Teaching Opinion

Schools Already Have Good Learning, Just Not Where You Think

By Jal Mehta — February 08, 2017 10 min read
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In a piece we recently published in Ed. Magazine, Sarah Fine and I argued that the “periphery” of schools was often more vital than the core. This is an argument that arose unexpectedly out of our research; when we set out to write about powerful learning in core disciplinary classes, we found instead that those spaces were often full of passive and bored students, in contrast to extracurricluars like dance, theater, sports, newspapers, and more that were full of student passion and apprenticeship-style learning. We argued that these spaces are not only more fun and engaging, but that they also offered better platforms for learning.

In this post, I want to unpack exactly what makes these spaces distinctive and think about the implications for regular school. I draw on a case study we conducted of a high school theater program, which will be developed at more length in our forthcoming book on deeper learning. This was a theater program at a large, fairly well-off, comprehensive high school, and thus the comparisons students made between theater and school should be understood as referring to modal classes in such schools. There are classes that have many of these best elements that we saw in theater; I return to that point below.

Theater differed from traditional school in the following ways that students said were critical for learning:

Purpose and audience - Putting on a play created the purpose that anchored all activity. With this purpose an omnipresent force and the clock ever-ticking towards the show night, there was little need for behavioral management by the adult director. There was a schedule that showed which actors needed to be there on which days, and when actors weren’t called, they did their homework or read their phones. People went to the bathroom or got water when they needed to. Parker Palmer has argued that in the best classes neither teachers nor students are in charge, but rather the action is governed by the “Great Thing,” the topic to be explored. Here the play and its production took on the role of the “Great Thing"; as decisions over how to spend time or how to play a role were approached by what would be good for the show and its audience.

Choice - Students almost uniformly said that part of what made theater work was that everyone had chosen to be there. They said that reading Shakespeare in class with people who didn’t like theater was painful in comparison to the joy that comes from building off one another with people who mutually love a thing. They also said it created heightened mutual accountability because everyone had chosen to be there. There may be good paternalistic reasons to put limits on students’ choices in school, but we should recognize how powerful choice is in forming a powerful learning environment.

Community - Producing something together was powerful in part because of the community that it created. Students said that they often didn’t know, and certainly didn’t depend on, others in their classes, and didn’t have a real reason to get to know them. Students cited this as perhaps the most powerful aspect of being in the theater program and the thing they would miss the most when it was gone. Students also formed a collective identity around being member of the theater program, and being part of theater helped them find a niche in a large school.

Interdependent roles - Everyone in the show had a role and a purpose. This is in stark contrast to school, which often has two roles--teacher and students. By developing roles--actors, stage managers, lighting designers, set design, props, even dramaturgs--the show created ways to give students responsibility and to develop particular expertise that the show as a whole required. It also bred a real sense that everyone was needed--while not everyone could be the lead in the play, if the prop wasn’t on the table at the right moment, the show as a whole isn’t going to succeed. This bred an atmosphere of mutual respect across the groups. This is in sharp contrast to school, where my success has little relationship to yours. (Or, in curved classes, where my success comes at the expense of yours.)

Temporal arc to the learning - The production of a play, like many other products one makes in the world, has built into it a certain rhythm of learning. At the beginning, there is a lot of brainstorming and creativity--actors experiment with different ways to play roles, costume designers consider different fabrics or color palettes. Particularly for the actors, this is a period of intense vulnerability and risk-taking, as they try out different ways to play their characters. In the middle, there are the tasks of integration--bringing together what has been developed by the actors with work done by set, lights, and costumes. And then at the end there is a period of frenetic refinement, where no detail is too small to be revised (e.g., why don’t you open your foot up a little, the director told one actor after the dress rehearsal). This mirrors the rhythms of creative work, but is largely absent from the usual school model of read the material, write the paper, take the test, where there are few stages and little opportunities to perfect the product.

Heads, hands and heart - It has been said that academics think of their bodies as the things that convey their heads from one class to the next. The same could be said of school. Developing a play was not like that--using their bodies, channeling their emotions, and managing their nerves were all critical parts of the task. Many of the actors also said there was a strong connection between mind and body--first they found their “physicality"--how they were going to physically embody a role--and then that helped them develop their characterization. Theater enabled students to bring their whole selves, in ways that were frequently not possible during the day.

Apprenticeship learning - Unlike age-graded school, productions feature students at different ages and at very different levels of knowledge and skill. This gave younger learners an opportunity to learn from their peers, to apprentice with slightly older students who knew how to do what they wanted to learn. In lighting, set design, and stage managing, there was often a senior as the lead, a junior as an assistant, and a freshman or sophomore as something like an intern. Students described that they had gradually taken on more responsibility over the years as they developed increasing competence. Younger students also looked up to older ones; they provided models of who they wanted to be in the future. Adults involved in the theater program extended this notion of apprenticeship, providing greater levels of expertise, and sometimes connecting students to professional work in college, community, or regional theaters.

Mastery, identity, and creativity - We have argued elsewhere that deeper learning emerges at the intersection of mastery (developing knowledge and skill in a domain), identity (the domain matters to me), and creativity (I’m not just taking in knowledge but creating something). We’ve argued that these three qualities function in a reinforcing loop, where identity provides motivation, creativity provides an outlet for expression, and then, in the course of trying to create, there are reasons to learn the more prosaic parts of mastery which are critical to high levels of performance. The students described all of these qualities in their learning. In terms of creativity, they said the difference between reading a play in class and putting on a production was the difference between two dimensions and three--when you are trying to convey an interpretation to an audience, you have to know it at a different level than when you are analyzing themes or symbols for class. In terms of identity, students hung out in the theater part of the building, and formed a collective identity around being “theater kids.” And in terms of mastery, there was endless repetition in rehearsals--practice, with feedback, over and over. The process thus integrates different theories of learning--there is a lot of Dewey/constructivism/learning by doing, but there is also a heavy dose of feedback/external expertise/working within longstanding norms and traditions of theater.

Whole game at the junior level - David Perkins has put forward the idea that learning some things, like baseball, involve playing the whole game at the junior level. Six-year-olds don’t spend a year learning to bat, another learning to throw, and another learning to pitch. They play the whole game--very imperfectly at first, but in ways that become increasingly sophisticated over time. Perkins argues that this helps both with understanding--learners can see how the whole thing fits together--and with motivation, as learners can see why someone would want to take up the game. All of this was true in spades in theater, as each production provided an opportunity to participate in the whole game from start to finish.

These are qualities that we also saw in the best classrooms we visited. Those teachers too tried to invite students into the “whole game” of their disciplines, they focused on producing things rather than simply remembering or analyzing them, they tried to develop an arc to the learning by creating time for experimentation and then time for production and refinement, and they worked hard to build a strong relational community in their classrooms. The ethos of the best classes we saw was also similar to theater--strong governing purpose to the work, but that purpose is suffused with play. They also saw students as active producers in a similar way to how they were seen in theater, focusing more on what they could do than on what they didn’t know.

At the same time, we couldn’t help but notice a critical difference between the two domains: in theater, everything is aligned to support this work; whereas in school, teachers seem to be working against the grain to incorporate these elements into their classes. Theater as a field provides much of what an individual director needs to make a show go. Theater as a field provides a thick infrastructure for doing this work. It creates a series of familiar roles (set, lighting, costumes, dramaturgs, stage manager, director) and expectations for what people in those roles will do. It possesses a technical language, developed over many generations, that enables precise feedback in ways that are understood by everyone involved. It creates a rhythm or temporal arc to the work--table work, blocking, tech week, dress rehearsals, show. It creates role models, in theater or movie stars, who are well-known and provide templates for what student-actors might someday become. And it builds in an external audience for the work; people who know what a production is and why one would want to attend a show. The fact that it is a recognizable and valued form also helps secure the lengthy after school time it demands of students each day as well as the public budget for the space and the adults involved in the program.

Compare this to project-based learning. A project-based teacher has many of the same goals as a theater director: she wants students to develop an authentic product that will matter to the student, develop some understanding of the content, and be valued by an external audience. But she has so much less to work with: she needs to explain to her students what the final product will be, even though they have never seen what it is they are trying to produce; if she wants student to take roles in their groups she needs to explain what those roles are and why they matter; if she wants to give feedback she has no specific shared technical language to rely on; if she wants to create an arc to the learning she needs to explain what the stages are in the development of a project and why they are important; if she wants peer mentoring and apprenticeship she likely will need to make special arrangements because more experienced students are likely in other grades and thus not in her class; she will likely need long blocks, especially towards the end, but will be on a fixed schedule of short blocks; if she wants an audience for the work, she will have to make special arrangements to recruit one, and she will have to explain to them what the students are doing and why; and finally, if she is going to develop resources for this project, she will need to convince the principal, the parents, and the school board of the value of a product and a mode of learning that they likely don’t understand and may not value.

In short, we have models, after school, and in broader society, that support the kind of engaged, thick, authentic, and multi-dimensional learning that students find meaningful and is consistent with what we know about how people develop deep understandings of domains. But we mostly don’t use these models in regular school. Could we change this, so that students are as excited to come to school as they are for what happens after the final bell?

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