Thursday, April 3, 2014

Know Your Audience

This article originally appeared on my Games and Tech blog. I made some minor edit is when I copied it to here. 

Not every artist would say she needs to know her audience. The purpose and form of the art probably makes a difference. I remember reading a recent interview in Rolling Stone with Bob Dylan.  He said something to the effect he never wrote for anyone other than himself. Some artists can get away with it.

But I remember how valuable the question of audience was when I was making games or helping other game designers. Any problem or uncertainty throughout the design process was immediately put in focus when we asked ourselves who the game was for. On the other hand, confusion resulted when the vision of the target audience was poorly defined.

I see a similar problem in school. When teaching like artist, who is the audience? I'd think the obvious answer is the students. In a sense, we'd like to perform for them--to share and connect--in hopes of inspiring them. They are the ones coming in daily, seeing our work and walking away with something of value.

But all too often school loses focus because we are bringing the students along on a different show planned for someone else. It feels like we're putting on a performance for the state--a play practiced for months and months, shown to a faceless crowd in hopes of a good review. And then there's another big show next year.

We prepare students to play for a vaguely defined employer, one who will pay their bills in the future. Day after day we rehearse our lines. The best students, even in elementary school, know they're getting ready for this person they might meet more than a decade down the road. They answer questions about why with memorized responses--"Math is most important because you use it in any job." The heart wins out, though, and study time is easily overtaken by the endless stream of more interesting options.

I see students going through the motions for so long they forget what they're really doing it for. Learning turns into routine. Check off the list for the minimal requirements and get the credit.

What if the teacher modeled a passion for life and learning that inspired the students to do the same? Is it too idealistic to think students could care so much about their work, and that the teacher designed it so skillfully, that they learn what they need to along the way? Maybe those big tests, important as they are in the process, could be more like an art show where the public sees one presentation of all those individual works.

To be sure, school is multifaceted. It takes most of a year to get through. For the teacher acting as an artist, there is enough opportunity to have more than one performance or reason for performing. There will always be those days when it looks like a rehearsal, with everyone practicing for that faceless audience. But it gets boring for the students when school done that way wears on and on.

Standards matter and the tests have their place. Obviously we are there partly to prepare the students for the world of work. But those things are not enough. We know this because we know so many students sum up the second half of their time in school with something equivalent to the word "boring". Somewhere around fifth grade, little by little, we stop reaching the intended audience. Then eventually many of them stop coming to the show.

This happens whenever we let the standards and pacing guides become an excuse so we can dodge the real work of our art.

On the other hand, we know there are teachers getting the job done and infusing some life into the system at the same time. None of them say it's easy. I never hear a hard working teacher say the pay is worth it. It's rare to hear how the principal gave them enough time to complete the project. Instead they just follow their vision, develop their talents and and play off the energy of the crowd.

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