Breaking the Fourth Wall

In a theatre, the stage is closed on three sides by curtains or walls and is open on the final side, the side which faces the audience. This open side is referred to by players as the fourth wall: although it cannot be seen, there is a barrier preventing the audience from believing in and engaging with the play and its story and characters. Success in the theatre depends on ‘breaking the fourth wall’ so that the audience forget that they are in a playhouse watching players and become as engrossed and entangled in the story as the characters are.

A classroom is similar. Although there are, of course, many factors which encourage or prevent a student from taking interest, the fourth wall is a key one. Consider, for example, a teacher who spends his time with his back to the class, speaking into the chalkboard while he writes out the material. The teacher in this case is, to extend the metaphor, shoring up the fourth wall, almost physically preventing his students from being engaged with the lesson.  Some teachers believe, mistakenly, that electronic media are the easy way in which to break the fourth wall: it’s not. As with a chalkboard, there is a right way and a wrong way to use them. A particular danger is the reading of whole paragraphs from a PowerPoint (PP) presentation. Since eyes move faster than mouths, students have already read and processed everything on a slide by the time the teacher reaches the end of his paragraph, and they have no desire to ask questions or discuss what has been said. Additionally, the reading aloud of PP slides unintentionally conveys the message that the teacher does not believe his students to be able to read. Little wonder the students disengage.

That being said, using bulleted PP slides to direct the flow of a lesson can be very helpful, permitting students to ask questions and discuss ideas while still giving the teacher control of the direction and content. Furthermore, having practice problems projected onto a screen is much more time-effective than writing each problem out by hand. Notice the difference between the ineffective use and the effective use of the PP presentation. In the former case, the PP presentation is an end in itself (‘I am now going to make a PP presentation for my Science 7 class tomorrow.’). In the latter case, the PP presentation is merely a tool in the teacher’s hands as he strives to convey his knowledge to his students (‘What does my Science 7 class need to know to be able to discuss the ethical implications of this?’). To go back to our thespian metaphor, the ineffective use of the PP presentation is like an actor going onstage and reading his lines from his script without looking up. The audience is going to be full of jaw-breaking yawns before his opening monologue is even halfway finished. The effective use of the PP presentation, by contrast, is like an effectively-used prop, which gives the play just enough verisimilitude to draw the audience in. And what I have said regarding PP presentations applies to other electronic media. To be used effectively, they must be used as a tool, rather than as a teacher’s replacement. After all, there is a reason we pay human beings to lead classes, rather than purchasing computers to do it.
Jan Steyn de Beer