IN a recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme The Learning Curve, I was asked to comment on excerpts from two unconventional lessons where teachers sought to present their material in an entertaining way.
This involved English sixth-form students watching a Punch and Judy version of Shakespeare's Othello ("That's the way to do it"). The second was a science lesson in an American high school in which teachers dressed up as Vulcans in the manner of Star Trek ("Beam me up, Scotty"). In both cases students spoke positively about the experience and, in the second, the teachers claimed that interest in science increased and measurable gains in performance were evident.
The studio discussion focused on whether such approaches amounted to a "dumbing down" of the learning process and whether casting teachers in the role of entertainers was appropriate. It is easy to polarise the issues but, on reflection, the pedagogic arguments are not quite as straightforward as they might at first seem.
Most teachers recognise the importance of capturing the initial interest of pupils and, especially in the case of young children, of making the experience of learning as much fun as possible. At that stage the only really worthwhile educational aim is to create a desire on the part of the child to go on learning.
That said, however, a distinction needs to be drawn between novelty value and the promotion of genuine understanding. In the case of the science lesson, it would be worth knowing whether there were any long-term gains in scientific knowledge, or whether all that was remembered was that the teachers dressed up in funny costumes and made fools of themselves.
Requiring teachers to be performers raises other concerns. In the first place, good teaching comes in a variety of forms and some (good) teachers may be uncomfortable with the expectation that they should try to compete with entertainers. More fundamentally, the central person in the teaching-learning process is surely the learner. Attention-seeking behaviour on the part of the teacher should not be given encouragement.
To be fair, the Punch and Judy man (an English teacher and senior examiner) said that what really mattered was the follow-up to his performance. He intended his show to serve as a stimulus to a serious exploration of dramatic themes.
Teachers need to be honest with pupils. To pretend that all learning can be presented in an easily digestible form is misleading. In most subjects there comes a point where an "all singing, all dancing" approach is out of place. The content becomes challenging and requires sustained hard work if progress is to be made. That is what brings a real sense of achievement and contributes to the development of deep cognitive structure, thereby strengthening the basis of future learning.
To convey this message is not easy, particularly when young people's expectations have been influenced by such things as Disneyworld, computer games and media culture. School can seem dull in comparison. Teachers cannot compete with the commercial world of entertainment but, equally, they cannot ignore the reality of life outside school. At the very least, we must all become more adept at the use of information technology and its potential to make learning varied and interesting.
It is not necessary to go over the top or play for easy popularity in the attempt to engage interest. Lest any of my readers are worried that I might be tempted to do so, let me reassure them. For the foreseeable future, I shall not be giving my lectures in doublet and hose.
Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.