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2013 May 24

Learning from theater

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:31
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I’ve been thinking about Mark Guzdial’s post from about a month ago, Learning about learning in a musical: The power of deliberate practice in a whole setting.

I could go on and on. A prop is missing, a costume breaks, someone flubs their line or doesn’t get on stage quick enough. Things happen, and people have to think on their feet. Let’s compare this to introductory computer science class, where students famously have difficulty figuring out one way to do something in 10–15 weeks of practice. Or when they do something the one way that they can figure out, it just barely works and the code is frequently awful — ugly and hard to read.

How did everyone involved in the musical learn so much, so well, in such a short amount of time? And why doesn’t that happen so often in formal education?

I have noticed the same thing in theater classes that my son is involved in (though he doesn’t do musicals)—that there is often a high level of performance and flexible response to problems after very short preparation time.  I’ve seen plays in which one of the lead actors breaks an arm between the Saturday and Sunday shows, and one of the tech crew takes over the role, despite never having studied the script—and does well with it.

Most of the productions my son has been in have very tight schedules: usually 20–30 hours of rehearsal  total before the production.  In some classes, the kids didn’t even get the full script until 2 days before the production.  Yet they coped with the challenges and performed at a high level.  When a line was flubbed or a cue missed, the other actors covered and recovered—sometimes with only a few in the audience realizing that there had been a miscue.  (The teen ensemble is very good at this—especially since many of them are in an improv troupe together—but even 9- and 10-year-olds can do it.)

Of course, it isn’t always that way.  There was one performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream that is memorable for the sheer awfulness.  The students had supposedly been working on it for an entire semester, but only two of them were off book (my son, as Puck, was one of them) and most did not know their blocking and mumbled their lines.  One of the best moments of the play turned out to be an improvisation—they’d never bothered to make (or even think about) a prop or costume for Bottom’s transformation, so as the actor entered he grabbed a pair of Uggs that had been left beside the  stage and used them for Bottom’s donkey ears.  The whole performance was comparable to Mark’s comment about typical student code: “Or when they do something the one way that they can figure out, it just barely works and the code is frequently awful—ugly and hard to read.”

What was the difference between that awful production and the 30 or more good ones my son has been in?  Does an answer to that question address Mark’s questions: “How did everyone involved in the musical learn so much, so well, in such a short amount of time? And why doesn’t that happen so often in formal education?”

One difference was that the awful production was a private school class, and the good productions were after-school or summer classes that parents had to pay money to register their students in.  Many of the students in the school class were just there to satisfy an arts requirement with the minimum of effort, while almost all the kids in the other productions had begged their parents to let them do the class.  Kids doing something because they love it perform at much higher levels than kids looking for minimal-effort passes.  Having a part with a lot of lines is desirable for the actors by choice, so they make an extra effort at learning lines, in order to get meatier parts in future productions.  Having lots of lines to learn is not desirable for those trying to get a minimal pass, and they make no effort.

Parental support for the kids’ learning is also much higher with the opt-in courses: the parents had chosen to invest specifically in the theater class for their kids, and so were very willing to take the time to make sure that the kids ran their lines every night.  Parents who sent their kids off to private school often felt that they had done their job by paying the (high) tuition, and everything else was up to the school to handle.

Another important point is that many of the kids in the school play had never acted before and did not realize how much work a good production takes.  They thought that they could fake their way through it with minimum effort, the way they did in many of their academic classes.  In the after-school and summer theater classes, the majority of the students had done one or more productions previously with the same director and could set a good example for the newer students.  The culture of “good enough” is common in schools, but not so common among aspiring actors.

The adult supervision of the courses was also quite different: the director for the awful Midsummer Night’s Dream was changed in middle due to illness, and there wasn’t a clean transition. (Note: the drama club at the same school, with the same director, the same year, put on an excellent production, and so I think that the biggest differences were in the students, not the adults.)

So what does this all say about CS education?

Mark Guzdial quotes Anders Ericsson:

 I am suggesting that Ericsson’s conditions for developing expertise are present here: “The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.”

Motivation was the big difference I saw between the successful and the unsuccessful plays (even first-time-on-stage kids often do quite well), but it is certainly the case that the students get a lot of feedback as well, generally very shortly after each run-through of a scene.  The kids do repeatedly run each scene, though nowhere near the number of repetitions that Ericsson believes is necessary.

Mark also says

The actors and stagehands in a musical know where we’re going.  We have a complete picture of the role of each piece.  We know what a good show looks like.  We focus on this number here, and this set change there, but there’s no question that everything is supposed to fit together.  It’s not like “We’re learning recursion, and I’m not sure why I’d ever want to do this.”  Students in formal education often don’t understand the relevance of what they’re learning, of how it all fits together.

I’m not so sure that the actors know where they’re going the whole time.  They know generically what a good show looks like, but they don’t know how any particular play is going to come together—at least not in the 2-week classes my son has mostly taken.  The directors and the actors are usually still tinkering with the blocking and lighting an hour before the show opens.  I’ve seen substantial changes between a Friday show and the Saturday show.

I don’t think a highly structured knowledge of the endpoint is what makes the group work of theater so productive—quite the opposite.  I think that willingness to experiment and to keep trying to improve even after it is “good enough” is more important.

I also think that group work of theater, where everyone has to do their part for the whole thing to succeed, is very different from the group work of school, which is almost always make-work that takes a job best done by one person and makes it harder by requiring multiple people to work on it at once. In theater, the production nearly always requires many actors and a tech crew—people have to work together to get anything done.

Everyone in the theater is focused on the same goal—making a great production—and they are all willing to work hard on achieving that goal, even if no one notices what they have done individually.  It is very, very rare that any school project gets that level of commitment (I’ve seen it occasionally in engineering project courses, when the students really want their project to excel and the goal itself is exciting to them).

I’ve yet to see a first programming course in which assignments really gripped all the students, and I’ve never seen one in which multiple people on a team worked any better or faster than the best person on the team working alone.  The problems that can be given in a first programming class are simply too small for team work.

Another difference between CS classes and theater classes is that the CS classes often try to provide uniform outcomes: everyone in the class will be able to use certain language constructs or data structures, or understand certain key concepts.  Theater classes tend to take in students with a wide range of prior training and skills (from first time on stage to 12 years of experience in some of the classes my son has been in) and provide some growth for each student. It may be that no two students in the class come out learning the same skills. One may be working on better voice projection, another on learning longer lines, another on stage combat, another physical comedy, another how to walk in high heels, … .  The teacher’s goal is to use everyone’s strengths and build on them to produce both a pleasing shared product and useful learning for each student.

I don’t have a prescription for taking pedagogy that is successful in theater and converting it into pedagogy that is successful in CS.  The goals of the courses and the modes of working are different enough that I’m not sure that there is much overlap in what pedagogy works.  One thing that is true of both theater and CS  is that passion for the subject and diligent practice go a long way towards improving performance.

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