Breaking the Fourth Wall in Teaching

When Forest Gump (Tom Hanks) sits on the bench offering chocolates to the listeners of his life story while this story is unfolded before viewers’ eyes, Forest breaks the so-called fourth wall convention.


By Dimitris Maroulis, AdvDipEd – MEd – EdDoctorate


Fourth wall is a convention that best describes the relationship between the stage action – wherever this stage is set up – and the audience. It happens adopting the idea that the suspension of the disbelief, which is the acceptance that the truth of the stage action is fabricated for the purposes of our entertainment, is facilitated by a mise-en-scene displayed in the proscenium arch. In other words, the actors and actresses perform in a box set which is surrounded by four walls, the fourth wall is also called the proscenium and it separates the actors from the audience. The actors and actresses perform in what Konstantin Stanislavski called: public solitude. There are cases though when the performers “communicate” with the audience and this is called breaking the fourth wall. The audience, then, become part of the action and a more dialogic relationship is built. The idea was coined by Denis Diderot, a prominent figure during the Enlightenment, but it was first used and introduced to the theatre by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Moliere. Breaking the fourth wall is possible in all other media, literature, television, cinema, even video games but it is the first time that it will be discussed in teaching.


Typically, in a language learning classroom the roles are very clear. There are the teachers whose responsibility is teaching, assessing and organizing the lessons and the students whose responsibility is learning, following the instructions and attending the lessons. There are also the materials, coursebooks, supporting and supplementary materials and teaching technologies of all sorts. The series of lessons follow a specific order known as syllabus and the most usual approach is lecturing the students and then asking them to engage in a number of activities to consolidate the lesson objectives. Of course, as always, there is not a system following the prescribed plan without interruptions, disruptions, plan Bs, many worries and reservations.


Breaking the classroom fourth wall


As Norman Fairclough in his book Language and Power (1989) puts it, all kinds of discourses reflect the power structure of society and voicing Foucault and Habermas’ analyses, he interprets discourse as any social practice. Teaching is apparently a social practice very similar to a theatrical performance in terms of the setting, the means and the idea of the roles of the involved parties. In analogy, students are the audience and teachers are the performers. This is where the fourth wall comes in. Classroom fourth wall is the authority teachers exercise on the students’ learning, it is the distance they keep between those who know and those who do not, a kind of reversed ZPD (zone of proximal development). Classroom fourth wall undermines reciprocity and autonomy and fosters dependency and teaching practices that reflect teacher’s learning styles. Teachers are the best learners in their own classrooms. Teachers need consciously and systematically to remind themselves to break the classroom fourth wall.


Not ‘Another brick in the Wall’ (Pink Floyd, The Wall)


Barricaded, then, behind this invisible wall, teachers hope that their students’ suspension of disbelief may allow them to transfuse their knowledge and expertise in an almost a-contextual environment, in a teacher-centred environment, piling another brick in the wall. How can we (teachers) break the fourth wall?


Flip the roles (not the classroom)


Give room to students to take over your place, make them responsible for their own learning. More importantly, facilitate their learning and let them create their own thinking and learning styles. Respect their uniqueness and make allowances for what they can and cannot do. Appoint them as assistant teachers and gradually give them more and more responsibilities, let them do the corrections, guide, assist and advise while they do so.




Personalize the lessons


Tell them your stories, expose yourself, make your lessons personal, give them the opportunity to ask questions and share their own thoughts about issues related to the content of the lessons. Do not impose your authority, become a role model instead. Stories, even the simplest ones, are the narratives of our life and students would appreciate your openness and sharing. In most of the cases their response would be their own stories, their own narratives, their own sharing.


Democratize your lessons


Give the opportunity to your students to have a say in decision-making, it is their own learning at stake after all. Discuss in groups about the order, the timing, the assessment, the workload of the lessons. Allow them to be responsible for the content and the progress of their own learning. You may find out, at the end of the day, that this is the best classroom management technique.


Broaden their horizons


There are many cases that learners feel the asphyxiation of the materials, they seem repetitive, boring, shallow and pay lip service to the promises of originality. Be flexible, bring in the classroom your own materials, or better, ask learners to bring theirs. Create a bank of such materials and use them as an alternative whenever you feel the official materials fall short of their promises. An extra bonus here is that you link classroom language with the real world one.


Modernize your lesson plans


Wow your students with the inclusion of new goodies in your lesson plans. Make room for poetry readings, jokes sharing, pantomime games, role-plays, new TV series recommendations, film trailer watching, reviews of whatever ( from best sneakers to new ice cream flavours) or simply chitchatting. Make the two-hour lessons an experience not to be missed. Get out of the typical timetable and seconds counting, lesson plans are not just the to-do-list checks.


As J.C. Richards encourages us in his “50 Tips for Teacher Development” (CUP, 2017, pocket editions, highly recommended) we, teachers, need to learn how to engage in critical reflection (p 43). He shares his experience of some of his lessons that were not as engaging as he had expected them to be. He thought about them and he found out that he was “over-teaching” – spending too much time modeling and explaining. Over-teaching means standing behind the fourth wall and I suspect it is most teachers’ comfort zone. Breaking classroom fourth wall can help us not only to humanize our lessons but also to focus our attention on the main players of these lessons: our students.