More things are performances than you realize…

Teaching as Performance

A useful frame for thinking about the work of teaching

David Knuffke
5 min readFeb 22, 2023

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My top priority as a teacher is to never be boring. The gift of other people’s time is far too precious to aim for anything less. So much of my shtick (and I do view it as a shtick) when I’m working is dedicated to keeping the interest of the people in the room with me. Outside of knowing what I’m talking about and how I want to convey it to participants, keeping their interest is my main pedagogical technique. There are a few easy ways to do this. Interesting material and structures are beneficial, as is creating a participant-driven environment that decenters my personal power. But every so often, it is still going to just be me in front of the group.

In those moments, the most useful thing that I do as a teacher is to view my teaching as a performance. And more than anything, in educational settings where I’m not teaching, I’m typically bored because the teacher¹ has either forgotten, or never even considered this approach.

What is a performance?

When I’m talking about performance here, I’m speaking to the sense of putting on a show. The other meaning (accomplishing a task) is fine and useful. Certainly, I need to think about that one, too, but the putting on a show meaning is useful in all sorts of teaching situations.

One thing I’m not necessarily speaking to is the goal of entertaining an audience. This is certainly an aspect of most performances. And it’s generally a goal in my teaching, too. But entertainment is negotiable in performance. Is a person entertained by a sporting event? Or when watching C-SPAN? Or when getting a ticket? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear to me that each of these examples is a performance.

Perhaps we need to give some consideration to the conflation of entertainment and enjoyment. I did not enjoy the events of January 6th, 2020, and I would be loath to say that I was entertained. But those events were clearly a performance (that is still continuing). Rather than worry too much about if I will be entertaining in my teaching, I’m content to conceive of it as a performance, and let it come across as it will.

What, then, are the non-negotiable pieces of a performance? The only thing that I can…

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David Knuffke

Writing about whatever I want to, whenever I want to do it. Mostly teaching, schools and culture.