Monday, January 16, 2006

On Acting and Learning and Effective Teaching

Last night after the Bear game concluded (odd that the both road teams won in this round of the playoffs) I watched Ralph (rhymes with waif) Fiennes on Inside the Actors Studio. He was interesting to watch because he has played such horrible characters (the Nazi in Schindler’s List, the serial killer in Red Dragon, and of course Valdemort in the latest Harry Potter movie) and yet seemed so genuinely humble and vulnerable. Indeed, his representation of good acting experiences featured these aspects: openness, a willingness to take risks, unanticipated outcomes from trying new approaches, and, particularly from his female co-stars, a sense of humor to acknowledge situations where each was particularly vulnerable. In Fiennes view, good directors are those who promote this sort of environment.

It is tempting to envision teaching a course from this point of view, with the teacher as director and the students as actors, in which case one of the prime teaching questions must be this. How do I, as the teacher, get the students to open up? What activities can I design to get the students to explore and take risks?

Let’s leave that for a moment and come back to it. Actors and Directors have their preferences in alignment to the extent that both want to see a good movie made. Focusing on the student work, there is a similar alignment. But teachers often focus on their own presentations in class and because teachers assign grades to students the power relationship between teacher and students is different from the relationship between director and actors. So an important related question is how to move that teacher-student relationship more toward the collaborative director-actor relationship and away from the exertion of arbitrary authority that might very well act as an inhibitor rather than a spur to student risk taking.

To the extent that class size matters in teaching, I think this is one big reason. In large classes it is harder for the instructor to move outside this authoritative role. In smaller classes it is easier for the instructor to act as collaborator with the students. And, not surprisingly, it is easier for there to be meaningful dialog in small classes. I note this because I want to focus on method and using learning technology to make the instructor more like the director, and abstract from the class size issue.

It seems to me that innovative teachers in the humanities might ask this question but those in engineering, the sciences, or the social sciences would be less prone to pose a good teaching question in this form. But perhaps now the learning technology can make the question seem sensible, even in these other disciplines.

Suppose that students do project work and that the deliverable is a podcast, a vidcast, a multimedia presentation with PowerPoint, or some other format in which the students of necessity provide a performance as part of the project deliverable. Suppose that deliverable is “viewed” by other students, in a manner similar to the way we view films (but perhaps we encourage students to play the role of the critic in their viewing of other student productions). Does it then make sense to cast the role of instructor as director?

If the instructor is to do this seriously, then the instructor must put attention into it and thus must take attention away from something else, notably the presentations the instructor makes. It would then seem that this approach makes sense only if the instructor comes to the conclusion that the students learn what they need to master by being performers about their projects rather than being exposed to instructor presentation.

Actors don’t just act. They do a lot of preparation for their roles. They do research. Fiennes talked about doing this for the role of Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy, who had trauma during childhood because of sexual abuse. That was the root cause for his horrendus behavior. The research as preparation for performance seems akin if not identical to the research students should do as they work through their project. So the wrinkle here, something that now doesn’t seem so out of the usual, is to add performance into the delivery of the project. The performance should encourage student engagement and should help the students understand there is an audience for their work.

I believe this can be done irrespective of discipline, but does require imagination on behalf of the instructor. It also requires devoting considerable time to getting the students to prepare for the roles and for the instructor to deliver directions to the students qua actors.

I wonder how many instructors might try something like this.

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