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Teaching is a Performance Art

Posted on November 6, 2019 by Fiona Covarr

Teaching students in an engaging and interesting way can be tricky. It can mean making use of body language, voice projection, humour, and visuals. But teaching is more than just these factors. In fact, teaching is ultimately a performance art!

There’s nothing so off-putting as a soporific teacher

I once had a friend who was a strong academic in the Computer Sciences – he performed exceptionally well in almost every single subject he took at university. However, there was one subject he didn’t score quite as well in – Informatics. When I asked him why, he admitted he dreaded attending the lectures. To put it in his words, he found the lecturer had a ‘soporific voice’ (I had to go running to my dictionary to look that one up!) and that he would simply drone on and on about whatever particular topic they were studying. My friend found himself nodding off to sleep in class, lulled by the droning of the lecturer’s voice. Eventually my friend just stopped attending the lectures. As a consequence, his final result suffered.

I have also been witness to some abysmal lecturing ‘performances’, where the lecturer sounded so completely disinterested in the poetry she was reading out loud to us students, that I almost swore off poetry for life.

The point here is that the way or manner in which teachers teach is extremely important – teachers have the power to inculcate a love or hate for a particular subject based on the way they perform in the classroom.

Nonetheless, we cannot expect teachers to be natural thespians. First and foremost, they need to be subject (and people) experts. Being more aware of the ways in which they teach and show a passion for their subject can help with delivery of lessons!

“The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds.”

Teller of Penn & Teller, a former Latin teacher

(From: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/what-classrooms-can-learn-from-magic/425100/)

How different age groups learn best

It might come as no surprise to hear that very young children learn best when the teacher actively participates in learning with them.

According to Tatum Condon of Saxoncourt.com, “this age group responds very well to songs, colourful images and movement… [Teachers should not] be afraid to make a fool of [themselves]. Kindergartens react well to exaggerated facial expressions, big movements and loud sounds…They will not only love the acting but if the teacher is comfortable with acting like [them], then they will feel more confident in the classroom and amongst the other students.” (From https://www.saxoncourt.com/blog/teaching-different-age-groups-works-doesnt/).

As children start heading into primary school, they become more self-aware and may not be as enthusiastic about making a spectacle of themselves. So, although teaching still needs to be varied, interesting and engaging, it does not have to happen in a “waving your arms about” and “prancing around the classroom” kind of way. Rather, this is where being creative about teaching takes the place of more overt ‘classroom performances’.

The variety of teaching methods become important at primary school: using audio-visual tools in the form of supplementary material (images, cartoons, film clips); creating an outdoor classroom for occasional use or arranging for walks around the school to teach particular concepts; designing role playing sessions to encourage children to ‘put themselves in someone else’s shoes’; using collaborative storyboards to encourage imaginative thinking; implementing show and tell sessions; and/or using puzzles and boardgames to make learning fun. Of course, the teacher will still have to outwardly show some form of enthusiasm for and interest in the above suggested methods. (From: https://www.slideshare.net/teachertraining398/modern-teaching-methods-for-primary-school)

By the time they reach high school, students have become more sophisticated thinkers. Amateur dramatics are just not going to cut it. But what is going to count is your genuine interest and love for a subject. If you can clearly convey this through your teaching, you are more likely to inspire your students to take an interest in it too!

Let your body talk
Now all of this does not mean to say that you should completely forget about using body language and voice projection in your lessons. There really is nothing worse than trying to focus on content which is being taught by someone who mumbles or is as animated as a rock. Voice is especially a very important tool when teaching – show where you want to place emphasis, vary your tone, speak clearly, and with obvious interest. If you are passionate about your subject, these things tend to happen naturally.

Visual images – show and tell

The use of visuals makes information much more interesting. Graphs, arrows and tables also help students to assimilate information more holistically. Even newspapers know the value of using images to attract the eye and as a means of adding more information, meaning or emotion to the facts they present in their articles.

Humour – it’s no laughing matter!

Alison Klein and Christian Moriarty, both experienced teachers, highly recommend the use of humour in the classroom. They suggest that humour may be especially helpful when it comes to “dry and challenging subject matter like tax and campaign finance law”:

“When you make class more fun, you make the content more memorable and improve the student experience. Students are more positive about the class and more engaged, which aids in retention of information (as well as retention of students!).”

Klein and Moriarty suggest two ways of going about this: by ‘being funny yourself’ (in other words, spotting opportunities to include humour whilst teaching) or by purposefully ‘bringing in humorous content’ (for example, by making use of funny video clips or images). However, they also reiterate an important point – that you should not feel pressurised to be funny:

“While you don’t have to be a stand-up comedian, employing a little silliness to your material can help with student interest, attentiveness, anxiety reduction, participation, information retention, and more.”  

A well-known published work on humour and play in the classroom is The Laughing Classroom: Everyone’s Guide to Teaching with Humour and Play by Diana Loomans and Karen Kolberg. I would strongly recommend every teacher get a hold of this book. Here is a selection of some YES/NO questions Loomans and Kolberg recommend teachers ask themselves about their students:

  1. My students are enthusiastic as they enter my classroom.
  2. My students have a few affectionate nicknames for me.
  3. My students laugh often and appropriately in the classroom.
  4. Occasionally a former student will come back to visit with me.
  5. Students often recommend me to their peers.
  6. My students enjoy sharing small talk with me before or after class.

If you can answer yes to the majority of these questions, then you are probably doing a great job in the classroom!

Someone who understands the value of performance in the classroom as a means of conveying passion and interest is Christopher Emdin. In fact, he compares inspirational teaching to creating magic – in other words, to doing something special that can change the world. You can watch his TED talk about this here: 

CambriLearn – the challenge of online teaching

At CambriLearn, I think our teachers may have it slightly harder when it comes to trying to engage an online audience in a Live Lesson. For example, there is more of a limit to the ways you can make an impact because you have to do so within the confines of a screen, with a limited restriction to movement, and you have to work around a microphone with a confined signal area. You also do not have the benefit of being able to see students’ reactions, body language or facial expressions, all of which could help you to modify your teaching.

However, our teachers enjoy rising to this challenge. During Live Lessons we can communicate directly with students via the chat box, posing questions to them and reading out any responses or queries they post. We also use visuals on an interactive whiteboard or a shared document to illustrate the concepts we teach. We can instantaneously access online material such as video or audio clips if we wish to share them in a lesson. We also record our Live Lessons for future use in the Live Lesson Library.

The Live Lesson Library provides valuable access to the lessons for students who were unable to attend during the scheduled time slot. Students can watch the recordings as many times as they need to. Using the teacher chat function, our Premium students are even able to ask specific questions which may crop up as they work through the recordings.

The recordings are also really helpful to teachers as they have the opportunity to review their teaching of  a particular topic and garner ideas of how to improve on performance in future lessons. Teaching online makes you more aware of the fact that you are on camera and that you have to make some effort to ‘perform’. It thus forces you to refine the way you communicate with your students, which is definitely a good thing!

Human beings are intrinsically aesthetic beings – we are attracted to stories, films, media and art. It seems as though we are hardwired to do this. And this probably accounts for why teaching students effectively involves far more than just passing information on to them mechanically.

And now I must be off to perform in my next live lesson. As they like to say in showbiz…Lights! Camera! Action!

Sources:

Alison Klein & Christian Moriarty. Using Humour in the Classroom.

https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/using-humor-classroom/

Christopher Emdin. Teach Teachers how to Create Magic. TED Talk.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3ddtbeduoo
Diana Loomans & Karen Kolberg. The Laughing Classroom: Everyone’s Guide to Teaching with Humour and Play. (Click to access here)
Penn & Teller. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/what-classrooms-can-learn-from-magic/425100/
Teaching Methods for Primary School. https://www.slideshare.net/teachertraining398/modern-teaching-methods-for-primary-school