Monday, August 30, 2010

Drama and Teaching

Great writing inspires. I have been reading over the last several months a small book that I have found very inspiring. Everytime I pick it up I get new ideas, and I challenge my assumptions about teaching. The most surprising thing about it is the book is not about math, not about teaching, not about students. It is about drama. It is called The Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet. It speaks to the nature and use of drama.

I know that there is a general sense among many teachers that class does not need to be a show everyday, and clearly that attitude taken to extremes creates teachers that are more like Michael Scott of "The Office" than Dan Meyer.

But Mamet forcefully explains that humans have a dramatic urge. People want to see themselves as part of a giant play with themselves as the hero. As teachers we have a responsibility to engage students, and to ignore this paradigm seems short-sighted at best.

Mamet is very insistent that there are good forms of drama and bad forms of drama. He uses school, politics, the evening news as examples of bad drama carried out every day.

In the next few posts I will reflect on certain sections on Mamet's work and describe what I think it means for teaching. We will start the section he calls The Perfect Game.

Imagine the perfect game. Is it your favorite team thumping their opponent? Of course not, it is your team starting out well, looking dominant and then all of a sudden things fall apart. They change many things and nothing seems to work. Then all of a sudden when things look darkest, a player redeems himself and for some previous screw-up in the game, and scores the go-ahead score, but then the referee calls it back, and again the players must find a way to take the lead, and they do, but the other responds to retake the lead, only to have a more miraculous play occur for your team, and so on and so on.

This is the prototypical three act structure. Humans look for this structure in their lives all the time, and if you watch sports, or follow politics you will see that these activities are recast by commentators in this framework all the time. Mamet would tell us that this recasting is for our pleasure.

Mamet describes this as "Yes, No, But Wait...", and it repeats again and again.

You can imagine this in a classroom, students come in an see a problem something familiar that they know and can deal with. They deal with it easily and look to you for their deserved praise. Then you give them another problem similar, but with some unexpected twist. They work forward trying many things. Many of those ideas fail, and the way seems lost. You don't help them (much, if any) then at some moment through an idea spread through the class based solely off of students previously failed idea (or through some cryptic magic incantation you said under your breath) and the students are off and they solve the problem, or they don't stymied by some other detail they have left out, or you have given them a new problem with a new twist. In this way, we model "Yes, No, But Wait...". And basically we should believe that this is what students want, crave, desire. They do not desire the answer, the algorithm, the process. They desire to be heroes.

Part of what Mamet talks about is our never ending need to dramatize our lives:

For we rationalize, objectify, and personalize the process of the game exactly as we do that of a play or drama. For, finally, it is a drama, with meaning for our lives. Why else would we watch it?
That idea about rationalizing, objectifying, and personalizing is so important. Students need to do that to really connect with the content that we are looking for them to master. If they don't do it this more complex and deeper level, then they will never remember it.