Theatre Techniques in the Classroom

I went on a UCL-CALT (Centre for Advancement of Learning and Teaching) training day yesterday on ‘The Art of Teaching: Theatre Techniques for the Classroom’.  When I booked it a few non-UCL people said how interesting and useful that would be so I thought I’d write a quick reflection (which, it so happens, I will use for my PGCert TLHE portfolio…they like that kind of thing).

So firstly, the course was run by the lovely Jo Tomalin from San Francisco University and it was a lot of fun. I like that it was called the Art of Teaching …. often when you first start out teaching you’re so focussed on the content – being able to speak comprehensively and authoritatively – that it’s easy to neglect the many structural factors and delivery techniques that engage students in a memorable lecture.

My own motivation for attending was a general dislike for the lecture as a delivery technique. I really like interacting with students so am at home with smaller groups, facilitated discussions, problems and cases…..nested content that is grounded in real examples and techniques that allow for interaction and informality.  This is my comfort zone. However these kinds of strategies are not easily scalable to larger students groups, and not easy to implement when you can’t access a large flat classroom. So, a little training and thinking about how to keep 150 students in a lecture theatre engaged wouldn’t go amiss, and the course was successful in helping me think through that.

There were about 20 of us I guess, from a range of disciplines including sciences, dentistry, architecture, history.  We started by doing some physical activities to develop awareness of our natural body language – posture, speed of movement, gestures, carriage….it was really nice to be moving in a classroom! In a later exercise this was linked to how we enter a room and take up a position to open a lecture, and it was really interesting to see directly how this sets different tones in classrooms. This was followed by quite a lot of exercises with the voice, to get a feel for our own pitch, pace, inflection, breathing, diction, resonance for example (you could look on Youtube for tutorials on this).   At this point I realised Im pretty disconnected from my body when I teach, so combined with the fact that I speak quite quickly its no surprise I run out of breath quite often.  Jo and I talked about breathing exercises to prepare and modulate for this which was really helpful, and each student had a worksheet in our pack to prepare an individual warm-up/exercises plan.

In the afternoon we looked at being spontaneous and creative as lecturers and I really enjoyed this session. There were different exercises around storytelling, improvisation and adopting a persona for the purposes of bringing a subject to life. Again – alot of fun and fascinating to observe how people implement these ideas differently. I like the idea of storytelling but never quite know how to bring it into class…how do you frame it? Do you just launch into it? Or do you say, “I want to tell you a story….”.   One colleague who uses stories a lot in class said he often opens with a picture on screen, and asks the students to spot its anachronism. This focuses their attention and gives him an opener – I liked that idea, it feels very do-able.  For those of a more theoretical persuasion (or doing a qualification!) Jo gave us Hilary McLellan’s 2000 Experience Design reference to think about storytelling.

And then finally, we looked at the Multiple Intelligences Framework from Howard Gardner’s work on the 90s.  It’s a bit like a learnings styles theory (and probably it is) but we were challenged to think of ways to access our own subjects through the whole range of these ‘intelligences’ in order to promote more inclusive learning. Some of these were quite tough – kinesthetic learning for databases? Musical learning for zoology?  Forcing some of these pairs was a very creative experience though and that’s one of my big learning points – that you can experiment. It doesn’t have to be the whole lecture, but you can spend 15 minutes doing something that makes students respond in very different ways. Here’s the cheat sheet on delivery strategies and multiple intelligences. Im hoping to think alot more about what these kinds of frameworks offer cross-disciplinary teaching.

So yep, the course was as good as I’d hoped, and I’d been looking forward to it for a long time. I feel more aware of my own presence, and have lots of ideas at my fingertips for lectures that are engaging and perhaps a little unexpected. Can’t wait to get started!