Monday, 20 October 2014

Status and Learning.

Impro is a book written by Keith Johnstone in the 1970’s. It’s fairly well-known in theatre circles and has been a bible for theatre practitioners (and scriptwriters too) for many a year. A number of original ideas are contained within its covers which are a boon to improvisers and indeed to any creative person. It’s a funny book and instantly accessible to the reader. The exercises which Johnstone describes were dreamed up during a spell at the Royal Court Theatre in London, where he presided over script writing classes and decided the best way to test whether a play was working was get it on the floor and act it out. He devised Status games as a method to help improvisers generate stories for the stage. These were very simple and effective. He split human transactions into a sort of game of one-up-manship (and one-down-manship!) in which characters were forever trying to get a bit lower or higher than the person they were acting with. Characters do this in two ways – by what they say and by their body language. I guess we are all familiar with the sort of person who trumps every sentence we say in a manner which somehow belittles us.

A: I bought some new shoes yesterday.
B: Those are new?
A: I seem to be lost.
B: Haven’t much of a sense of direction have you?
A: I can’t do long division.
B: (Breezily) Oh, it’s simple enough.

Johnstone set out the physical characteristics of the high and low status character thus: high status characters hold eye contact and won’t break it. They have an open body posture, stillness, don’t um and ah. They speak slowly and project the voice. Low status, is the opposite. A low status character can’t hold eye contact long, their posture in its extremes might include pigeon toes, knock knees, slumped shoulders. Their voice is meek and their gestures, fidgety. As Johnstone says in a later book, Status is really about attitudes of dominance in human behaviour. He got actors to play different status’ to develop scenes, with hilarious results.

As an actor and director, I did alot of work when I was in my twenties around the concepts and exercises in Impro. At the same time, I was going on a journey into alternative education through the works of John Holt and AS Neill. (There is an interesting cross-over in Impro when Johnstone describes teaching at a primary school and how his work was influenced by John Holt’s ideas.) With the two interests – impro and alternative education - running side by side, I began to notice how adults routinely played high status to children, especially in educational institutions. Having been belittled and humiliated myself in school for many years by adults, I found myself watching the body language of teachers and educators. I was fascinated by their continual attempts to guard and maintain their status before the young people they were teaching. I could see clearly that the high status teacher (however ‘nice’ they might be) is continually attacking the status of the class. In other words lowering their status and making them feel small. This is incredibly destructive. The teacher, often terrified of chaos and a class running riot, keeps the young people down by frightening and subtly belittling them – ie making them feel less ‘clever’ than the teacher. I suppose, in schools, as children are forced to go there and forced to learn things they are largely uninterested in, teachers ultimately have no choice but to use this methodology. But these continual attacks on a child’s status and feelings of self-worth (attacks that go on for ten years of their childhood) have a devastating affect on their ability to learn – and live. They probably are the cause of all the anxiety related ‘learning difficulties’.

It is well documented that an important component of learning is confidence, not least having the confidence to keep trying when you don’t initially succeed at something. To play a musical instrument, you must fail to play it well for a few months before you begin to make sounds that another person might want to hear. The ability to try again when your last attempt at the Moonlight Sonata sounded like the Devils Mass, fingers bashing all the wrong notes, is essential. Trudging up the steep learning curve of a musical instrument, the learner must have the self-confidence and self-esteem to pick themselves up when they fall over. This mental and emotional approach to learning demands that the learner has something of an adventurer about them, it demands a small amount of indomitability. Good learners don’t care if they fail, they know they’ll get there eventually. But this is not an attitude that can easily develop if the status of a learner is being continually diminished,

Being in the company of somebody who can already do what you are trying to learn and who is belittling you (often unintentionally, or unconsciously) or testing you as you do it, erodes confidence in many people and destroys a learner’s morale. Going back to John Holt, he tells a story of two musical instruments he took into a primary school class. One day, he brought out a flute and played it to the children. He was fairly good on the instrument and was a little surprised when he offered the instrument to the children and none of them were interested in attempting to play it. He realised belatedly, that they were worried about failing to play it. They knew their playing would seem hopeless in comparison to what they had just heard. In a school class, even a humane one run by John Holt, they probably already felt small enough. Some time later, he took a trumpet into the class. He couldn’t play this, and this was obvious from the terrible noises he made. This time, the children leapt to their feet and clamoured to try it out.

Being around an expert can be handy at times when you really, really want to do something, but if they are always there, judging you, marking you, correcting, the learners status can plummet irretrievably and they will give up, or not even attempt to learn things. It is often better for a learner if they are not around somebody who knows it all.

I’m not suggesting here that adults should falsely bolster a child’s self esteem with lots of well done, or you can do it. If you think about it, that still leaves an adult in a position of high status encouragement, offering rewards and incentives. I’m suggesting that adults get out of the way and that they don’t elevate themselves or bolster their own prestige around young people or learners. There is a large temptation to do this. Many a teacher feels that they won’t be taken seriously by a learner unless they look really impressive and come across as an expert. Maybe so. But it will also whittle away at the learners belief that they can ever be so good. And that temptation to elevate oneself, is usually more about the teachers need to be taken seriously, to be esteemed, to feel BIG, than it is about helping someone to learn. It is more about a teacher’s fear of not being thought worthwhile by those they are teaching. It is about the teacher’s own insecurity. Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird is the best shot in town, but he never tells his son and his son doesn’t know. Atticus doesn’t need to elevate his status over his son because Atticus is already big inside. I’m suggesting teachers do as little as possible around those who are learning, and intervene when asked and then not for too long. And also in a way that doesn’t elevate themselves into some wonderful high status expert. Dropping one’s status around other people, especially children, when they are learning is nearly always helpful to them. (By this I mean quite literally changing our body language and watching that we are not always raising ourselves above them by what we say.) It might not be so gratifying to that part of us that feels small ourselves and wants to be esteemed, but I think it leads those we help to learn, to have a different form of respect for us: that which we always feel towards those who treat us with the dignity that every human being deserves, no matter how young or old or insignificant they may seem.

Keith Johnstone’s book Impro is widely available. It’s the only book about creativity I have ever read that is genuinely useful. It also has in it, many games that are great to play, for young and old, which foster the imagination, spontaneity, storytelling, and above all laughter.

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