Vygotskij’s 125th and Freire's 100th anniversary

SIG 25 Educational Theory

SIG 25 Reflective notes: Theorising practices in Educational Science


Vygotskij’s 125th and Freire 100th anniversary

By Alessio Surian


Several international events celebrated the birth of Lev Vygotskij 125 years ago in Orsha. Two of them took place in November 2021 and provided generative opportunities for dialogues across the Atlantic.

The “International Congress Freire and Vygotsky: Emancipatory Public Education” was organised from 8 to 12 November in Florianopolis (Brazil) by the Federal University of Santa Catarina (that also paid tribute to the centenary of Paulo Freire's birth).

The “Eight Vygotskij Seminar” focusing on “imagination” took place in Lausanne (Switzerland) from 17 to 19 November.

As follows, I briefly provide some reflective notes on the main topics that have been addressed during these events.

The “International Congress Freire and Vygotsky: Emancipatory Public Education”

The Santa Catarina’s Congress was organised around nine thematic tracks. The second and the third tracks - “Popular Education and Social Movements” and “Theoretical and philosophical standpoints on Freire’s and Vygotsky’s frameworks” - offered several opportunities for addressing educational theories issues and both scholars’ ideas concerning socialism and dialogic approaches to educational relations, including a panel discussion involving Anna Stetsenko, Elizabeth Braga, and Peter Smagorinski on November 10th.   

The Congress introductory text appreciated both the intellectual achievements and the political (“popular”) commitment by Freire and stressed the difficult situation of both Brazil and Freire’s ideas in his home country where they are the target of attacks by the economic and political elites.

A panel involving close collaborators such as Carlos Rodrigues Brandão, who sketched the essentials of Freire’s method and action-research practice, and Balduíno Andreola, who connected Freire’s epistemology with those of Ernani Fiori, Mounier, and Ricoeur. Lisete Arelaro (on the basis of her work “Escritos sobre políticas públicas em educação”, São Paulo: FEUSP, 2020) outlined the consistency of Freire’s pedagogical principles with the pillars of his commitment as São Paulo Secretary of Education (1989-1991), based on democratic management. Paulo Freire avoided to make any unilateral decision. He carefully constructed them based on discussions with his team, with the wider educational networks, with his colleagues in city government. In the first days of government, three actions of great democratic impact were initiated:

1) the Consultation with the networks about what type of schools they wanted, encouraging assessment of existing practices;

2) the Incentive for the creation of School Councils, with deliberative character and ample participation by different of different school actors;

3) the creation of the Commission for the elaboration of the Teaching Statute, addressing to controversial issues such as the election of school heads.

Way before “authentic task” were introduced in the dominant educational discourse, Freire claimed that the school staff should not be selected on the basis of knowledge-based tests but rather on the observation of their performance and comprehension of daily tasks.

The Congress brought together analysis and reflection about Freire and Vygotsky who both “taught us about the intimate articulation between education and society”, and how education can emancipate and liberate people, highlighting the attacks, distortions, and oblivion that they both suffered.

The lyrics of a Brazilian song by Lenine (Tudo por acaso) help bridging both scholars attention for the interplay between arts and education and for the crucial roles played by imagination and embodiment in the learning process: “O futuro foi agora / Tudo é invenção / E eu sei / Pelo sentimento / Pelo envolvimento / Pelo coração” (The future was now / Everything is invention / And I know / By the feeling / By involvement / By the heart).

The ability to connect different creative and affective dimension within the education realm was the subject of the Symposium “Arte, imaginação e emoção: desafios para uma educação emancipatória” (Arts, imagination, and emotions: emancipatory education challenges) co-ordinated by Lavínia Magiolino and involving Bader B. Sawaia, Luciane Schlindwein, Olivia Milléo,

Flávia Lemos Bianquini, Degelane Córdova Duarte, Livia Palhares Pozza, Vera Lucia Trevisan de Souza, Daniele Nunes Henrique Silva, offering opportunities to consider Vygotskij’s contributions in terms of relating meaning construction with its affective dimension, as well as to consider his gaze at art and drama, and how to take it into account when engaging in analytical practices with empirical data collected about learning and emotions in the actor’s and in the educator’s work.   

Andressa Urtiga Moreira and Lúcia Helena Cavasin Zabotto Pulino explored the relations between education, freedom and politics from a Freire’s perspective, i.e. education as praxis of freedom, taking into account the dimensions of reflection and critical thinking, human creativity and action in relation to critical consciousness (conscientization, or conscientização in Portuguese), the popular education concept popularised by Freire during his collaboration with Fiori. Thirty years earlier, Vygotskij was developing his psychological theory emphasizing the social constitution of the psyche, focusing on consciousness and freedom in relation to the emotional dimension.

In turn, scholars as Gisele Toassa and Priscila Nascimento Marques explored educational and translation issues in Vygotskij’s work analysing the relationship between the person and the environment in human development, and how they affect the concept of “consciousness” elaborated by Vygotskij.

The studies presented by authors such as Flávio de Castro Freitas and Bader B. Sawaia explored the work conducted by Spinoza on the affective dimension, distinguishing affectus (feeling) and affectio (affection) and how the latter is relevant in relation and as condition for ethics and politics, and, in turn, the complex relations they have with freedom - addressed by Vygotskij as requiring collective action. This implies that combating social inequality implies an analysis of the ethical and aesthetic practice of social transformation by addressing the affective frame interlocking the (inter)subjective and macro-political dimensions.

The “Eight Vygotskij Seminar”

Less than a week after the congress in Florianopolis, the “Eight Vygotskij Seminar” took place in Lausanne - allowing just enough time to cross the Atlantic to a group of Brazilian scholars. The Seminar focused on “imagination”, and was skilfully prepared by providing participants with the French translation of Vygotskij’s work on imagination which was launched during the event and it is available as “L’imagination dans l’oeuvre de Vygotskij” (Bruxelles : Peter Lang, 2021). The book was edited by Bernard Schneuwly, Irina Leopoldoff Martin & Daniele Nunes Henrique Silva, in collaboration with a working group including Anne Clerc, Glaís Sales Cordeiro, Lavínia Magiolino, Daniel Martin, Christiane Moro, Luciane Schlindwein, Ana Smolka, Thérèse Thévenaz, Bruno Védrines, and with translations provided by Irina Leopoldoff Martin.

Two workshops were placed at the core of the programme.

The first workshop focused on "The development of the imagination in Vygotskij”. It involved the reading of three texts concerning “Imagination and creative activity of the adolescent”, “Play and its role in the psychological development of the child”, and “Imagination in development”. This workshop was “problematised” by Daniele Nunes Henrique Silva and Pascal Séverac who explored the tension between “objective” and “subjective” imagination as well as the idea of "thought" – especially as discussed by Vygotskij on in relation to Lenin's idea of “thought” as described in his notebooks (discussing Hegel's dialectic).

The second workshop addressed "The development of the concept of imagination in Vygotskij". It involved reviewing three texts by Vygotskij about “Imagination and reality”, “Imagination and its development in the child”, and "Everything that can be imagined is real".

It would be impossible to provide here a summary of the rich presentations and debate. A generative image was provided in the form of  the “meteorological metaphor”. Tania Zittoun took a careful look at Vygotsky’s Notebooks as edited by Ekaterina Zavershneva and René van der Veer (2018) to map the evolution of the semantic fields associated to water. She spotted the rise of a “meteorological metaphor” that plays an important role in the formulation of Vygotsky’s key theoretical ideas associated to a recurring image and process: the image of clouds turning into rain, of water into cloud, and eventually chased by wind.  

She notices and distinguishes water as made of smaller units, clustered into wider wholes as the ocean; the water as what extinguishes fire; and water as in the circulation of rain and clouds. In her presentation, as in a recent paper (“Thinking with the Rain. The Trajectory of a Metaphor in Vygotsky’s Theoretical Development”, in Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12124-021-09646-4), she observes that “water and its semantic fields appear in Vygotsky’s notebooks with very different functions, in a literal sense or as metaphor, in different contexts – as quotation of a text, or a dialogue with someone. In either case, images related to water enable Vygotsky to pursue an intuition with which he worked through all his career: that of different ‘levels’ or ‘planes’ of psychological functioning”. This idea relates to Vygotskij’s attempt to understand the thinking, feeling and experiencing person within a whole model.

Across the two events it was noticeable that limited attention was devoted to the area of work that engaged Vygotskji the most: the “disability studies” that were termed “defectology” back then. Débora Dainez and Maria De Fátima Carvalho explored a selection of studies in this area through a presentation in Florianopolis focusing on contemporary issues. They are particularly concerned with Vygotskij’s construct of “social education” as addressed in his studies on disabilities. They suggest that in no other area such as defectology one might discover the profoundly humanist character of Vygotskij's conception. There - in the disease, in the defect, in the insufficiency - the perspectives of his theory reveal his profound optimism in the possibilities of the person to act as the subject of activity, the creator of own history, crafting own development.

It is in relation to defectology that Vygotskij expands the conception of social education in relation to issues of cultural development of the personality. Vygotsky suggests that it is the role of the school to ensure generative ways of responding to the diversities and opportunities of cultural development by students with disabilities. From this perspective, special education still belongs to the framework of general education, suggesting that social education should relate to the labour dimension to expand the humanization development.

Alessio Surian, PhD in Educational Sciences, works as Associate Professor at the University of Padova where he teaches Transformative Learning, Participation and Group Dynamics. He collaborates with the University of Buenos Aires (Cátedra Libre de Ingeniería Comunitaria), with the Latin American Council for Social Sciences (CLACSO) (as a member of the Critical Pedagogies and Popular Education Working Group).

Contact: alessio.surian@unipd