Monday, March 6, 2017

Real Performance Based Education

This afternoon the set was struck and the stage swept clean. We've come to the end of this year's spring musical. As always it was one of the highlights of my year, and as always, it reminded me of how inadequate so many of our educational models are.

There are weeks of rehearsal, learning music, learning choreography, working on blocking and lines and the underlying character work that goes with all of that. We have a cast of students in 7-12 grade in very many levels of skill and experience.

Used properly, a portal to a world of learning

That means that in the course of assembling the show, each student learns a different set of lessons that depend a great deal on what roles they receive and what skills they bring to the table, as well as their ambition and adventurousness of spirit.

So this educational experience is extremely personalized, and that means far more than I have twelve lessons to choose from and a computer picks the next one based on how the last one turned out. My lead actor may need to learn about comedic timing, while one of my chorus folks may need to learn about the importance of the chorus in a show. My leading actress may need to learn about how to flesh out a character when the writers haven't given you much to work with. But the list of lessons will be different for every different role and every different cast member.

The lessons also vary with directors. This program is a co-op that allows my school to join in with a school just across town, and I split directing duties with an old friend who heads up the other school's program. We've divided up duties many different ways over the years, and it works because we work well together. Every theater production is a collaboration of some sort, and that collaboration is always shaped by the approaches of the people involved. Some directors have a very specific vision for the actors to bring to life, while others like to leave spaces for the actors to fill in with their own choices. We tend toward the latter, but some actors are more comfortable with the former and all sorts of combinations can get good results (and the requirements of the script itself also make a difference). All of which means that if you showed up with a specific program for exactly how a director should put together a show, I would laugh at you. Here we are with a performance based task that literally comes with a script-- and yet only a fool would claim that the script is all you need to produce a great show.

Likewise, putting on a show is the very definition of a performance-based learning experience. Yet if we were to follow the PBL model currently favored, we would break the show down into a checklist. Does the actor know the lines? Check. Does the actor know the blocking? Check. Can the actor put on her costume? Check. And on and on and even if I have checked off every micro-credential on the list, that is not the same thing as actually performing the show. Nor do we build toward that performance capability by working down the list one separate performance task at a time, because they are all part of a greater whole.

And those tasks would be performed for an evaluator, an assessor of some sort, which is not the ultimate goal. Our show was performed in front of an audience, and because it was a comedy, the audience reaction was a critical part of performance (in fact, on our second night, I saw something I've never seen in school or community theater before-- the show was stopped by audience laughter). Unlike competency-based education, which presumes that competencies can be approached as separate, discrete skills that can be measured through proxies, tasks that aren't the real thing. There is no checklist that would have substituted for dress rehearsal, no assessment more valuable than audience reactions in performance.

And speaking of assessments-- at no point in the eight-week process of preparing the show would a multiple-choice standardized test have been useful.At no point in the process did anyone think, "Hey, we need to do some assessments here to make sure that everyone is on track for a good performance." It would have been a pointless, useless waste of time.

In fact, standardization of any type is useless in this process. I have no idea how many productions of The Addams Family have been put on in community and school theaters at this point, but I will bet you the farm, the rent money, and a full box of donuts that not one of those productions looks exactly like any other. It's true that nobody who saw our production would have mistaken it for Hamlet or Oh Calcutta, but every production exists at the intersection of a specific cast, director, school, community, and stage (ours has no fly gallery, so that affects set design considerably). School theater in particular has to make adjustments for things as simple as language and as substantial as character gender (I can tell you, for instance, that interesting things happen to the subtext of Disney's Beauty and the Beast when Belle's crazy father Maurice is replaced by Belle's crazy mother Marie). It is those specific variations that most often give the special flavor and quality to the local production; the deviations from the standard are a source of excellence, not treatment-demanding flaw.

I love working with students and theater (despite the giant chunks of my life that it demands) because it is an experience that, in an absolutely authentic manner, helps each student grow and learn and discover new greatness in herself. It is an absolutely real learning and growth experience, which is why I'm always struck by how completely it does not match any of the assumptions about real learning made by the forces of ed reform. This is what real learning and growth look like, and they don't resemble the whole standard-driven test-centered punishment-fueled system that has been forced on us for the past fifteen years.


  1. Rafe Esquith writes about the beauty of the theatre in his books and the lessons it provided his students.

  2. A lot of similarities to sports, as well. I don't recall football players taking MC tests on their game assignments, or baseball players on how to hit a curveball.

  3. Good news: Chance the Rapper is donating a million dollars to CPS for arts and enrichment. Warms my heart.

  4. I did theatre in Spanish during my undergrad. It was truly PBL!