Part of the QualMIP series, introduced here.

What would happen if you had 15 minutes to create a skit portraying a classroom and could only say the word "unicorn"? That was the exercise facing a mixed group of students from Olin and Insper (a new engineering program in Sao Paolo, Brazil) last week. By taking dialogue away, we wanted to see what other clues the 3 teams used to show us what they were doing.

The results were hilarious -- and telling. All three teams had identical staging for their skits, even if they set them up independently. All three skits featured one actor at the front and several actors looking bored in the back, and the dialogue for all of them sounded like this:

ACTOR AT THE FRONT: (sternly) Unicorn. Unicorn, unicorn unicorn.

ACTORS SITTING IN THE BACK, IN ROWS: (look bored, throw paper airplanes, check phones)

ACTOR AT THE FRONT: (authoritatievely) Unicorn unicorn unicorn?

SOMEONE IN THE BACK: (hesitating) Uni... corn?


Immediately afterward, each team vigorously disclaimed that their skits looked nothing like their classroom experiences in college; both Olin and Insper are known for their experimental, hands-on, team project approaches to engineering education. And yet, when communicating "classroom" to an audience, they had perfectly replicated (well, parodied) the traditional lecture setup. Why?

The "lecture" setup, with an authoritative teacher trying (unsuccessfully) to reach a group of passive students, is a deeply ingrained cultural script. We recognize it, and we know others will as well. There are many other portrayals of classrooms one could put on, and they would show far more productive learning setups -- but they're not instantly recognizable as "a classroom." Because of this, the unsuccessful-lecture setup remains our default shorthand for learning experiences, the same way a wheelchair icon is our default shorthand for "disability" (even if the vast majority of disabled people are not wheelchair users) and a white man in a lab coat with goggles is our default shorthand for "scientist." Yes, there are many people with invisible disabilities; yes, there are many female scientists of color who don't wear lab coats on a daily basis... but those are harder to point out, explain, see.

In our post-skit discussion, we talked about how we would need to set up a skit portraying an Olin or Insper classroom. Without (comprehensible) dialogue or huge labels on the costumes -- which would also deviate from "reality" -- it would be hard to tell who was who and who was doing what. Lectures are performances meant to be put on for an audience; you can drop in and fairly quickly see what's going on. However, a team discussing the past month of their project has already built a context for themselves that outside observers can't necessarily penetrate; you'd need some way to point out the web of relationships, fill in past decisions, pick up acronyms. The team's discussion is already in a shorthand peculiar to them. The faculty dropping into their meeting isn't running it; they're more likely to be listening, so it's hard at a quick glance to tell their "role" apart from that of another student in the classroom. The students may not even be in the classroom at all; they may be in the hallway meeting, in the machine shop fabricating, off-campus testing their prototypes... it's hard to tell the difference between a team at dinner debating their experimental setup and a group of friends at dinner debating which movie to watch that weekend. (In fact, the same bunch of students may be both groups at once, having both conversations at once.)

When there isn't a clear "archetype" of an experience, it's difficult to communicate it; instead of clicking into a pre-arranged "script," you need to show and explain the details of an unfamiliar context. As observers, it's difficult to stay aware of our habitual "scripts" -- we can prematurely decide a situation is a script we've seen before, or try to force a situation into a script that it doesn't fit, instead of opening our eyes to what's before us. It's hard to constantly take part in what is actually happening, as opposed to what our brain is telling us is happening.

This is one of the great challenges of reinventing education. Communication becomes that much harder; we are making up our language as we go along, building shared experiences we will inevitably and initially struggle to communicate to others who have not yet shared them.

Activity design inspired by the Stigler and Hiebert TIMSS video studies of math classrooms around the world; hat-tip to Rehana Patel for the pointer and subsequent discussion on cultural classroom scripts.