“Researchers do not know how to explain things to students”, “the most boring class on my whole degree”.
These are two examples of students’ comments that you may have read in module evaluation, or even heard in meetings with student reps. What can we do about them?
Teaching and engaging students in learning is a long process that involves training, practice and reflection. Whilst there are various types of formal training that help us to improve, such as teaching skills workshops and the Pg Cert, we can also learn valuable skills from other disciplines – such as the arts.
I think, for example, that we have a lot to learn from clowns. My experience with clowning helped me improve my teaching skills, and I want to explain how.
My first experience with clowning dates in early 2000s. I was a training analyst in a telecommunications company in Peru, and my boss suggested I should take some acting lessons to improve my engagement with the audience.
In addition, during that time, I was inspired by Patch Adams, a doctor and a clown who practises the use of laughter as a healing mechanism in hospitals. Consequently, instead of taking acting lessons, I enrolled in a clowning workshop with Wendy Ramos, a famous actress and clown.
That experience changed the way I see human relationships and pedagogy, and I realised that there are significant similarities between clowning and teaching:
- The stage is the classroom
- The audience are the students
- The clown is the lecturer
- Playing is learning
Personal reasons caused me to leave my country in the mid 2000s, and I thought I would never use my clowning skills again – but during my PhD studies and when working as a visiting lecturer, I decided to draw these skills to give me additional tools to engage with students and reach a wider audience.
In May 2022, I went back to Peru and I attended a clowning workshop organised by Tomas Carreño, a well-known actor and entrepreneur, as a way to overcome distress due to family issues and work. Again, the impact of clowning went beyond improving my teaching skills and wellbeing.
Learning when playing
As playing is the main purpose of clowning, learning is that of teaching. For that reason, the lecturer should take advantage of every opportunity that any class offers to promote learning in a didactive way. To achieve this, the lecture should challenge some mental barriers, such as their ego or imposter syndrome, that create a professional / pedagogical distance between lecturers and students, prevent exploring error as an input to develop learning, and restrict honest communication with students.
Once when a projector screen fell from the wall, and students started laughing, I replied that I did it on purpose to assess how gravity works and to observe their reaction to the event. Clowns use ego and errors as tools to communicate, play and interact with others. Similarly, lecturers could use errors or unexpected events as a tool to engage students in their learning.
Pay attention to audience
When playing, a clown demonstrates empathy and attention towards the audience’s reactions and is not afraid of change, if there is no such interaction. A clown will stop playing when a member of the audience is crying or will join in another “game”, if they see a participant having fun.
A lecturer should notice when students are disengaged and choosing to do other things, such as using their mobile phones or chatting with their peers. As a lecturer, I was afraid to make some changes in the learning activities due to the “consistency” in class and the limited time to do it.
Lecturers should pay more attention to students’ reaction and not be afraid to change when the activities are not working. For example, if students do not engage in the discussion in a plenary, then we could change it to small group discussions or a group presentation.
Consequently, as lecturers, we could follow a clowning practice, “Live the present”, which in academia would mean focusing on the students’ space and interaction in the current time. Sometimes, despite planning our learning outcomes and learning activities, they may not work, even in the same module.
Passion and curiosity when playing
Key to clowning are passion and curiosity. It is the same when you see a child playing with their friends. I do believe that we, the lecturers, are passionate and curious when teaching that becomes an internal fire that guides our behaviour.
However, I am very worried that with increasing years of experience, this “flame” will slowly die and I will become bored of teaching and exploring new techniques / tools in my practice. This concern is related to students’ comments such as “that lecturer always repeats the same slides every single year”.
We should curate and grow curiosity and passion in our practice. However, this is difficult to keep to the fore, because there are other variables that impact on our practice, including the workload, family commitments, work environment and organisational culture.
We should also follow our passion and curiosity in our jobs, whether this is teaching or researching. However, if one day we realise that this passion is missing in our current work, then we need to change and seek it out again.
Do not challenge collaboration
Clowning offers an interesting practice – it does not oppose any type of collaboration with colleagues and especially, the audience. Instead, it uses this as a tool when
playing. The application of this practice may differ in academia, because as researchers, who are critical thinkers and experts in a specific research field, we tend to be very selective regarding the permissible collaborative input and to some extent, very defensive towards our own teaching style.
Something that we can learn from clowns is using student input, regardless of its accuracy, such as their questions, answers and examples, to assess formatively their understanding of our classes and then, use this as a springboard to develop learning. This is a powerful tool, as we are explicitly demonstrating our appreciation of students’ input, which can stimulate them into seeking empowerment in their own learning.
For example, when explaining the manufacturing conversion process in class, the examples were clear for most students. However, there was one disengaged student, who did not find it “valuable” in his learning. When asking about his hobbies, he mentioned that he liked the series “Narcos”. As I had watched the series too, I applied the conversion process in non-ethical “business” that they practice in the series.
I noticed how he and the whole class were engaged in this activity when applying the concepts. Of course, their laughs contributed to their engagement, but clowning does not start with laughter, for first, we need to build a relationship with the student. So, the key part is to not challenge any collaboration opportunities, but instead to use creativity to transform it into something meaningful for learning.
Tell a story
Clowns are experts when telling a story as a tool to engage with the audience. Storytelling is a good practice that lecturers could learn from clowns that will improve student engagement. This does not mean that lecturers should learn how to tell a joke. Of course, humour is developed when playing and telling stories with the audience, but a key lesson for any clown should not be to force themselves to make jokes or try to be funny to entertain others. A clown use stories as a tool to build a relationship and play with the audience.
Lecturers should tell a personal story that is related to the application of the theoretical concepts, which will reduce the professional distance with students. Here, the challenge is to determine how personal should be the story, which in the end will depend on the lecturer’s personality. Some students told me that what they liked about my classes were the personal stories that humanised. I believe this is key to reducing the professional distance and develop a strong foundation for honest communication with students.
I understand that some academics would argue that clowning techniques are not academic, and that this approach promotes entertainment rather than academic education.
But in my view that such a perspective raises important questions about teaching – are we ready to learn new skills to improve student engagement? How innovative should these skills be? And whether some lecturers would be more suitable for undergraduate studies than a postgraduate one?
I argue that now is the time to reflect and to consider whether we wish to be the status quo in education or if we are ready to be innovative about it.