Deirdre Moore | November 2015

How Much Challenge Is Too Much? The Dilemma of the Artist and the Educator

“When I go to a performance, I want my hand held in the beginning and then I want to be led to the edge of the cliff and pushed off.”

This is a paraphrase of one of the projection designers who was involved in the premiere of a theatrical production I had the pleasure of seeing.  Following the play, I had an interesting exchange with that designer, the choreographer and a fellow audience member.  I was so struck with how similar the intentions of the dilemma of the artist and an educator can be, and thought there might be some implications for arts integration.

The Exchange

The cast of the production was small, so most of the actors played more than one character but had no costume changes (with the exception of using an accessory like a hat or scarf).  In addition, there were scenes where the characters were supposedly speaking in Yiddish and other scenes where they speaking in English.  Graphics were projected onto the stage to indicate which language the characters spoke in to help convey this to the audience. Even though the actors always spoke in English.

With all of that going on, the choreographer and projection designer were asking the other audience member chatting with us and myself if we were able to follow what was happening.  Then the projection designer mentioned that he felt perhaps some of the projections of text were redundant and “holding the hand”’ of the audience too much.  That is when he shared he only likes his hand to be held briefly at the start of a performance, and then he likes to be pushed off the proverbial cliff, then left to his own devices to make sense of the piece.  The choreographer jumped in about how he likes to “invite and indict”, explaining that when he choreographs he wants the audience to feel invited in, but then challenged. That’s when it hit me.  Educators and the dilemma of the artist are not so different.

But How?

Both educators and artists try to communicate a concept or an idea to their audience. That similarity seems obvious to me.  My “light bulb” moment was realizing that the dilemma of the artist occurs, just as teachers do, with what is the right amount of challenge for their respective audiences.  These particular artists were saying they like the idea of welcoming in their audience. This is much like educators relating new information to old, putting new ideas in a familiar context, and activating prior knowledge so students have an access point and are primed for productive learning.  The struggle is determining how much scaffolding to provide students.

As an educator, you want to ensure students don’t feel frustrated, but you do want them to experience a level of challenge to make the learning meaningful.  It struck me during this conversation that artists do the same thing.  They too struggle with how much challenge is too much, and how much hand-holding is too much.  Too much hand-holding and the audience gets bored (much like our students).  Part of the intrigue of art is trying to make sense of it as a perceiver or audience member.  However, too much mystery and the audience might just give up feeling frustrated or alienated by the experience.

Where’s The Balance?

I’ve produced and directed performances, choreographed pieces, written stories, and even created visual artwork.  I was cognizant that I wanted my audience to follow what was happening and tried to be sure the action or meaning was clear but I’m not sure I ever considered whether I was challenging my audience.  Perhaps as we educators choose art to integrate with our curriculum and share with our students and as we guide our students to appreciate art we can keep in mind the level of challenge that artwork will present and have our students reflect what made a particular piece of art accessible and what made it challenging.

Bringing in that metacognition will lead to a deeper understanding of the work and their own process as an audience member.  Then, as children are making their own art pieces, they can intentionally consider how challenging or accessible they want their own work to be for their intended audience.  Allow them to consider that struggle – how much is too much?

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.