My own zone of proximal development


Let’s face it: I am freestyling intellectually. I have those syllabuses to prepare for the next academic year, and so I decided to let my brain crystallize a little bit, subconsciously, without being disturbed, around the business plan for the EneFin concept. Crystallization occurs subconsciously, and I can do plenty of other thinking in the meantime, and so I started doing that other thinking, and I am skating happily on the thin ice of fundamental questions concerning my mission as a scientist and a teacher. The ice those questions make is really thin, and if it cracks under my weight, I will dive into the cold depth of imperative necessity for answers.

You probably know that saying about economics, one of my fundamental disciplines, besides law, namely that economics are the art of making forecasts which do not hold. Nasty, but largely true. I want to devise a method of teaching social sciences, and possibly a contingent method of research, which can be directly useful to the individual, without said individual having to become the president of something big in order to find real utility in social sciences.

I am starting to form that central principle of my teaching and research: social sciences can be used and developed similarly to geography, i.e. they can be used to find one’s bearings in a complex environment, to trace a route towards valuable and attainable goals, and to plan for a realistic pace as for covering this route. Kind of a fundamental thought comes to me, from the realm of hermeneutic philosophy , which I am really fond of, and the thought goes as follows: whatever kind of story I am telling, at the bottom line I am telling the story of my own existence. Question (I mean, a real question, which I am asking right now, not some fake, rhetorical stuff): this view of social sciences, as a quasi-cartographic pathway towards orienting oneself in the social context, is it the story of my own existence? Answer: hell, yes. As I look back at my adult life, it is indeed a long story of wandering, and I perceive a substantial part of that wandering as having been pretty pointless. I could have done much of the same faster, simpler, and with more ethical value achieved on the way. Mind you, here, I am largely sailing the uncharted waters of ‘what could have happened if’. Anyway, what happened, stays happened.

OK, this is the what. Now, I want to phrase out the how. Teaching means essentially two things. Firstly, the student gets to know the skills he or she should master. In educational language it is described as the phase of conscious incompetence: the student gets to know what they don’t know and should develop a skill in. Secondly, teaching should lead them through at least a portion of the path from that conscious incompetence to conscious competence, i.e. to the phase of actually having developed those skills they became aware of in the phase of conscious incompetence.

Logically, I assume there is a set of skills that a person – especially a young one – needs to find and pursue their personal route through the expanse of social structure, once they have been dropped, by the helicopter of adolescence and early adulthood, in some remote spot of said structure. My mission is to use social sciences in order to show them the type of skill they’d better develop, and, possibly, to train them at those skills.

My strictly personal experience of learning is strongly derived from the practice of sport, and there is a piece of wisdom that anyone can have as their takeaway from athletic training: it is called ‘mesocycle’. A mesocycle of training is a period of about 3 months, which is the minimum time our body needs to develop a complex and durable response to training. In any type of learning, a mesocycle can be observed. It is the interval of time that our nervous system needs to get all the core processes, involved in a given pattern of behaviour being under development, well aligned and acceptably optimized.

My academic teaching is structured into semesters. In the curriculum of each particular subject, the realistic cycle of my interaction with students is like 4 months, which gives room to one full mesocycle of training, from conscious incompetence towards conscious competence, plus a little extra time for outlining that conscious incompetence. Logically, I need to structure my teaching into 25% of developing the awareness of skills to form, and 75% of training in those skills.

One of the first syllabuses I am supposed to prepare for the next academic year is ‘Introduction to Management’ for the undergraduate major of film and TV production. It is part of those students’ curriculum for the first year, when, essentially, every subject is an introduction to something. I follow the logic I have just outlined. First of all, what is the initial point of social start, in the world of film and TV production? Someone joins a project, most frequently: the production of a movie, an advertising campaign, the creation of a You Tube channel etc. The route to follow from there? The challenge consists in demonstrably proving one’s value in that project in order to be selected for further projects, rather than maxing out on the profits from this single venture. The next level consists in passing from projects to organisation, i.e. in joining or creating a relatively stable organisation, combining networks and hierarchies, which, in turn, can allow the sprouting of new projects.

Such a path of social movement involves skills centred around the following core episodes: a) quickly and efficiently finding one’s place in a project typical for the world of film and TV production b) starting and managing new projects c) finding one’s place in networks and hierarchies typical for film and TV production and d) possibly developing such an organisation.

Such defined, the introduction to management involves the ability to define social roles and social values, peculiar to the given project and/or organisation, as well as elementary skills in teamwork. As I think of it, the most essential competences in dealing with adversity, like getting one’s s**t together under pressure and forming a realistic plan B, could be helpful.

Good. Roles and values in a project of film and TV production. What comes to my mind in the first place, as I am thinking of it, is once again the teaching of Hans Georg Gadamer, the heavyweight champion of hermeneutic philosophy: historically, art at its best has been a fully commercial enterprise, based on business rules. Concepts such as ‘art for the sake of art’ or ‘pure art’ are relatively new – they emerged by the end of the 19th century – and they are the by-product of another emergence, that of the so-called leisure class, made of people rich enough to afford not to worry about their daily subsistence, and, in the same time, not seriously involved into killing someone in order to stay this way.

One of the first social patterns to teach my students regarding the values of film and TV production is something which, fault of a better word, I call ‘economic base’. It is a value, in this business, to have a relatively predictable stream of income, which is enough for keeping people working on creative projects. The understanding I want my students to form, thus, is precisely this economic base. How much do I need to earn, and how, if I want to keep working on that YT channel long enough for turning it into a business? What kind of job can I do whilst running such a project? How much capital do I need to raise in order to make 50 people work on a movie for 6 months? I think that studying the cases of real businesses in the film and TV production, and building simple business plans on the grounds of those cases can be a good, skill-forming practice.

Once this value identified, it is important to understand how people are most likely to behave whilst striving to achieve it. In other words, it is about the fundamentals of social competition and cooperation. A simple version of the theory of games seems the most workable, in terms of teaching tools.

The economic base for creative work makes one important value, still not the only one. Creation itself is another one. Managing creative teams is tricky. You have a bunch of strong personalities, and you want them to stay this way, and yet you want them to reach some kind of compromise. I think that simple role playing in class, paired with collective projects (i.e. projects carried out by teams of students) can be instructive.

I am summing up. I am a big fan of long-term tasks as educational tools. Preparing a simple business plan, specific to this precise industry (i.e. film and TV production), paired with training in teamwork, should do the job. Now, the easy path is just to tell students ‘Listen, guys! You have those projects to complete until the end of the semester. Just get on with it. We will be having those strange gatherings called “lectures”, but you don’t have to pay too much attention to it. Just have those projects done’. I have already experimented with this approach, and my conclusion is that it generally allows those clever ones to prove they are clever, but not much more. It is a pity to watch those less clever students struggling with a task they have to carry out over the length of one semester.

I want to devise come kind of path in my students’ zone of proximal development : a series of measured, feasible lessons, leading to tangible improvement. Each lesson covers 6 steps: i) define the project to carry out, as well as its goals and constraints, make a plan, make a team, and make them work on the thing ii) purposefully lead to a crisis iii) draw conclusions from the crisis iv) define the improvement needed v) carry out the improvement and vi) check the results.

As I see my usual schedule over one semester, I can arrange like 5 such sequences of 6 steps, thus 5 big lessons. Now, I am thinking about the kind of core task to carry out in each lesson, so as the task is both representative for film and TV production, and feasible in class. Pitching the concept of a movie is a must, and the concept of a YT platform seems to be a sensible idea as well. I have two types of business concepts, and I feel like repeating each of them twice. That gives 4 sequences of training, and leaves one more in reserve. That one more could be, for example, a content store, in the lines of the early Netflix.

Good. One thing to tick off. As I am having a look at it, the same pattern can be transferred, almost as it is, into the curriculum of Principles of Management, which I teach to the 1st year undergraduates in the major of International Relations. In this particular case, the same path is applicable, just the factual scope needs a bit of broadening. Each of those complex, sequenced lessons should be focused on a different type of business. Typical industrial, for one, something in the IT sector, for two, then something really scientific, like biotech, followed by typical service business, and finally something financial.

Now, I jump. It happens all the time in my mind. Something in those synaptic connexions of mine makes them bored with one topic, and willing to embrace the diversity of being. I am asking myself what I can possibly teach to my students, in terms of finding one’s way across the social jungle, on the grounds of the economic theory which either I fully embrace or I have developed by myself. Here come a few ideas.

However inventive and original you think you are, you are as inventive and original as quite a bunch of other people’. This one comes mostly from my reading of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction and neighbourhood of equilibrium. How can it be useful? If you want to do something important, like starting a business or a social action, going for a job connected to expatriation etc.? Well, look for patterns in what other people do. Someone is bound to have the kind of experience you can learn from.

This is deeper than some people could think. As I work with my students on the general issue of business planning, this particular approach proves really useful. There are many instances of complex business planning – the ‘what if?’ sequences, for example – when emulating some existing businesses is the only sensible approach.

The next one spells: ‘Recurrent bargaining leads to figuring out sensible, workable compromises that minimize waste and that nobody is quite satisfied with’. This principle refers to the theoretical concept of local Marshallian equilibrium, but it is also strongly connected to the theory of games. Frequently, you have the impression of being forced into some kind of local custom or ritual, like the average wage you can expect for a given job, or the average rent you have to pay for your apartment, or the habitual way of settling a dispute. It chafes, and it hurts what you perceive as your own originality, but people around you are strangely attached to this particular way of doing things. This is a local equilibrium.

If you want to understand a given local equilibrium, try and figure out the way this equilibrium is being achieved. Who? What? When? How? Under what conditions does the process work, and in which cases it doesn’t? In other words, if you want to figure out the way to influence and change those uncomfortable rituals around you, you need to find a way of making people bargain and get a compromise around a new ritual.

Comes my own research, now, and the fundamental principles of social path-finding I can phrase out of that research. I begin with stating that population matters, in the most numerical sense. The rate of demographic growth, together with the rate of migration, are probably the most powerful social changes we can imagine. Whatever those changing populations do, they adapt to the available supply of food and energy. At the individual level, people express that adaptation by maximizing their personal intake of energy, within socially accepted boundaries, by maintaining a certain portfolio of technologies. Social structures we live in act as regulators of the technological repertoire we have access to, and they change as this repertoire changes.

Practical implications? You want to experience creative social change, with a lot of new types of jobs emerging every year, and a lot of new products? You need a society with vivid demographic growth and a lot of migration going in and/or out. You want security, stability and predictability? You want people around you to be always calm and nice to each other? Then you need a society with slow or null demographic growth, not much of a migration, and plenty of food and energy to tap into. You want to have both, i.e. plenty of creative change, and people being always nice? Sorry, pal, not with this genotype. It just wouldn’t work with humans.

I am consistently delivering good, almost new science to my readers, and love doing it, and I am working on crowdfunding this activity of mine. As we talk business plans, I remind you that you can download, from the library of my blog, the business plan I prepared for my semi-scientific project Befund  (and you can access the French version as well). You can also get a free e-copy of my book ‘Capitalism and Political Power’ You can support my research by donating directly, any amount you consider appropriate, to my PayPal account. You can also consider going to my Patreon page and become my patron. If you decide so, I will be grateful for suggesting me two things that Patreon suggests me to suggest you. Firstly, what kind of reward would you expect in exchange of supporting me? Secondly, what kind of phases would you like to see in the development of my research, and of the corresponding educational tools?

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