Teaching as performance

Doug Brent has written an interesting paper in last month’s First Monday on how historical trends are being played out in online education. He draws a distinction between “knowledge [or, more strictly, teaching] as performance and knowledge as thing” (emphasis in the original). Loosely speaking you could map this onto my process-versus-product distinction in e-learning.

What Brent adds to this simple opposition is an explanation of the trend towards the thing/product end of the spectrum. He follows the work of Shoshana Zuboff in seeing it as an example of the increasing recording or ‘textualisation’ of work, which can be traced back at least to the Scientific Management school of the early twentieth century. In this trend, work is increasingly written down in manuals and procedures, or embodied in ICT systems, so that there is less reliance on the more oral traditions of apprenticeship and learning by interacting.

Management and professional work has been the last bastion to hold out against increasing textualisation. They do things that can’t be fully, or efficiently, captured in codes and rules and written explanations. This is what Brent refers to as the “performance art” of work, including, or especially, teaching. He cites anecdotes of teachers resisting the textualisation of some aspects of their work, which e-learning encourages, and argues that, “teaching has tended to absorb and subsume each new technology into the ongoing performance” rather than being subsumed by the technology. He goes on:

All knowledge, or at any rate all knowledge worth having, is constructed, not just found. It follows that neither the textbook, the videotape, nor even the multi-media CD or Web page, is likely to subsume completely the act of constructing knowledge in a dialogic social environment, whether face to face or electronically mediated. In the new world of educational technology, the pattern appears to be fulfilling itself yet again. The self-paced tutorials and drill-and-skill programs of the early days are yielding to web-based course designs that feature threaded discussion and collaborative work. Again, teaching as performance appears to be winning the contest over teaching as thing.

This has implications beyond formal teaching and educational institutions. At the moment I am writing an article on the role of ‘word of mouth’ in how people discover new music. As word-of-mouth goes digital in online communities like MySpace.com you can see that it is being textualised in the rash of playlists spreading over the Internet. Published playlists have their place. As a means of spreading the word about new tracks and artists, they may be more efficient (less costly in effort) than making a mixtape and actually sitting in the same room as other people while they listen to it, discussing the bits you really like — but they are not as effective in getting the message across. To be sure of getting the message across performance and interaction are still the best ways to bring it to life.

One thought on “Teaching as performance

  1. I agree that, as amazing and industry-changing as technologies seem to always be, the role of teacher seems to always maintain it’s value. My hope is that e-learning technologies can increase the pace at which students can quickly grasp knowledge, paving the way for teachers to take students deeper.
    When it comes to technology and teaching it seems the more things change the more they stay the same. Technologies continue to wow us each year and yet what makes a great teacher is something quite constant —someone who is honest, truly caring, who knows their subject, but is still interested in discovering it.

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