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When Goals Get in the Way of Learning

When I first started my company I surveyed parents to find out what outcomes were most important to their child’s performing arts education. Hands down, parents wanted a performance; they wanted to see their kids on stage and in front of an audience.

Now, I don’t disagree that a final performance is an important tool for evaluating outcomes from theater arts training. However, I don’t think it should be the only mechanism to measure a student’s progress, nor should it be the most important.

The teaching team at Treasure Valley Children’s Theater (TVCT) spent about a year struggling to achieve a satisfying performance outcome. This was (and is) a challenge because an average TVCT training program is about 12 hours; even professional performers train more than 12 hours before presenting a performance to an audience. Despite the time constraints, a showcase performance is presented as a culminating activity for each of our training programs, regardless of whether or not we feel the work is ready for an audience.

This process got me thinking, what are we, as arts educators, missing by focusing on a performance goal? Are we missing an opportunity to have a conversation with our students about trusting your fellow actors? Are we missing an opportunity to engage in an activity that would help students develop more authentic character choices? Are we rushing kids so much that they aren’t learning anything more than that they will always be applauded, even for mediocre work?

Of course, there are exceptions. There are those rare classes where the students just “get it” and connect and we can really focus on performance work and the outcome is great. But we can’t control for those environments at all times.

This got me thinking about school teachers and the pressure to plow through curriculum, balance 30 plus learning styles, and prepare for testing. Do classroom educators get so focused on the outcomes that they lose sight of the teaching opportunities? Have we created a system so focused on an end result that we’ve forgotten the power of the journey?

This year I challenged the TVCT education team to let go of the idea of a “perfect” final performance. Instead, focus on in-class time and help the young performers discover something new about their abilities. Challenge the students to work harder then they have ever worked, not because of performance pressure, but because they want to be better at the craft of acting.

Our final performances are not yet Oscar or Tony worthy, it’s true. But the lessons learned as a class of performing arts students are rich with content, build confidence, and teach life-long skills like focus, team work, trust, listening, empathy and compassion. In my opinion, these outcomes far outweigh 10 minutes in the spotlight.