Following  our earlier post, Theatre Improvisation in Teaching, the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Dr Jenni Carr examines performance in the context of teaching, professional identity, preparation and student learning.

teacher identity diagram

“Teaching is at least as much art as it is science. Yet in our time we glorify the science of teaching and give short shrift to the art of teaching.” (Baughman, 1979, p. 26)

When colleagues enrol on the TLC’s PG Certificate in Higher Education the first task we ask them to complete is an opening year statement. We ask them to reflect on various aspects of their practice to date and how they envisage their practice developing through their work on the PG Cert. One of the prompts for reflection included in the template for the statement is ‘What kind of teacher are you (will you be)? Why?’

The responses to this prompt are diverse – some people focus on skills but others also reflect on their identity as teachers. They talk in terms of personal and professional qualities, characteristics and values – and they talk about the roles they will perform.

I should say straightaway that I don’t emphasise the word ‘perform’ in order to suggest that the roles teachers adopt are in some way ‘false’. Indeed quite the opposite. I would argue that when we perform the best version of our teaching we are finding ways to engage others in our passion for our disciplines and the value we place on knowledge and its role in our society.

I recognise that there are some who would argue that this doesn’t require a performance from us. Either this should come ‘naturally’ or, if it doesn’t, we can adopt the ’10 top tips’ approach and ‘fake it ‘til you make it’! I suspect that teaching comes naturally to very few of us. If this wasn’t the case ‘imposter syndrome’ wouldn’t be as evident in teaching as in other areas of academia. And whilst the ’10 top tips’ approach might be a necessary foundation for teaching, I don’t think it is sufficient.

So what do we gain by thinking about teaching as an art, a type of performance?


The notion of the curriculum as a form of script has been explored by educationalists (see for example, Pinneau, 1994; Timpson and Burgoyne, 2002), but here I want to focus on the particular distinction made between story and plot. Story is an account of events, usually in chronological order, whereas plot is an account of events arranged in such a way as to illustrate causality and the emotions and/or actions attached to them. E.M. Forster (1956) illustrates the difference as “The king died and then the queen died” is a story.’ But ‘“The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot”.

A script contains more than just the story; it provides all the additional details that turn the story into a plot. I would argue that when we teach we are not simply telling the stories of our disciplines, we are constructing a plot. As such, when constructing our curriculum we need to make explicit why we chose to include certain concepts, theories, events, and why we choose to leave others out.

I am sure that some would argue that students need to be given a coherent account of the body of knowledge that they have to engage with, and that other approaches have the potential to cause confusion. And yet one of the skills that we try to engender in our students is that of critical thinking/questioning. To me there seems to be an inherent tension between those two ambitions.

In their discussion of the role of threshold concepts in learning Meyer and Land (2006) highlight the notion of a liminal space which students occupy as they come to grips with the threshold concepts that shape their disciplines. They argue that within this liminal space students tend to ‘mimic’ the experts that they interact with. Indeed they argue that one of the ways in which we can evaluate whether or not students have really understood threshold concepts is when the student deploys them within their arguments in a way that is free from mimicry. They are able to construct their arguments ‘in their own words’.

Foucault (1971) argues that any account of the ways in which knowledge and expertise are constructed must pay attention to “the accidents, the minute deviations, the reversals, the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that give birth to those things that have value for us” (p.81). Likewise, I would argue that whilst we are supporting students in those liminal spaces rather than displaying knowledge as complete and finalised, and therefore bounded and constraining, we need to perform our expertise in such a way as to provide what Foucault refers to as “spaces in which it is once more possible to think”(p.342).


Another benefit of viewing teaching as performance is that it legitimises the need to rehearse. One form of rehearsal can be the everyday conversations we have with colleagues about teaching in general or specific events that have happened in the classroom. Another form would be attending workshops and events that focus on learning and teaching. These could be viewed as a kind of ‘read through’ or ‘table read’. One issue, however, that is often raised at these types of events is how to deal with the ‘unexpected’ – a question that we don’t know the answer to or behaviour that we hadn’t predicted.

At a recent workshop that focused teaching controversial topics there was a useful discussion of how to deal with unexpected behaviours and reactions. Of course the nature of the unexpected is such that it is difficult to rehearse our responses! How can we know how the situation will feel in the moment, or how our feelings can interfere with the ways in which we had planned to react? One strategy we can use for getting close to the reality of the situation is to ‘act it out’.

In forum theatre the audience are shown a short play in which a protagonist encounters issues or obstacles which they are unable to overcome or find difficult to manage; the subject-matter will be something of immediate importance to the audience, often based on a shared work/life experience. When the play has been performed it starts again but this time members of the audience are invited to “stop” the action at any point, take to the stage and act out alternative options for how the protagonist could have acted. The actors explore the results of these choices with the audience creating a kind of theatrical debate, in which experiences and ideas are rehearsed and shared.

In the video below David Heley, the facilitator for a series of workshops I organised in my last job outlines how forum theatre can work as a medium within which we can rehearse our teaching practice:


For forum theatre to be effective you do need expert facilitators and actors. You may be relieved to know I am not suggesting forming a TLC theatre company! But what I am suggesting is that it is important that we have discussions about our practice that acknowledge the affective domain of teaching and learning. Conversations that acknowledge the diverse ways in which we might respond and how we might inhabit the roles we play rather differently. And I do believe those conversations can only take place if we acknowledge that teaching, and therefore learning, is as much art as it is science.



Baughman, M. D. (1979) ‘Teaching With Humor: A Performing Art’. Contemporary Education, 51(1), pp. 26-30

Forster, E.M. (1956) Aspects of a Novel, Mariner Books, New York, NY.

Foucault, M. (1971), ‘Nietzsche, genealogy and history’, in D. Bouchard (1977) (ed.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2006) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Issues of liminality, in: Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (eds.), Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, London and New York: Routledge.

Pinnaeu, E.L (1994) ‘Teaching Is Performance: Reconceptualizing a Problematic Metaphor’, American Educational Research Journal, 31(1) pp.3- 25

Timpson, W.M. and Burgoyne, S. (2002) Teaching & Performing: Ideas for Energizing Your Classes, Atwood Publishing, Madison, Wisc.


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