Posts Tagged ‘social sciences’


scaffold (n)
1: a temporary or movable platform for workers (as bricklayers, painters, or miners) to stand or sit on when working at a height above the floor or ground; a platform on which a criminal is executed (as by hanging or beheading); a platform at a height above ground or floor level
2: a supporting framework

Our baby daughter is learning how to walk. By herself, she can take about four to five steps before she topples over. For a few weeks now, though, she’s been whizzing around our apartment, supporting herself against furniture, walls, the occasional parent that stands nearby. Pretty much anything that can offer her some vertical support while she trains her balance.

She’s intuitively making use of scaffolding.

It’s a central concept in the socio-cultural theories of learning, most of which are influenced by the work of Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s grand thing was the thought that whatever a person learns to do by herself, she first has to learn how to do with the help of others.

Vygotsky coined the term “Zone of Proximal Development” or ZPD for short, which is the level of skill where one can perform the task with help but not yet on their own. Scaffolding, then, is the social help coming from peers or teachers that enables the learner to perform the task.

Granted, our daughter is mainly using non-social scaffolds when she zooms past me, holding on to the couch, but when I’m holding her hand to support her, it’s a classic case of ZPD in action.

I started thinking about the concept on my way back from band practice last weekend. Whenever I get out of the house all alone, I indulge by listening to TED talks or other podcasts on my iPod. The one that got me thinking about the topic was the TED talk by Deb Roy about his research into how his infant son learned to talk.

He mentions an interesting finding during the talk. Immediately before a child learns a specific word, her caregivers start to use that word in very simple contexts, easing the child onto the level of being able to use the word. What that means is the caregivers appear to subconsciously detect when the child is getting proficient enough in her approximation of the word, and then they react to what they detect.

That’s one heck of a scaffolding system.

As a future teacher, scaffolding is a very interesting concept, not least because of the critical element of timing.

If you hold the hand of a baby learning to walk, and you don’t let go even when she could already perform the task herself, you are not scaffolding her. You are doing the baby a disservice.

If you are a teacher who hears pupils discussing amongst themselves while performing a task and offer uninvited answers, you’re not scaffolding them. You are doing them a disservice.

Scaffolding is all about listening and perception. Furthermore, it’s about allowing a certain amount of uncertainty from the learner. The fraction of a second that the baby stands up unassisted and sways back and forth is not necessarily a sign she is about to fall over. It might be her way of adjusting her balance and getting ready to take the next step.

Similarly, the question from the pupil and the hesitation might not signal that they are about to abandon the task. More often than not, it’s a way for them to think aloud, to activate the part of the mental network that contains the answer.

Besides, if you always keep supporting and scaffolding the learner, when will you ever know that they have passed the ZPD and are able to perform the task on their own?

Thank you for stopping by! There’ll be a short break in posting, as we’re heading off to beautiful Munich for the weekend to see our friends, but I’ll be back here, posting about the wonderful Central Europe insightings sooner than you think! And while you’re waiting, why not comment or subscribe? 🙂



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There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge. . . observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination.
Denis Diderot

In Finland, teachers need a Master’s to teach professionally. Temping as a teacher is a possibility even without a degree, but if you apply for a job and there are two candidates, one with Master’s and one without, the one with the degree must be hired.

This is why teacher training is a university undertaking. And since teaching is something where books only get you so far without any experience, the training has a lot of written and spoken reflection tasks.

You get to (or have to, depending on your point of view) reflect on your own experiences as a pupil, your experiences in practical teacher training, your experiences after such fascinating courses as Planning And Evaluation (where you do get to plan and evaluate, by the way – just not with live pupils but with your peers), and after the whole shebang you do a roundup reflection of the whole teacher training process.

When I did the training, it became somewhat of a frustrated joke that all you really need to do to pass the courses is to write five pages of blah, blah, blah about what you did and how it made you feel. However, there was a lot of work besides the reflections, though. Why is it that the reflections felt like (and for so many teacher trainees, still remain) the epitome of uselessness?

The big picture

One reason for the frustration, at least to me, was the thought of “what’s this all worth?”

As a teacher trainee, you’re super busy with your homework, exams, planning your trainee lessons, not to mention your life around school. During our school years, we’ve gotten used to homework and exams – we know what they’re about and why they’re useful. Planning lessons is also homework, in a sense, because the plans are reviewed by the supervising teacher before the lesson. Furthermore, anyone who has ever taught a lesson in their life understands the significance of having some kind of a plan in place.

Compared to that, the reflections seemed out of context. They seemed like useless introspection. They didn’t really seem to have any connection whatsoever to what teaching is actually about.

That’s because at least during my years as a teacher trainee, no-one explained the big picture.

Because teaching is something you learn by doing, you have to gain experience to learn. However, because teaching is also something that is widely researched, there is a world of information about the ins and outs of most aspects of teaching.

Experiential learning is a bridge between the practical and the theoretical, and reflection is a key part of that process. It’s also a natural process that we constantly use, unconsciously, to create our theories of what life and the world are all about.

If someone had explained reflection to me in these terms when I started my teacher training, I probably would have had far less frustration during my studies. Fortunately, I found drama education as my minor, and learned about the cycle of experiential learning through those studies.

What does theory have to do with real life?

One of the most persistent misconceptions about sciences in general is that theories have nothing to do with real life. The logical extension of that opinion is that if you do not work as a researcher, you don’t need to know about the theory and new findings that take place in your field.

Let me ask you this: let’s say you look outside and notice that there is a lot of white stuff on the ground. You glance at the thermometer and see it’s below zero centigrade (or between 20 and 30 °F). Do you wear your sandals and a t-shirt? Unless you’re trying to prove a point or show off how gutsy you are, the answer is probably no. Instead, you wear a few layers of clothing, a coat, maybe woolly socks, a hat and mittens. Why is that?

You have a theory in your mind about “winter”. The white stuff might or might not be snow, which is a phenomenon that mostly occurs when it’s cold. The thermometer displays the temperature outside in a theoretical manner – there’s a scale from cold to hot, and the thermometer evaluates the temperature and gives you an estimate in terms of that scale.

Furthermore, you know that your body temperature is around 36°C or 97°F, and that the colder air outside will lower your body temperature, wreaking havoc on your health, unless you insulate your body. You know that by wearing layers and fluffy materials such as wool, the air trapped between the fibers will insulate the body, keeping you warm.

That’s all theory. You might not be aware of all that knowledge, but it’s there. It’s something children have to learn. And it’s pretty complicated, if you look at it all written out.

What I just did there is reflection and analysis all wrapped up into one. For this tiny experience – deciding what to wear when it’s winter – it’s pretty simple to roll them up, since it’s often a conscious process.

Ever ran off to the bus stop and noticed midway through that you’re freezing? Chances are, you were unaware of the weather outside until it was too late. In that case, you made unconscious choices without considering all the aspects of the situation.

Or maybe you were fully conscious that yes, it’s freezing out there, but the woolly longies and bobble hat just don’t go with my outfit and I’ll only be outside as I’m walking to or from the bus stop. In that case, you were aware of the situation and decided that one choice – your outfit – had to be prioritised over another – your traveling comfort.

There’s theory back there.

Experiential learning and theory

The experiential learning cycle has four active stages.

1. Action, resulting in Experience

2. Reflection

3. Analysis

4. New Action modified by the findings, resulting in New Experience

…followed by reflection, followed by analysis… You see why it is called a cycle. I decided to call the first and fourth steps Action instead of mere Experience, because you can only control your actions. Controlling your experience is only done by controlling actions. Whatever happens, you can only receive the experience.

If you tend to reject the experience, that’s actually a New Action. When you experience something, you might unconsciously reflect and analyse it based on your theory of life, and then decide that you will take the action of rejecting the experience.

Suppose you have a theory of life that tall, black-haired people are unpleasant. If you meet a new person that’s tall and black-haired, they might end up being the most wonderful, loving and pleasant person you have ever met. Chances are, though, that you will not change your theory – you’ll just deduce that this individual is wonderful and pleasant, and other tall, black-haired people are still unpleasant.

This is how the cycle goes:

1. Experience:

The tall, black-haired one does something wonderful

2. Reflection:

Huh, I felt really good and happy when that happened. I never expected them to do something that wonderful.

3. Analysis

According to the theory of Tall, Black-Haired People, this is not characteristic of the group. This is unlike my previous experiences of the group. However, my theory of Friends suggests that this is characteristic of that group. I will therefore continue to classify this person primarily as a Friend and as an anomaly in the Tall, Black-Haired People category.

4. New Action

Treating the tall, black-haired one in a more friendly manner.

If the process is unconscious, it could take anything between a few seconds and several days. If you bring the process into the conscious mind, writing things down or speaking them out loud, it will take a few more minutes. However, it will bring to light possible flaws in your thinking and give you a more objective – dare I say it, theoretical? – view on your thoughts and knowledge.

What are your thoughts and experiences on the experiential learning cycle? Does my explanation of theory make you want to scream in despair? You’re welcome to reflect and ruminate in the comments. 🙂 If you want more, go ahead and subscribe! Lovely of you to pop by – keep catching your own insightings!



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Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take, I’ll be watching you

The Police: Every breath you take

Yesterday, I was driving to visit an acquaintance, and my daughter was sitting in her car seat in the back. We normally take public transit if it’s just the two of us, so she doesn’t have a lot of experience of being alone in the back seat. This time, however, circumstances favored us taking my mom’s car.

Normally, she really likes it in the car. It hums, the scenery changes, and most of the time there’s someone next to her, keeping her company. This time, though, she was alone in the back, and I don’t know if it was that or some other reason, but she was really unhappy and voiced it very loudly. Since I’m pretty averse to letting my child cry for lengthy periods of time, I pulled over and went to the back seat, tried to calm her down and gave her the pacifier. She settled down for a moment, and just as I was starting the car again, she began to whimper. I started singing a simple lullaby that we’ve been singing to her since she was a few weeks old, and that seemed to calm her down. I ended up singing the song over and over until we arrived at our destination.

Apparently the sound of my voice and the familiar song were strong enough messages to convince her that she was not alone and that I was close by, even when she couldn’t see me. As far as I understand, developmentally she is yet to realize that things exist even when you can’t see them.

“I’ll be right there!”

I’ve been thinking a lot about presence ever since I read an article on a study concerning babies’ stress when they are ignored. The babies in the study were six months old, and in the study, their mothers played with them normally, but “froze” for two minutes at a time every now and then, staying in the baby’s sightline but ignoring the baby and staring at the wall. The babies showed elevated stress hormone levels on the following day, when they were brought back to the research facility, even though there was no ignoring on the second day.

I found out about the study on an online message board, and there was (unsurprisingly) some discussion as to what the practical applications of this study are. Some people thought it more or less chains mothers and infants together and lays a guilt trip on anyone who dares to go to the bathroom with the door closed if their child is left alone for that time. Others saw it as a defense against “just let the baby cry it out, it’ll be all right” type of advice.

Personally, I do think that babies need their mothers close by. If a child voices a distress and it systematically gets no response, it will eventually stop voicing its distress because it’s just no use – no-one will answer anyway. However, a response may well be something along the lines of my car-ride lullaby. If my baby hears my voice, it knows I’m not far away. I haven’t disappeared from the world, even if I am currently invisible.

Furthermore, she knows she is not invisible – I can hear her, I can vocally respond to her cries, I can take eye contact when I get closer and I can pick her up when I see she’s in distress. My presence and interaction with her convince her that she exists.

The online presence

In many ways, the online world reflects this “someone please tell me I’m not invisible!” line of thinking. Establishing a presence online – whether in Facebook, on message boards, in the blogosphere, on Twitter – really requires time, effort and reciprocity. There are a few online contexts where I’ve managed to create a presence, and others where I’m really only a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it face in the crowd.

Creating that presence takes time. Reading (because most of the presence is in text form) what others have contributed, finding interesting tidbits to share, regularly coming back to see what others have added since your last visit. It takes effort. Figuring out your opinions (on more serious matters), grafting your message so it’s easy to read, wording your jokes, timing your responses so you stay on the pulse and don’t comment on ancient topics.

And it takes reciprocity. Commenting on what others have already said, taking it a bit further, reading the responses you get and possibly repeating the whole cycle again. It’s the online equivalent of the eye contact: “Yes, I can see you, there you are, you exist in this world.”

Degrees of presence

For our daughter, I’m probably the number one presence in her life. The head honcho, the one who hardly ever leaves her side. My husband is a close second. After that, there are the grandparents, the godparents, our friends, and so forth in descending order.

It’s interesting to see how the degrees of presence show in her behavior towards us. Since I’m nearly always there, my presence borders on boring. It’s safe, but it’s also something she doesn’t make a big deal about. The few exceptions are the times when she wakes up from her nap, and sees me coming in the room if I was somewhere else. The smile on her face says “Awesome, you were gone and now you’re here!” My husband, on the other hand, seems to get all the giggles. 🙂 He is a safe presence, but not quite as predictable as I.

Then there are the interesting visitors, the ones who ring some kind of a bell but aren’t daily contacts, people like my mom and some of her godparents. There has to be a grace period of her reacquainting herself to these visitors from the safety of my or my husband’s lap, before she is secure enough to cuddle with them.

Online, the degrees or presence became evident on another message board, when there were several cases of sad news in a short while. Since the people in question were “big names”, it seemed that everyone knew what was going on in a heartbeat. Similarly, “big names” leaving or taking a break would be a huge deal in an online community – just because so many people are so used to their presence. It’s safe. You can count on their “it’s okay, honey, I’ll be right there”.

When a small-time presence disappears for any length of time, you hardly notice – until they return, or until someone points out they are gone. I’m fairly confident there were less than a handful of people who wondered why I’d been a lazy blogger, and most of those people were real-world friends. 🙂

A shift of sorts

Since creating an online presence (and a real-life presence, too) takes time and effort, you can realistically have a limited number of really influential presences in different social communities. At the moment, my most influential presence is in the context of my family, but there are other, smaller ones in the background.

I’ve noticed I need the feeling of being a strong presence in social communities. Possibly for the “someone sees me, therefore I must exist” reason. This is probably why I’ve originally liked being a group leader or a teacher – there are more pairs of eyes to strengthen my existence. 🙂 Being a quiet onlooker in the sidelines has not been a suit that fits.

Until now.

I don’t know if it’s the arrival of the baby or something else, but there has been a change in my relationship towards social situations, whether live or online ones. Before, I’ve felt like I need to open my mouth, to contribute, to be a presence in order to “buy” my foothold in the community. Contributing has been the currency of being seen.

Now, I feel like contributing has become the primary force. I want to contribute when someone needs help, thoughts, entertainment or ideas. Or when I have an idea that needs voicing. If someone sees it and benefits from it, wonderful. If they comment, even better. But I don’t feel like my contribution was a failure if it’s met with silence.

Furthermore, I enjoy just observing a situation without feeling the need to contribute. If something comes up, I’ll express it, but I don’t feel like I’ll be thrown out of the room (or off the Internets) simply because I just observe. I love going to a moms-and-babies meetup, sitting at the table, drinking a cup of coffee and just listening. And my worth as an online community member is not determined by my post count. 🙂

As is appropriate, the writing of this blog post was interrupted a few times by the cooing of a napping baby who needed my presence. 🙂

Thank you so much for popping by again! If any thoughts came up (and you feel the need to contribute 😉 ), feel free to share in the comments! If not, it’s okay to just sip coffee and observe, and possibly catch your own insightings!



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Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re ALL individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
Man in crowd: I’m not…
The Crowd: Sch!

Monty Python: Life of Brian

After reading yet another brilliant post by Havi, and the wonderfully inspiring conversation in the comments, I’ve spent the past few days thinking about stereotypes and individuality.

Especially this comment, by Laurel, inspired me.

“We accept complexities within ourselves but we put other people into square little boxes and then discover we don’t belong in any box, forgetting that we’re the one who created the boxes in the first place.”

Then there was this t-shirt print I found while surfing The Onion Store.

And a day’s worth of reading The Finnish National Curriculum about how each learner is to be treated as an individual with their own personal learning history.

I couldn’t help but post about this.

Role and group identities

A fascinating course I took last fall dealt with identity theories. There are several views on what identity is and how it interacts with a whole bunch of things, but the two that intertwine with this topic are the ideas of group identities vs. role identities.

Your group identity helps you blend in. If you’re a Swedish female school teacher, you might identify as a woman among women, a Swede among Swedes, a teacher among teachers.

Group identities give us common ground with new in-group people. The more specific the group, e.g. Norwegian 20-something exchange students in Austin, Texas, the stronger the feeling of belonging.

Role identities depend on the, well, roles we play in different situations. Our Swedish female school teacher, Mona, in class is “the teacher”. At home, she might be “the mother”, “the wife”, “the friend”, et cetera.

Outside her groups, the group identity might also be reflected as a role identity. Among her male colleagues, Mona is “The Woman”. Among her friends, she’s “The Teacher”. In an international school teachers’ convention, she’s “The Swede”.

This is where we run into stereotyping. If Mona’s convention acquaintances have never met a Swedish person before, they might base all their opinions of Swedes and Sweden as a nation on this one person.

So if Mona happens to be exceptionally beautiful, or intelligent, or musically talented, or rude, or has a habit of running late, then that characteristic could get extended to the entire nation by default.


We’re all a delightful jumble of in-group associations that are reflected to others as roles. (To be clear, I’m not talking about roles as a notion of make-believe or false pretense, merely as different facets that are displayed in social situations.)

This is what makes us unique human beings – I’d be willing to bet there isn’t a single other person in the world with the same combination of identities that you have. The simple fact that we’ve been raised in our respective childhood homes gives us completely unique combinations of group identities.

The individual identities may be weak or strong, or they might only become activated in certain situations. I don’t really identify as a teacher when I’m in choir practice – the identity and its characteristics are not that relevant in the context.

This is probably where the whole outsider aspect comes to play, too. When we’re in one of our in-groups, the others seem so much more “in the group” than we do, because we know we’re only maybe 10% in-group ourselves.

What we often don’t realize is that the others are showing their 10% to us and we think it’s the whole deal.

I want to quote Laurel again, because she put it so beautifully:

“We accept complexities within ourselves but we put other people into square little boxes…”

We only see a fraction of the true identities of the people we meet. Even those closest to us have sides we’ve probably never seen. I’ve never really seen my mother at work, having a meeting with a client. If I did, I’d probably still see her as “Mom having a work-type meeting” instead of “an entrepreneur having a routine meeting“. My glasses are tinted that way.

I can try to become aware of the tint, however. If I’m looking at the world through blue glasses, it’s a lot easier to guess the true color of things if I know my glasses are blue. Similarly, I can try and figure out if I’m looking at someone through stereotype glasses, so I can make the necessary adjustments to my behavior.


In theatrical improvisation, one of the main rules is “be obvious“. The more obvious you are, the more original you seem to others, because your “obvious” is not everyone else’s “obvious”.

Related anecdote: I and my fiancé are planning a wedding for next summer. This has caused me to spend countless hours reading wedding forums, listening to wedding planning podcasts, and surfing wedding blogs. (What can I say? It’s become a hobby. :))

The interesting thing is that a lot of people participating the forum conversation are adamant about making their wedding “unique and different”. And most of them want to do that by skipping a lot of the traditional aspects of a Finnish wedding and just throwing a fabulous dinner party with music and conversation for their closest ones.

Don’t get me wrong – if that’s what floats your boat, go ahead. Make the wedding your own. But it strikes me as weird that you’d want to make your wedding unique and original by, um, doing the exact same thing as ten thousand other brides next summer? *sigh*

For the two of us, a lot of the decisions we’ve had to make about the wedding have fortunately seemed obvious – the venues, the officiant, the first dance, the menu. I’m not even stressed about the originality factor; if we make our own obvious choices, the wedding will reflect our personalities and be truly unique.

Thanks for stopping by, keep catching those insightings!



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reflection (Merriam-Webster online)
– an instance of reflecting; the return of light or sound waves from a surface
– the production of an image by or as if by a mirror
– something produced by reflecting; an image given back by a reflecting surface
– a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation
– consideration of some subject matter, idea, or purpose

One of the big words in Finnish teacher training today is the reflective process. Whatever you do, whoever you meet, wherever you go, it’s essential to reflect upon the experience to develop yourself as a teacher.

For the first few years of my studies, I saw the reflective process as a nuisance, especially since it often involved writing a reflective journal about this, that and the other. More often than not “reflection” translated freely into “producing the kind of jargon the lecturer probably wants to read”.

For the most part, though, the problem with the reflection process was not the thinking back and writing itself – it was the lack of a proper mirror. Not having good questions to reflect my experience on was like trying to put on makeup and using a spoon as a mirror. Sure, you’ll get something down, but you know you’re not seeing the whole picture

Experiential learning

Reflecting on experience is a central part of the experiential learning process, which is the main way of learning through drama activities. It’s no surprise, then, that the whole experience-reflection-conceptualization-modified experience circle has become clearer during the fifteen months I’ve now been studying drama education.

The important thing in the reflection stage, however, is to have the right kind of mirror. With questions that support the focus of learning, the teacher can guide the participants into fabulous insightings about the ongoing drama process and its themes. With misguided questions, though, the teacher can undermine the ongoing drama process or leave the participants wondering about the purpose of the activity.

As a drama-teacher-in-training, it sometimes feels awkward to ask direct questions about the exercise we just did. Well, everyone knows what we just did, right? It’s still important to ask the participants to verbalise or otherwise transform what they experienced – draw, dance, sing, mime – to gain new points of view into the issue. Furthermore, if there are twenty people participating, there are twenty different experiences, which can then enrich each other if discussed out loud.

After the reflection stage, experiential learning entails some kind of an analysis or conceptualization stage. This is where the experience meets my mental theory of the realm of that experience – learning, teaching, India, group dynamics, photosynthesis, stress tolerance, communication, whatever.

If I have experienced something new and unusual, I will have to change my theory to accommodate the new information. Based on the modified theory, I then go on to new experiences in the same realm, hopefully a bit better prepared to meet the challenges.

The mirror problem

The reflection stage is very important in the entire process, because it determines the conscious information we gather of our experience. This is why the questions – the mirror that reflects the whole picture – are so central. With the wrong questions, we might interpret the whole situation in a twisted light.

This is especially true in an educational setting, because the teacher more or less guides the participants’ conclusions with the questions she sets.

There is also a distiction between introspective questions and theme-oriented questions. Regardless of the process at hand, introspective questions are often useful as they chart the participants’ experiences of themselves during the activity. Theme-oriented questions, then, are the ones where a teacher must really pay attention.

Last weekend I conducted my very first process drama on the themes of belonging in a group. With a different set of reflective questions, though, the same basic process could easily have focused around how detrimental cult religions are, or around communication patterns in friendly or hostile contexts. Quite different learning processes might have taken place.

Everyday experiential learning?

Anyone who has ever done a bit of self-work recognises the basic structure of experiential learning.

Huh, I seem to have devoured half a bag of chips. Why did I do that? Because I was tired and hungry. Why was I tired and hungry? Because I skipped lunch. Why did I skip lunch? Because… and so on, until we get to the a-HA! moment.

It seems I get cranky and lethargic if I don’t eat, which makes me skip all kinds of duties, including lunch and deadlines. At this stage, the hypothetical example person (ok, you guessed, it’s me) would be well advised to somehow accommodate this piece of information into her theoretical framework of, say, health, well-being, and productivity.

The most useful tool in self-work are, of course, introspective questions. Figuring out what I think of something or why I choose to act like I do is highly useful, because that helps me address the stuff I’m self-working on in a deeper level. Root Cause Analysis – asking ‘why’ five times – could be a useful tool as far as introspection goes.

Theme-oriented experiental self learning is of course possible as well. In that case, reflecting on the pros and cons or the details of successes and failures of your experiences might do the trick. I think I’d get someone more knowledgeable to help me out at first, though. It takes a bit of experience to be able to ask useful questions about any skill.

Note to self: use experiential learning skills to regain the basics of playing guitar.

As always, feel free to comment and reflect upon this and everything else – and until we meet again, keep catching your own insightings!



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