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The Power of Exhibitions: Why You Need Both Sizzle and Steak

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This post is by Alec Patton, who teaches humanities at High Tech High Chula Vista in California.

 I love exhibitions of learning. Before I began teaching at High Tech High, I was thrilled by the very idea of an "exhibition"--a public event where students display the work they have created during a project. On the other hand, there will be a moment during the week before a big exhibition when anyone involved in setting up an exhibition will wonder why they ever thought it was a good idea--because, like all authentic learning experiences, exhibitions can become immensely stressful. I remember spending forty-five minutes in a parking lot with two students, talking them out of storming off the campus because they were so offended by what another student had said to them, after their idea for a sign had been vetoed. More recently, when I asked my students for their thoughts about exhibition for this blog post, a student wrote, "One thing I learned throughout the years is that you really get to know who your true friends are. Arguments start, tears are shed, and words are spoken that really should have just been left unsaid."

So, exhibitions can be exceptionally stressful for everyone involved, but that's no reason not to do them--quite the opposite: they are stressful because they matter. At a school where exhibitions are part of the annual calendar, students feel a weight of expectation not only from their soon-to-arrive audience, but also from the exhibitions put on by their predecessors.

Before I was a teacher, I imagined that students would be looking towards exhibition from the moment a project began. I've come to believe that most people, whatever their age, tend to put off thinking about exhibition as long as possible, and at the beginning of a project, most students focus on understanding what I, their teacher, expect of them. When I have seen students commit most to their work, it is not the prospect of an exhibition, but the nature of the work itself that drives them--creating videos based on interviews with family members about illness, for example, or creating paintings about diseases that were commissioned by the scientists researching them. For students working on these projects (both were components of the multidisciplinary In Sickness & in Health project), exhibition was an exciting prospect, but not a primary incentive. On the other hand, the exhibition certainly focuses my mind from the beginning as a teacher, and encourages me to come up with a project design that leads to something that will be interesting for visitors to look at/listen to/read/contemplate.

This is not to say that exhibition doesn't affect students' relationship to their work--it has a profound effect, just not always in the way you'd expect. In the past I overestimated the role of exhibition as an incentive from the very start of a project, but underestimated the power of exhibition to give students an opportunity to excel in disciplines that the regular school day gave them no chance to work on. This became most vivid for me when I asked a student how he thought we should display our oral history videos on exhibition night. He told me to talk to a group of students who I would not, up to that point, have thought to put in charge of the centerpiece of my exhibition--because they had not, up to that point, shown a great deal of interest in my class. However, they took up the challenge with a level of passion, imagination, and expertise that I have never seen before or since. I watched them dismantle and rebuild a table and create a program to run four computers off the same hard drive. I took a trip to an electronics store with them in which they made sure to get every component we needed as inexpensively as possible, treating my budget even more parsimoniously than I did. We stayed in the room during lunch, before and after school, as solution after solution presented an unexpected weakness. Finally, when they had gone so far as to remove the scroll wheels from four computer mice so nobody could accidentally advance too quickly through the videos, and installed a discreet fan to keep the whole system from overheating, we were ready to go (and with a couple hours to spare before the exhibition opened!). That experience transformed my relationship with that group of students. They didn't suddenly love to read and write, but they trusted me to help them get better at both, as I trusted them to deliver, whatever we were working on.

One final point about exhibitions: an exhibition is an exercise in making your learning both interesting and comprehensible to non-experts. This, I believe, is one of the fundamental aspects of literacy in the 21st century, where many jobs require frequently explaining specialist information to non-specialists, and where the ubiquity of information means you will need to be very interesting to keep their attention. I think about this when I hear teachers talk about a food metaphor that comes up whenever we talk about how student work is displayed: the "sizzle" and the "steak." The "sizzle" normally refers to the look of an exhibition--particularly the transformation of classrooms into unrecognizable, magical-looking spaces--while the "steak" refers to the actual content of the exhibition--the way that learning is demonstrated through work.

I want to push a little on this perceived dichotomy: "sizzle" and "steak" are generally described as different, even opposing qualities, but when you cook a steak, the "sizzle" is the sound of raw material being transformed into something digestible. So "sizzle" strikes me as a defining feature of beautiful work--information shaped by students into something that is both palatable and comprehensible to visitors who attend the exhibition. In an email, a former student of mine wrote that "To me, a great exhibition needs to have two main parts. It needs to be engaging, and interesting. This means it needs to be visually appealing. It also needs to have lots of important, useful information that connects to the visual parts. They should be connected." I can't say it better than that.

 

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