Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Getting Students Started with Video Literacy

Given the prominence of television and film in our culture, it is surely desirable that our students should be able to analyze moving images as carefully as we want them to read prose.

We can strengthen our students' ability to decode images by also asking them to 'write' a message in moving images. But working with video can be intimidating. We are accustomed to thinking of the most sophisticated professional media production.

There are, however, a few simple ways to raise your students' level of facility in thinking in moving images. And a basic ability to capture, share and edit video clips is the basis for anything more complex.

There is no value in adding video production on top of and separate from other course goals. A better strategy is rather to use video as a platform to support typical liberal arts activities. E.g.,

  • discussion & commentary,
  • demonstration & oral presentation,
  • observation & data collection.

The first three steps can be outlined quickly.

1. Capture, upload, share.

This is the most basic workflow: capture some images, get them on a computer, and share them somehow.

The main thing to notice here is: we are not talking about editing. Before students an become competent editors, they simply need to record footage and share it.

Devices for capturing video were once expensive and technically forbidding. Now most students can capture video using:

  • a laptop,
  • a camera, or
  • a smartphone.

You might ask students to:

  • interview each other or record a short commentary--rather than posting to a discussion board,
  • give a short presentation or demonstrate a skill (as in the case of foreign language skills),
  • gather or observe visual information--e.g., about buildings, plants, social interactions, etc.

Sharing short videos on Youtube is very easy.

  • Some phones and laptops have this as a default option when saving a video.
  • You can ask students to post a link in an online discussion board.
  • "Unlisted" videos in Youtube are not index and not searchable, so they are as good as private.

It's always advisable to start any assignment that requires the use of technology as simply as possible and to grade so as to reward completion rather than to expect sophistication right out of the gate.

2. Trim or split a clip.

After you are certain students can capture video and share it, you can start asking them to select and sharpen their messages.

Trimming and splitting are the most basic kinds of editing.

  • Trimming means: removing the ends of a clip.
  • Splitting means: dividing a single clip into one or more clips.

Clearly: trimming is easier. The implication is: you are throwing away some information you don't need.

Trimming and splitting are the beginning of saying something precise using video. A recording can be done to include only what's essential. But as with writing or any art form, you aren't really 'speaking' until you are leaving something out.

One good reason to start with these skills is: trimming and splitting can be done right in Youtube. So students need no special software: just a web browser. There's even a Youtube video that explains the basics.

Assignments that work well here include:

  • select the single most important moment from an interview;
  • capture a discussion and then share only the highlights;
  • observe a natural or social phenomena and share only the most important elements.

Once students can capture & share, trim & split, they can begin making more complex video messages in earnest.

3. Get started in iMovie.

If you actually want your students to:

  • shoot more than one clip,
  • trim and split clips into individual shots,
  • combine shots into a meaningful sequence,

then you are talking about editing proper.

Here students will need specific requirements about what they should turn in. Just as you would ask for five pages of argumentative prose, you might ask for x minutes of no more than y shots making an argument or telling a story.

In terms of technology, iMovie is the simplest tool available. It's on many students' computers, and in some colleges and universities, it's on every lab computer.

  • If it is a short project, can be finished in one sitting and need never be revised, the students can put the files temporarily on a lab computer
  • If the project:
    • requires more than one person to work on it,
    • must be completed in several sittings,
    • must be revised, then the project and footage should be stored on an external hard drive.

iMovie Best Practices

  • Students will run into problems if they try to move from later versions of iMovie to earlier ones. So the best practice is to start a project on the oldest version of iMovie they will work with.

  • It is always a good idea to back up both the project and its footage regularly.

    • How often? How much work would you like to lose? Back up every time you finish work you don't want to re-do.
  • Similarly, it's wise simply to render a draft of your work, even a short segment, periodically. This way if you lose the original footage, you still have something you can edit down.

And just as you might ask students to turn in drafts of a written paper, asking for drafts of video assignments helps both you and the student.

  • You can make sure the student is working iteratively, drafting & improving, rather than trying to do everything in one sitting.
  • You help the student create drafts that can be used if the original footage gets lost or corrupted.
  • The road to video literacy is littered with obstacles. But the same methods used to teach anything--plus a bit of patience--will generally work well.

    • Start with simple assignments.
    • Use clear initial criteria.
    • Grade generously earlier on.
    • Don't expect miracles.
    • Build up gradually by creating a community organized around discussing your and the students' emergent understandings and standards.

    --Edward R. O'Neill

    Thursday, September 20, 2012

    Are Free Courses Really the Point?


    First, it must be admitted, that giving away high-quality content for free on the internet is a terrific thing.

    It doesn’t matter if they’re movies, images, ebooks, or video lectures. Free knowledge that does not require a trip to the library, let alone the cost of a physical book–that must be admired.

    And so: hat’s off to Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Princeton and other places which are giving this a shot.

    One can complain that the video lectures being given away for free are sometimes worth exactly what you pay for them.

    But there will always be some dross in smelting the purported gold stored up in elite universties. (I’ve been horrified by what passes for a ‘lecture’ or even intellectual insight or debate–but that’s another story.)

    We can honestly ask, however: Are universities actually giving away the right thing?

    (And one hopes that a few institutions who have not rushed into the fray may pause and choose to demonstrate their thoughtfulness in other ways.)

    Let’s point out, for instance, two things that are not being given away: a curriculum and a platform.

    The Curriculum.

    • A lecture is nice.
    • A discussion question is nice.
    • A reading list is nice.
    • Some free articles are nice.

    But you could find all these things with a few queries in a search engine.

    What’s missing here is something larger: a curriculum.

    A reading list is halfway there. But a reading list and lectures tell you nothing about what you might do to acquire or demonstrate the knowledge contained in those books and lectures.

    A curriculum in the strongest sense of the word is a structured sequence of topics and tasks whose performance is more likely than not (even highly likely) to result in learning–the acquisition of a skill, disposition, habit or body of knowledge.

    The Khan Academy has a kind of curriclum. But I am not enamored of video demonstrations: they seem to me to assume too much about the learner. For me, these lists of videos are closer to an index than a curriculum.

    A curriculum implies standards, but it’s more than standards.

    There are many published sets of standards. Most states publish them for K-12. But the standards most often do not set out learning objectives: what task must be performed to what standard to demonstrate that learning.

    A standard could help you devise a grading rubric: ‘Did the learner in task x show skill y or z, and to what degree?’ But that doesn’t say waht the task is.

    Most published ‘free’ courses, even from very fine institutions, are more of a reading list and a few lectures–which often amount less to guidance than to commentary.

    Some of these lectures are very fine: I’ve admired some of the Open Course lectures on literature from Yale. But then I went to college there and studied literature, and so I have some feeling for the topic and the approach. It’s a refresher course for me–and reminding yourself of something is quite different than learning something new.

    The Platform.

    Even more dispiriting about giving away lectures but not a curriculum is: paying little or no attention to the platform that hosts and supports online learning.

    In the era of Drupal and Wordpress, of Moodle and CanvasLMS, there is no shortage of software packages that ‘manage’ content (i.e., a CMS) or learning (i.e., an LMS).

    This makes it particularly striking, disconcerting and even frightening that those who have chosen to enter The Give Away Learning Derby have had so little feeling for the software which enables not merely downloads but social interaction.

    It’s as if universities have bought into the Matrix view of knowledge in which a plug gets stuck in the back of your head and–boom–you know kung-fu. (Whoa.)

    I’m not master coder. I’ve never contributed a line of code to Firefox or Android or TightVNC or Ubuntu or OpenOffice or MySQL.

    But I see the inspiring virtue of coders around the globe contributing, checking each other’s work, and making the best possible product for the most possible users. The altruism of it astonishes me–and delights me, too. I think it’s one of the best things about our current refashioning of the world on a highly-networked model.

    The web site is not where the learning takes place. (That could be on a bus or a couch, or in a bathtub.) But the web site might be the place where interactions take place which feed and support learning. (I say ‘might’ because existing social media can host conversation, publication and commentary very nicely.)

    So what is this weird idea that the knowledge is in some video lectures and pdf’s–and not in:

    • the tasks people use to acquire knowledge & skills,
    • the sequence of tasks which build learning,
    • the interactions people have which motivate and demonstrate learning,
    • the places which host and support these interactions?

    Most MOOC’s today are to college what instant coffee is to coffee: instead of taking out the water, they’ve taken out the sequences of activities and the social interactions.

    What’s left is so unpalatable, it often seems hardly worth consuming.

    –Edward R. O'Neill

    Wednesday, September 19, 2012

    How To Build MOOC's that Fail

    Having started a half dozen MOOC's in the recent months, I have found most of them tend to share a common trait. Many MOOC's currently represent a sort of parody of higher education's worst practices, its most spectacular delusions about itself.

    And thus they tend to fail--some rather spectacularly.

    (In the interest of protecting the guilty, I won't name specific courses. I have no interest in insulting people who are surely earnest and well-meaning in life--they just happen to lack any experience putting a course online, let alone a MOOC.)

    For the sake of neatness, I'll organize my thoughts here on four's.

    For the same of keeping the reader interested, I'll frame everything ironically: trying to articulate the unspoken assumptions which make so many MOOC's so very dreadful.

    I'll start with the Four Delusions of Higher Education. These underwrite the Four Rules for MOOC Failure.

    1. Sink or Swim. This is simple. Provide no guidance. Don't tell students where things are. Make the goal of the course as mysterious as possible. Give the students "freedom"--like plunking a traveler down in the middle of a strange city.

    2. The Heliotropic Professor. The professor is the center of the learning universe. Everything revolves around the professor. The professor is the sun, and the students are tiny tiny planets--really cosmic dust, basking in the glow of the professor's expertise.

    3. Nothing happens without the professor's instigation. The professor must frame everything, explain everything. Students must do 'exploratory learning'--so they can then find out what the professor thinks, which of course is always right, since assumptions and standards can never be explained. (That would undermine the professor's mysterious sole access to True Knowledge.)

    4. Go Figure It Out. No matter what is said, no matter what is asked for, no matter how unclear or obscure, ultimately the student will just have to Go Figure It Out. After all: they're learning, aren't they? We can't make it too easy for them--like explaining what they should be learning. Since in the end, we are all just lonely particles colliding against each other randomly, why not just make the student responsible? Surely they will thank us later.

    5. The Piehole Illusion. Anything that comes out of the professor's piehole can be learned. The professor can say "2 + 2 = 4" and that will be learned--without the student needing to know if she is learning a fact, a rule, a concept, an allegory, etc. The student may have to listen again and again, and that is all to the good, because what the professor says is so very rewarding.

    If you accept all four of these precepts, it will be very easy to make a MOOC that fails utterly.

    Fails to help a thoughtful person learn anything--because nothing is specificed in the way of learning: nothing about what is to be learned, to what standard, or how.

    But if you need to operationalize this knowledge--and here I go further than almost any MOOC instructor does--you may follow three simple rules.

    1. Conceptualize your course as content. Just imagine all the things you need to tell someone. Then record yourself saying them. That should be enough. If you then add some articles people can read, surely no more is necessary. You will then add a commentary 'explaining' everything--so students understand fully that the professor's view is always the right one.
    2. A course, after all, is just a pile of facts & ideas. The student will just have to go figure out what it all means, how to fit it all together, and above all, how to learn it. (Helping the student learn can't possibly be the instructor's job! The instructor deigns to share his wisdom, and his job ends there. Teaching is like grace: you don't ask why.)

    3. Don't plan any learning activities. Since your course is just content, it can't possibly matter what the student does to learn. Learning is the student's job. So just give them a sandbox and say--go learn there. Don't tell them what to do, what they'll need to practice, nor how anything need be done. Throw up a discussion board and say "talk amongst yourselves!" Done!

    4. Don't consider pre-requisite knowledge. There's no point in worrying if students are ready or not. It's all sink-or-swim, so just throw them in. No pre-tests. No lists of things they might need to know or be able to do. No expectations.

    5. Assume everyone taking your course, no matter where she lives on the planet, is exactly like your current undergrads who pay tens of thousands of dollars for your institutions courses. Assume that nothing about the learner makes any difference.

    In short: univeralize utterly your tiny corner of bourgeois North America. Whatever you do: don't reflect on social, national or cultural difference, nor on how well- or ill-prepared your learners might be.

    Maybe one addendum.

    • Don't hire any instructional designers. No good can come from carefully selecting and arranging carefully designed tasks in a sequence so that the learner is prepared to succeed. (Remember, it's better for the learner to fail--since this proves how terribly complex the subject matter is.) In the 21st century engineers will solve all our problems--you know, like psychoanalysts did in the first half of the 20th century, and nuclear engineers did in the second half of the 20th century. Humanity, you see is not involved. The mind is just a bunch of wetware: so surely engineers know and can do everything that's needed.

    Clearly the subtext here is: an effective learning experience, especially one mediated by time, distance and computer technology, really needs to be designed.

    If you throw a bunch of content out and say "learn this," the learners will get out exactly as much effort as you put in--which is next to none.

    So what you have in front of you now is a really a plea for instructional design. And I know that has issues.

    When professionals get together, the thing they talk about is: how everyone needs them so terribly badly. Dentists wish everyone flossed. Doctors warn about germs. I once had a landlord who was a plumber: he insisted a drain should be cleared with baking soda--lest you harm the terrribly delicate lead pipes.

    Such is the definition of a "profession." It's a specialized kind of knowledge. And it has to value itself and therefore to devalue anyone who doesn't have its special knowledge.

    But if you really want to make a MOOC that makes a difference, if you actually want to share knowledge for others to learn it, not just to show how classy your institution is that it can give away courses (really meaning: lectures), just do the opposite of what most MOOC's do.

    1. Conceptualize your course as things people will be able to do afterwards--with standards attached. A gradated series of tasks and activities is even better. But a final demonstration, with lots of small steps leading up to it will suffice.

    2. Plan activities which will support learning--which let the learner practice and get feedback. Be aware that not everyone will do these activities. Consider making them inherently interesting. Begin with tasks that can be done without specialized knowledge. Maybe even use tasks that have real-world implications--which people find intriguing. And be aware that the students can't possible mentor each other, since their expertise has never been assessed.

    3. Help the learners discover if they are prepared to take the course. You might use a pre-test or a checklist. If this material even links to preparatory activities, you can kill two birds with one stone.

    4. Consider hiring actual instuctional designers: not engineers, not programmers, not someone with a few education courses. Really take seriously that you are designing something. Plan. Make a proof-of-concept. Start small. Scale up. Do all the things that are considered "design thinking"--even if you are not a designer of any sort.

    In short, consider that plunking things on a web site is not design--any more than throwing furniture around a room is interior decorating.

    Or do what everyone else is doing: record a few lectures, throw up a discussion board, and break your arm patting yourself on the back.

    --Edward R. O'Neill

    Friday, September 7, 2012

    The MOOC--and the Coming Unbundling of Higher Ed

    Going out of Business Everything must go!

    The MOOC–the massive open online course–is stirring up a lot of concern.

    And rightfully so. Because “open” here means: come one, come all, no charge. And a college course for free is likely a gamechanger.

    I’ve written before about one aspect of the crisis in higher education: namely, its business model. The MOOC is another leading indicator that higher ed’s business model is in serious trouble.

    Networked computing–the omnipresence of computing devices, connected by wireless and wired networks, using standardized protocols and formats to share multimedia content–has revolutionized many industries.

    • Many record stores are gone, in part thanks to digital music files and the ability to buy and consume them using very tiny computers.
    • Some bookstore chains and independent bookstores have bitten the dust, since internet shopping, shipping and payment systems have made a book across the country slightly more convenient than one down the block. (‘Convenience’ is surely more perception than reality.)
    • Videostore chains and mom-and-pop shops could not stand up against streaming videos to your TV, computer and phone, or renting a DVD at the same place you buy your beer on the way home. (Ah, the glamour of it all.)
    • Paper money is looking real old-fashioned right about now: the ways people pay for things on the internet may replace the ways we currently pay on-site.

    Higher ed is clearly ripe for this kind of assault.

    (To those of you who say “but higher education is something much more profound and noble than a mere industry or service,” I say: those who worked in video stores, record stores and bookshops felt much the same way. Any business that takes in money for whatever purpose can be put out of business. For the present purposes, that is all that counts.)

    • You can now take a whole course on your computer, tablet, phone, etc. And the school offering it may be across the country or around the world.
    • The Open Course movement and (more recently) MOOC’s (massive free online courses) have made the basic content inside a college course basically free.

    All this is pushing towards one specific kind of service innovation: disaggregation or un-bundling. (I know: it's not a new topic.) Currently, you must pay one price for all aspects of higher education–and largely from a single vendor at once. One vendor:

    • hires the experts who have the knowledge,
    • owns the rooms where the courses take place,
    • runs the servers which transfer course material around,
    • brings together the other learners (whose presence is required as a matter of efficiency),
    • houses and feeds the learners,
    • helps the learners move towards graduation, and
    • hands out that all-important credential at the end.

    All these services are bundled.

    • You may pay one price for all these services at once: so much per semester or year.
    • Or you may pay per knowledge slice–i.e., per course.
    • Certainly the housing and feeding are not 100% integral: not all colleges are residential.
    • And even residential colleges will let you buy your food elsewhere, even live off-campus.

    But now higher ed’s remaining services are looking more like food: learners want to buy what they want where they want. (And who can blame them?)

    Higher ed is in danger of becoming the “cafeteria food” of knowledge: stale stuff that’s sitting around being kept warm, the same meat-and-two-vegetables being served to everyone, regardless of their preferences, because it’s more convenient to keep bad food on hand than it is to make the food people want when and where they want it.


    Unbundling

    In unbundling, it seems that when one a single element is available freely or very very cheaply, consumer behavior is: to look for ways to downsize the price of the whole service.

    So what are the real valuable pieces of the higher ed service?

    A Community of Excited and Helpful Peer Learners. This is probably the most important part of the equation.

    • If you’ve ever entered grad school with a terrific cohort of curious, hard-working, helpful people, you know what this is like.
    • If you’ve ever taken a course in which the professor excited and empowered students to pursue their own projects, both individually and in groups, then you know how powerful this can be.
    • And if you’ve ever taken an online course with zero meaningful peer interaction, you know how dispiriting the absence of this element can be.

    Subject-Matter Expertise. This comes in the form of professors, books, lectures, etc. You may buy the books, rent them, borrow them from a library.

    This is knowledge: the heart of higher education. And it’s the most removed from the student. Many learners never interact with their professor. Many students don’t care whether they learn from a book, a lecture, a person, or a robot.

    Places To Meet. Physically: classrooms, coffeeshops, libraries, labs, study rooms, etc. But also: chat rooms, web sites, discussion boards, the LMS–any place people can connect, contact each other, leave messages, chat in realtime or asynchronously.

    Guides, Mentors, Advisors. These people help you find your way through the labyrinth. They can be professors, students a year or two ahead of you, teaching assistants, department advisors, counsellors, or old books which recount stories which seem to apply to your life. (The guard at the door of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz always makes me think of every piece of paper I ever had to file in any bureaucracy.)

    Assessment. This is the moment when you prove you learned something. It used to be part of a course–papers, tests, labs, that sort of thing. The validity is guaranteed by the school, department and instructor, by the social and cultural norms of the discipline, and by the accreditation institutions that say ‘this college really meets the appropriate standards.’

    So now we can see what’s happening.

    The last two items are the only ones not being revolutionized. Which means it’s only a matter of time.

    • The community of learners doesn’t need to be face-to-face. They don’t need to be convened and housed by an institution–which might actually do a bad job at it. You can find your own friends: we do it throughout life. College needn’t be any different. And social media is the new place to find and interact with like-minded people.
    • The subject-matter expertise is now basically free: video lectures, ebooks, web resources. Research databases are still a sticking point: the service is expensive, and membership in a school community is basically required. But there’s lots besides.
    • The rooms are no longer necessary–although they’re a nice luxury. Students also study at Starbucks, at a friend’s place, and (in good weather) on a nice lawn. Lovely libraries and study rooms are nice, but if you hate your peers, it’s no good. Students seldom take pleasure in using the LMS. Students have their own preferred communication channels and hangout spaces. And when distance enters the equation, physical rooms no longer matter. The communication tools simply need to be plug-and-play.
    • Advising and mentoring has never been the most consistent part of higher ed. Colleges and universities try to provide it, but I believe often it doesn’t work, and students simply turn to their peers for advice. (“Just read the textbook–nothing from Jones' lectures shows up on the test.” “Don’t forget to file your yellow form by Friday–or you can’t graduate in the spring.” Etc.)

    This means that only two pieces of the higher ed services have yet to be replaced (in principle if not in practice).

    what what it was what it can be
    a community of learners a cohort, classmates social media
    subject-matter experts professors, books, articles, lectures free resources: lectures from MOOC's, free ebooks, etc.
    places to meet classrooms, the LMS social media
    guides & mentors advising, professors, upperclassmen ?

    assessment

    testing

    ?

    The guidance and mentoring part is hard. This is likely where colleges should focus: connecting every student with several experts who are really good at mentoring, not just showing up for office hours because they have to.

    But in the end, if you’re a college, students really just need you for the piece of paper: assessment from an accredited institution.

    As soon as employers accept badges, or colleges start giving tests to pass students out of courses (for a small fee), it’s done: the services are unbundled.

    If you’re a college, people will soon be competing for every aspect of the services you provide. Some of these services are now free. How higher ed solves this problem–if they can–remains to be seen.

    Chances are: the MOOC is only the beginning.

    –Edward R. O'Neill

    Thursday, September 6, 2012

    Practice without Theory: Reflections on 'Applying' Psychological Theories

    Helping teachers teach–this should not be so hard. After all, when it comes to learning, there is no shortage of theories.

    • Psychology has something to tell us: educational, cognitive.
    • Instructional design says something.
    • Education has sub-fields.
    • Etc.

    Therein lies the problem. Not only are there many theories, but we are also baffled as to what an “application” of any given theory might be.

    The very relation of theory to practice, ideas to behavior, rules to ‘applications’–these are not easy problems.

    • Theory/practice (or “praxis,” as it’s sometimes called) is a major issue in critical theory, especially after Marx.
    • Philosophers since Wittgenstein have worried over something called “rule-following behavior”: what we’re told or think we’re doing vs. what we actually do. The gist seems to be that the rules don’t explain how we follow them.
    • Sociologists and anthropologists can also write whole books about the ‘logic of practice’ (cf. Bourdieu, de Certeau).

    So if we want to practice or apply whatever psychological or instructional or educational theories that are out there, we would then have to read another pile of books about what “practice” or “application” would be.

    But there is a way of being an astute practitioner which evades many of these issues. It’s a well-known fact in educational circles that beginners think quite differently than experts. And so many lovely volumes have compiled thoughts about the topic of ‘expertise.’ By looking at what expert practitioners do we might get further than reading all competing theories.

    Instead of learning, let’s take another complex psychological phenomena–which some experts have ‘applied’ or put to practice: “joint attention” will serve us well.

    “Joint attention” is a psychological phenomena which basically boils down to the idea that you and I can be interested in the same thing at the same time. Your eyes go somewhere, and mine follow. I become interested in your interest, and then we’re both attending to the same thing. We are interested in something together.

    Joint attention is a complex phenomena.

    • It doesn’t seem to be well understood.
    • We know that humans acquire it at a specific age.
    • It has something to do with intention: in following your gaze, I understand that your behavior bodes forth some aspect of your consciousness, and my thinking draws close to yours.

    So we know what it is and when it is, and we know it’s a problem when it doesn’t happen. So “joint attention” is not unlike learning. We don’t know all the causal mechanisms, but sometimes we want to make it happen.

    In addition, joint attention has a role in learning–at least in face-to-face learning. Basically anytime anyone is in a classroom, joint attention must play some role. If learners cannot attend to what an instructor is doing, the whole game is pretty much done for. (And I think we’ve all been in that classroom at some point or other.)

    So how can ‘joint attention’ ever be ‘applied’ if it is not well understood? How can we do it, if we don’t know the underlying causal mechanism?

    Well, it can be applied, and we do make it happen.

    I first became aware of joint attention when reading a book about my college acting teacher: Nikos Psacharpoulos. Nikos was the subject of more than one book: one on acting and one on acting Chekhov.

    Nikos was a practical man of the theater, but he also had a searching mind. So in the books about him, Nikos recounts anecdotes about famous actors, things that happened to him, moments from plays he admired, things he’s seen in movies, and things he’s read in books.

    One anecdote Nikos recounts (during an acting class) involves the Lunts. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were a famous theatrical couple: married actors who acted together and separately–acted brilliantly, by all accounts.

    The Lunts were famous for their teamwork–and their work ethic generally. They took their art and craft seriously. For one particular play and scene, the Lunts conceived an interesting effect.

    The characters they played were conversing, when one spots a bird flying across the ‘sky’–which is over the audience’s heads. The other then notices this glance, follows it to see the (imaginary) bird, and the two then watch ‘the bird’ fly the rest of the way across the sky.

    It’s not an unusual thing to happen, but it’s unsual on the stage: unusual but not unknown, since in the last act of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters Masha notices some geese flying, watches them and comments on them–and presumably the other actors might follow the gaze of whomever plays Masha.

    In short, the Lunts simply transposed a bit of theatrical behavior they liked in one play to another. (The couple acted in Chekhov’s The Seagull but not, it seems The Three Sisters.)

    Clearly the Lunts understood the idea of joint attention. Joint attention is somewhat the fulcrum of theater

    • If the actor is sufficiently involved in something (first-degree involvement)
    • the other actors can become involved (second-degree involvement) and
    • so can the audience (third-degree involvement).

    Then you have all the complexities:

    • one character ignoring another, failing to be involved,
    • the audience splitting their attention and involvement,
    • etc.

    In short: from a psychological perspective, dramatic irony is the manipulation of contrasting forms of joint attention.

    Lunt and Fontanne weren’t “applying” any theory of joint attention. It was doubtful they knew the term. The concept wasn’t available–although certainly people have long known that you can be more or less interested in what another person is looking at and doing.

    And here is the crux. Without joint attention, there could hardly be such a thing as theater. An audience becomes interested in what the performers or doing–or the performance falls flat. The general psychological term here would be “involvement.” It’s involvement Goffman theorizes in Frame Analysis: how we become involved in different activities–or can be thrown out of them–and what involvement says about the kind of joint, coordinated activities people get themselves up to.

    Lunt and Fontanne knew joint attention, because it was core to their work. People who worked with the Lunts and remembered them and were interviewed for biographies knew to recall such moments as interesting ones. And people like my acting teacher in turn knew how to attend to books about theater, and to plays, theatrical performances, the behavior of actors he worked with and who studied with him.

    And all these people did these things, were interested in these things, without the slightest concept of joint attention or anything like it. Like Moliere’s famous character who was ‘speaking prose’ all his life without knowing it, theater practitioners ‘apply joint attention’ every day–but without knowing it.

    The implication is: practice does not require the application of abstract concepts. Not every “doing” is a form of “applying.” Practice more reasonably involves knowing how to do certain things, being systematic about results, and astutely transferring what one knows how to do in one situation to another–the way Lunt and Fontanne transferred the explicit event in one play and its implicit use of joint attention to an entirely different play.

    In short: one can know a hell of a lot about something, and one can know how to do something very well and one can learn to do so all without any rigorous kind of theorizing whatever. (There is a kind of theorizing, but it is personal and ad hoc: actors do it; writers do it; painters do it.) And this process is called expertise, and it’s a form of practice.

    The more rigorous form of practice in the theater is not theory: it’s method, technique, craft. That’s what Stanislavski built by observing what expert theater practitioners had done, by observing himself, by testing what experts had done on himself and others (in his directing).

    So if we want to get anywhere with helping teachers teach, we will have to know quite a bit more about how to make practitioners very expert. And we should likely look at practical arts and how and when they are taught effectively.

    It’s doubtful we would throw away all the science. But what we do with the science–that is another matter.

    --Edward R. O'Neill