Relaxed alertness… and big brother.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email blast from Tomorrow’s Professor, a great newsfeed I’ve been following for about 15 years, that discussed “relaxed alertness” as an optimum state for teaching and learning. The post is an excerpt from the book 12 Brain / Mind Learning Principles in Action: Teach for the Development of Higher-Order Thinking and Executive Function by Renate Nummela Caine, Geoffrey Caine, Carol McClintic and Karl J. Klimek. As it explains,

People in a state of Relaxed Alertness experience low threat and high challenge (Caine & Caine, 1991/1994, 2010). Essentially, the learner is both relaxed and to some extent excited or emotionally engaged at the same time. This is the foundation for taking risks in thinking, questioning, and experimenting, all of which are essential to mastering new skills and engaging higher-order thinking.  In this state the learner feels competent and confident and has a sense of meaning or purpose.

I’ve long been an advocate of “low stakes” learning; this means, essentially, that I try to put students at ease in the classroom, and I encourage failure in minor stuff as a route to success in the bigger things. My experience as a student (not SO long ago…and I try to return to learning whenever I can, to stay fresh and empathetic) was one of constant panic around the possibility of failure; that panic produced results, sure, but it also meant I literally threw up before essays were due and tests written, out of the terror of messing up FOREVER.

A big part of me doubts that the throwing up part needs to be correlated to the succeeding part; certainly, failing a test or an essay won’t ruin your life, and it is on us as teachers to remind students of this every day.


So seeing this TP post in my inbox reinforced for me my pedagogical belief system: I cultivate low stakes (most of the time), encourage students to speak up even if/when they are wrong, and I try to model error as a way of discovering the correct (or a better) answer. Cheering inside as I read, I passed the message on to some of my colleagues who also think actively about teaching and learning strategies; I was in the moment also uplifted by having read some wonderful letters of support from former students (I’m going up for promotion right now) who reinforced for me the value of the low-stakes-high-energy approach in the classroom.

But – …

(There’s always a but.)

One of my colleagues – though supportive and loving as always – nevertheless helpfully reminded me about the politics underlying the “relaxed alertness” approach to teaching and learning. As she wrote to me,

It concerns me somewhat … that pedagogy talk is increasingly becoming counselling talk, which is tied inextricably to “therapy culture,” which is tied inextricably to neoliberalism’s refusal to recognize that individuals are not solely responsible for accommodating themselves to the direction the world goes in: maybe the world could make some changes and not expect the individual to compensate for the world’s flaws….


And she’s not wrong. When I dug deeper into the post I’d received from TP, I discovered this moment in the piece, connecting “relaxed alertness” to “resilience” and “self-efficacy”:

Resilience and self-efficacy have a great deal in common. Resilience refers to the ongoing, deep capacity to bounce back from failure or setbacks. People who struggle against enormous obstacles, say, to survive by struggling to find their way back from being lost in the wilderness, have resilience. The term often is used to describe students who survive poverty or abusive environments. Resilient kids survive and thrive despite the odds (Gillham, 2000; Reivich & Shatte, 2002).

Students with resilience (see Davies, 2002) are likable; they have social skills and are socially competent, have coherent moral or spiritual beliefs, have problem-solving skills, are self-directed, and have a sense of autonomy…

(All emphases my own)

There’s a problem here: on one hand, yes, “relaxed alertness” in the classroom means we are all invested but not overly so; we all can talk without the stakes getting too much in the way (and making us feel sick). If somebody goes offside, that’s fine; the larger conversation includes us all and we all know our value within the community, and the value of our risk-taking contribution.

BUT, on the other hand, if relaxed alertness is meant to cultivate “resilience” and “self-efficacy”, and if the latter two are explicitly connected to the bootstraps-pulling-up that we associate with libertarian independence, then we are in danger of arguing that a low-stakes, shared, empathetic classroom environment is – or could, or SHOULD – work in the service of a neoliberal reality in which everyone is supposed to learn to be resilient because nobody else is, or should be expected to be, around to help.



What we’ve got here is a classic Catch-22. We all, I think, want to teach our students to be active and engaged but not SO invested that they panic and deflate (or worse). But few of us, I imagine, would advocate that we are teaching our students to become resilient in the face of a world in which governments’ abilities to support the citizenship properly are decimated, and it’s every-person-for-themselves… and yet, the rhetoric I quote above suggests that’s a desirable, and somewhat inevitable, outcome. (And frankly, the current US presidential debate suggests it’s a necessary precaution, too.)

I have no resolution, no answer to offer here. But I’d love to hear others’ thoughts. Is “relaxed alertness” something to cultivate, or to be wary of? For me, I’d like to do the former, and yet also explain to my students the logic of the latter, in “teachable moment” fashion. To demystify the strategy while I use it, I guess.

But maybe that’s too much to dream of… or maybe there is no longer any getting outside the text of neoliberal realities. Although that’s an outcome too depressing to contemplate.

On an uncertain note,



On making English Lit students get up and perform – really well

Those of you who know a bit about me, my research and my teaching know that I am famous (particularly in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western University) for making students in my honours-level English classes perform, all the time, for marks and not for marks. The point of our performances is to discover the story that human bodies tell about play scripts, which is often a very different story from the one that the script alone can tell. When I began teaching at Western in autumn 2005 I became quickly notorious as the woman who made groups of students stage scene studies and withstand Q&A sessions with peers every week. Every week! But the information, the pleasure, the strength, the joy that work provided was and has been pretty much endless, certainly for me and likely for a number of students now long graduated who have been kind enough to keep in touch. (A lot of those students just killed their Finals to boot, thanks in part to inspiring peer performances in class.)

When I moved to Queen Mary, University of London in autumn 2012, the shape of my teaching changed. A Drama Department is different from an English Department in so many ways; principal among these at QM was the focus on political, socially aware embodiment we promoted in every class we taught on our Honours BA in Drama program. In my studio classes I had to develop different approaches to teaching familiar texts: instead of relishing occasional performance, I had to figure out how to balance expected practice work with small-group learning about the theory behind the making. In my seminar classes, meanwhile, I had to find ways to incorporate performance research experiments without taking too much time away from our class discussions of readings, and without making those experiments seem like banal, poor relations to the more intensive work completed in studio. (I actually don’t think I succeeded on this front; something to aspire to in future, then.)

So goodbye said I to the weekly scene studies familiar from Western – there just wasn’t place nor reason for them at QM. But fresh challenges – namely, teaching critical and political approaches to performance to freaked-out first-year students who had just finished A-level devising and had no idea what was about to hit them – prompted fresh learning, for me as much as for them. I thought hard about how to shift the model I’d been using at Western to suit a QM first year audience. I met with the brilliant folks at Thinking/Writing, part of the QMUL library’s stable of resources. And I talked to people in my department – strong and well-loved teachers all – about existing best practices.

This is how, in place of my old, weekly scene study scheme (better adapted to students for whom performance is newly illuminating as an approach to textual exegesis), I came to institute a pair of mandatory performance workshop days for my first year class, “Performance Texts”. In each of these workshops, a different group of students (actually, four groups of students per day – it was a huge class) would present 10 minutes of work inspired by a specified text. (Including, for example, Kane’s Blasted, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and Fugard’s The Island – eclectic as a mix, but all politically and emotionally challenging works.) One workshop happened earlier in the term, and was keyed to the first assignment; the second workshop happened closer to Christmas, and was generally a lighter affair because students knew what to expect (and that it would be fun!). In both cases, and across both classes in two different academic years, I can honestly say that I had four of the best teaching days of my life.

The workshop system – aided by the suite of fantastic exercises, including both free-writes based on students’ “critical moments” from each performance, and group discussion followed by a performer Q&A, both developed in conjunction with Kelly Peake from Thinking/Writing – worked better than my weekly scene study scheme ever had. Why? Basic chemistry: students were sharing a hot-house community environment, in which they were literally all in it together for two or so hours, and in which they had to work together and individually in a variety of guided ways. The energy in the room was high, the students’ level of engagement palpably strong, and the level of discourse impressive for a group of first-years, thanks in large measure to the writing exercises Kelly suggested we use to guide students’ engagement, channel their energy, and prompt targeted discussion. So, when I returned to Western this past autumn and resumed my place at the front of the Department of English and Writing Studies’ honours-level modern theatre class, I decided to import my new performance workshop plan rather than revert to the old scene study framework.

I knew straight off the bat that the biggest challenges I’d face in this new environment would be a brace of English and Writing Studies students who would be a) terrified of performing, and b) uncertain what was expected of them on this important day called Performance Workshop #1. The old scene study scheme had strengths and weaknesses, and one of its strengths was the normalisation of performance in my English classes. Performing is what you did, regularly; learning from class performances happened every week. Students figured out quickly how to read performance effectively – you had to or you were screwed. Under the new workshop system the stakes were oddly heightened, even though I try to chill the stakes in class whenever possible, the better to encourage creative thinking and risk taking. But I couldn’t avoid the fact that our first performance day would be loaded with risk for half of the class, the half that was expected to get up and show us something good.

How did we prepare for the big day? My TA, Madison Bettle, and I worked hard in the lead-up weeks to help students start acclimatising to the differences between reading plays as books and reading plays in performance. We looked at some clips from the outrageous, compelling, controversial Berlin Schaubühne adaptation of A Doll’s House, and we talked about what small moments of gesture, speech, light/sound change, or movement might do to communicate key meanings. (These small moments we named, after Kelly Peake’s suggestion, “critical moments” – moments in performance that create a spark, generate learning, provoke something worth pondering further.) Next we held a “scratch” day, playing with ad-hoc performances from Chekhov’s The Seagull, the text set for the first performance workshop. Students were unsure what to do, but the stakes were low: we were just playing, in order to see how student performances might work to make new textual meaning. Then, we watched Simon Stephens’ and Carrie Cracknell’s brilliant A Doll’s House for the Young Vic on Digital Theatre Plus and held a class interview with Hattie Morahan, the whip-smart, gregarious and generous star of that production; we worked on gaining deeper insights into how critical moments on stage are built, and the many ways we might perceive their meanings. And then, just like that, it was time for Performance Workshop #1.

The big day was this past Tuesday, and I have to say it was superb: another exhilarating day for me as a teacher, and a pleasure to watch, especially as students who were not performing communicated the inspiration their peers’ presentations sparked in them. Although in their reflection posts on our class blog the student performers generally talked about the stresses of getting together enough beforehand, of not having enough time over Thanksgiving weekend to prepare, etc, they also talked intelligently and with honest self-reflexivity about what they might do better next time, and how. Sure, some of the performances were more “theatrical” than others, but all demonstrated a level of commitment to the thought work expected of them that impressed me and Madison and generated plenty of healthy class discussion. Students wrote their own scenes, re-imagined Nina as a real seagull (and a male seagull to boot!), and created a retrospective of Irina Arkádina that gave depth, empathy, and warmth to a character we had too easily dismissed in class discussion as self-involved and retrograde. I’m about to turn from this post to preparing the groups’ marks for their work (gang, if you’re reading, they are coming!), and I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to reward these thoughtful student actors for strong and committed and thoughtful performances that genuinely pushed each of them, productively, out of their comfort zones and into a space of new learning.

With gratitude to all y’all in English 3556!


Lower the stakes 2.0: some anecdotal evidence to end the semester

A while back I wrote about the pedagogical, and ethical, value of lowering the stakes for students in routine assignments such as essays. My discussion in that case was relatively theoretical; primarily, it focused on the research of José Antonio Bowen. Yesterday, however, I gathered some terrific anecdotal evidence about how the small gestures we make in the classroom to “raise the bar” by “lowering the stakes” really do have qualitatively significant outcomes for students.

This week marks the end of the teaching year at Queen Mary Drama. To cap the semester, my final-year students in “Shakespeare After Shakespeare” presented work toward their final essays; their presentations are a formal assessment, and are worth 20% of their grade in the class. From the beginning of the semester I emphasised to them that these presentations were designed to share initial work on those essays, and that the best presentations would not provide fully thought-through work, but rather initial claims, initial research questions, and good questions for the class to prompt both discussion and helpful feedback. (In other words, I aimed to make the presentations part of a surreptitious “do-over” exercise, not unlike the one I discuss in the post I link to above). Two weeks ago, we did practice group presentations in class; these were created in just fifteen minutes and were not marked. I billed them as a chance to get some feedback on presentation style, and I talked about how many undergraduate students present their work poorly because they haven’t thought much about, or had much direct feedback on, the importance of clarity, pacing, and confidence in oral presentations. (I’ve written about this issue on the blog in the past too; check out this post.) Then, last week, the first wave of students presented; yesterday, we ended our work together with a marathon session of twelve (twelve!) presentations.

Do-over or not, practice or none, I knew the students would be nervous sharing their work, and I knew they’d also be apprehensive yet excited about the arrival of the semester’s end (for quite a few, this was to be their last undergraduate class ever). I also knew we’d be rushed to fit in all the remaining presenters in a two-hour class. In response to this mixed context, I set to work on lowering the stakes further, and upping the enjoyment quotient as far as possible. I moved us out of our usual, rather oppressively institutional room in a nearby mixed-use humanities building, and into one of our department’s familiar spaces, Rehearsal Room One. I booked an extra half hour in the space, knowing we were likely going to need it, and I warned the students in advance that we’d probably run overtime (and that they were free to leave at the regular end of lesson if necessary). I baked a cake (which actually turned out quite well!) and arrived early to make two caffetieres of coffee, laying everything out at a dedicated refreshment table in the space. We started with a few very brief announcements, and with my encouragement to get up and get coffee, cake, or go to the bathroom as needed, because the race to the finish was about to begin.

The students each presented for only five minutes. (As my colleague [and excellent teacher] Catherine Silverstone told me when I began at QM, five minutes is more than enough time for an undergraduate presentation: any longer and the students over-prepare and over-fret, with outcomes diminishing proportionally.) Following their formal talk, they conducted a five-minute feedback chat with their peers and me, based on questions they had prepared for us in advance. I timed everyone rigorously, but very few ran over; similarly, I participated in the feedback discussions, but tried my best to let the students lead them. Overall, I worked to foster a low-key, low-stress environment in which everyone would feel comfortable sharing their half-formed ideas, knowing that half-formed was exactly what was expected – along, of course, with openness to moving in new directions based on feedback.

My subjective impression is that my strategies, taken together, had the desired effect: the students gave some really strong performances. Compared to past presentations of this kind, these were generally really well paced, and many students spoke with impressive confidence. A few whom I feared would cower did not; in fact, their work was among the best in the bunch! Everyone seemed a bit nervous, but most seemed quite comfortable on balance in front of me and their peers. And, to my great glee, a few included hilarious yet pertinent Keynotes and Prezis, making their serious subject matter both interesting and fun.

Those were my impressions; imagine my delight, then, when two of the students approached me after class to let me know how much they appreciated my efforts to “lower the stakes” (their own words!) for the presentation assignment. They commented on how my change in the tone of the task allowed them to see its real point: to talk with peers about what they were working on, share ideas, and get feedback they could chew on, work out, and then maybe (or perhaps not) use, as they saw fit. They mentioned that they had had other presentation experiences where the atmosphere was different and these outcomes did not result; while they didn’t elaborate, I can guess that they were referring to presentations that felt more like “test” than “test-out-your-ideas”. While of course there’s an important place for the former in university – after all, performing under pressure is a very big part of professional labour in the so-called “real world”, including in the world of professional theatre – I think the latter needs to predominate in most learning environments. For one thing, it’s an important precursor to the higher-stakes presentation: it’s where you learn to find your voice, own your space, and present your ideas with confidence. For another, it’s simply more collegial: why teach students that great ideas emerge from our brains fully formed, when the truth is the best intellectual work is always collaborative, and always evolving? I hope this is exactly what our presentation task taught my great group of finalists; I certainly learned more about the benefits of lowering the stakes from watching them present their work over these past two weeks.

Plus, we ate some pretty damn nice cake!


(Parsnip cinnamon cake, from Abel&Cole. Click here for the recipe.)

Happy spring break, everyone!