When the teacher becomes an actor

Every day, tens of thousands of teachers take the stage in front of their class. For them, the students are a bit of an audience. These one man shows dailies suggest that fruitful links can be forged between the profession of teacher and that of actor. What cognitive springs do actors bring into play? And how can they be useful in the classroom? Many answers can be found in a fascinating book recently published by Odile Jacob, Inside the minds of actors, written by actress Anouk Grinberg: a synthesis of several years of exchanges between actors and researchers. This encounter between dramatic art and neuroscience provides a particularly instructive theatrical reading grid of the teaching profession. I leave it to the reader to develop his own, but I will highlight a few points here by way of examples, mainly concerning the connection between the teacher and his class.

The first concerns “presence”: like some actors and actresses, some professors have a natural presence that seems to attract the public’s attention to them like a magnet. But what is presence? The director Joël Pommerat provides an answer to Anouk Grinberg: “When an actor is in the present, then he exists and he has presence, as they say. A teacher with presence would therefore be a teacher in the present, which is of course to be understood in the attentional sense of mindfulness: present in his class, at the present moment, with an open, available and reactive attention. This indeed seems to be a key to classroom management: a teacher completely lost in thought or busy solving a problem with his video projector is not really “present”. On the contrary, if he “feels” the class, he can “play” with it and keep the connection alive. This game, the actor Grégory Gadebois also tries to explain it: “It has to do with the voice, the intonation, the body, the silence. […] It’s in there, the game, more than in the fact of saying sentences. This game with the body, the gaze and the sound is learned in the theater, and develops this famous presence. Here is a first step for teachers.

text and emotion

But a few seconds of reflection are enough to glimpse a problem: impossible for the teacher to be permanently in this attention available and open to his senses; because he must also have in mind what he wants to talk about. Many teachers with whom I have been able to discuss have explained to me that they have in mind, during their lesson, a schematic representation of it, like an itinerary leading step by step towards a goal. Do we find in the actor a sort of equivalent? There is of course the text, but its utterance is so automated that it hardly seems to require any attention. The actors prepare themselves by saying it as quickly as possible without intonation, “Italian style”, which shows that their attention is probably not really occupied with anticipating the words they have to say. Instead, the actor seems to use his attention to form an extremely vivid and multi-sensory mental representation of his role, to the point of feeling like he’s in another reality. Anouk Grinberg cites the case of actress Dominique Valadié, so convinced of being Monsieur Seguin’s goat that she forgot to stop grazing at the end of the scene. This suggests to the neuroscientist Julie Grèzes that the actors would have mental and somatosensory imagery capacities more developed than the average, to bring out a fictional universe and evolve there virtually.

A key: joint attention

What would be the equivalent in class? One could imagine a SVT professor describing the functioning of the heart as if he were himself immersed in this organ, with all the reactions of interest, surprise and curiosity that this could arouse on his part (without adding to it, to remain credible). But for what purpose? The researchers interviewed by Anouk Grinberg regularly evoke the mechanisms of empathy: faced with a person whose attitude arouses an emotion, an outside observer tends to feel the same emotion. The muscular contractions of the face are not only read and interpreted by the brain of this observer, but also simulated or frankly reproduced, which tends to bring out in the latter the emotion associated with it. This is one of the supposed functions of the famous “mirror neurons”. The teacher’s ability to live the situation he describes would therefore transform him into a kind of transmitter of emotions for the students. This emotion would then be perceived by the latter’s brain as a sign that what the teacher is “seeing” is important, and that we must therefore pay attention to it.

This is the principle of joint attention, the tendency to spontaneously turn one’s attention to what captures it in others (if everyone in front of you suddenly looks skyward, you will look skyward). We see in passing that the teacher does not seek to draw attention to himself, but to what he is talking about. Like the audience watching a play, the students then “slip” into the mental representation of it, not because they can read their minds, but because the good teacher gives them time to mentally represent what that he describes, so that they can evolve together in this fictitious universe… whose consequences will be very real!

When the teacher becomes an actor