aesthetic character. The change from the modern to postmodern condition added two dimensions to the discussion: the aesthetics of popular culture and the aesthetics of everyday life. According to Lash, these two dimensions should be understood as a postmodern way of transmitting the attitude of esoteric-modern (Kantian) aesthetics to the consciousness of ordinary people. Lash gave an interpretation to how cultural change influenced people: When a human being is trying to clarify the new postmodern dimensions of reality, in the beginning there are no concepts in his or her mind. Instead, there are aesthetic (emotional, affective) images, which – within the economic framework of New Liberal postmodern change – appeared, for instance, when people saw new brands in the city (aesthetics of everyday life). This means that postmodern culture challenged the foundations of modern culture. People’s consciousness was dominated by aesthetic sensations triggered by, for instance, brands and other new elements of the postmodern condition. This ‘changing’ condition of the postmodern mind was not dominated by concepts but by aesthetic sensations and images, which is why Lash called it reflexive modernization. Lash named his postmodern hermeneutics the theory of aesthetic reflexivity.

Kaisa: But how does it all relate to the time you were working on the trailer with the group in the Playing beyond CLIL project workshop?

Kauko: Well, after solving the problem of making a metatrailer, I realized I had had an experience of aesthetic reflexivity. In the beginning of our creative process, I was unable to language (or to put into words) any features which could have helped us find a solution. The character of our task was artistic, and applying Lash’s thoughts it can be stated that people who face these kinds of tasks often have experiences of aesthetic reflexivity. In these kinds of situations, they don’t primarily have concepts in their mind, but rather aesthetic experiences. Later on, the concepts will emerge to consciousness, and this is the process of languaging. So, although in the beginning of our creative process the ‘quality’ of my feeling was more of a despair, I – after making a fictional trailer of how to make a trailer – can confess that via the experience of aesthetic reflexivity I now know what it is to ‘live through’ the zone of proximal development.

Kaisa: How do you think this happened or came about?

Kauko: I assume that I was able to get this experience and the “Eureka” moment because of our task: the character of it was in between and within the (Vygotskian) theory (in my mind) and the metafictional task and praxis in the group. I think that when one has a challenging task like ours was, the well-timed support you can get in a creative group process is very important. It would have been hard or even impossible to create the trailer alone! For the first time in my professional life as an educator, I felt I had had a conscious experience of how it feels to ‘be’ in the zone of proximal development and pass it. This happened after we made a trailer of how to make a trailer, and now I have a ‘Vygotskian’ experience in between and within the aesthetic theory and artistic practice.

Kaisa: Thank you, this was very interesting! Some of the theory behind all this is quite a bit to chew on to really understand it well. But it is exciting to hear your description and thinking of your Vygoskian “Eureka” moment. We are never too old to learn and benefit from the help of others!


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