Episode 3: 3 Circles of Presence

Photo of Helen facilitating a workshop (many years ago!) – which circle do you think she’s in?

This series of blogposts explore different aspects of my model of expertise which includes three interacting dimensions: pedagogical content knowledge, the artistry of teaching, and intentional learning & development. Normally I write this blogpost first and then read it out for my podcast as a kind of script. This time I recorded my podcast and then transcribed it into this blog. So it will be interesting to see if there is any difference in the written word when it is transcribed from the spoken word (albeit it edited to make grammatical sense in this written context and to remove repeated or incoherent words).

This week I’m going to be exploring an aspect of artistry of teaching, and a particular aspect of performance looking at Patsy Rodenburg’s 3 circles of presence and how these might relate to teaching. If you’d like to hear from Patsy herself about the 3 circles then I recommend you watch her TED talk. In addition, this blog from Acting Coach Scotland provides a helpful synopsis. This is my interpretation of the 3 circles in the context of teaching:

So if you imagine each circle is a concentric circle around yourself and at some point it’s also going to engage with your students as part of those concentric circles. In the first circle you’re very much focused on yourself, you’re inward, your body may almost be physically collapsed or turned inward. And often we might take this approach when we’re a bit nervous, we may have our heads down reading our notes afraid to make eye contact or notice if anyone’s got their hand up in case they want to ask a difficult question. But, actually, we might also want to use it as a device to draw in our students, for example if we’re looking at a particularly interesting microscope slide or writing a particularly difficult equation and we want our students to come in with us (metaphorically or literally) and look at some close-up.

By contrast, the third circle of presence is where we’re kind of outward and beyond our audience or our students. Often we go into that circle, again perhaps when we’re a little bit nervous or we want to ensure we’re projecting our voices appropriately. But, again, we’re not really connecting with our students around us, we’re talking over the top of them. And, again, there might be situations when this is appropriate, for example when you’re out in the field and you’re looking at some geographic features in the distance. You might want to go to that third circle in order to draw your students’ attention to something that’s beyond them.

But, in general, it’s the second circle that we want to spend our time within. This is where we’re with our students, where we’re engaged with our students. If you’ve ever been at the theatre or a concert where you’ve felt that the performer is speaking to you or playing just for you despite the size of the audience, that’s second circle. It’s that engagement. It’s not necessarily an intense eye contact but it’s that acknowledgment that you’re students are there, that you’re bringing them in with you. And it also requires a body language that’s open and almost embracing. If you’re like me and you use your hands a lot when you’re talking, often I find myself making gestures that are outwards and then bringing them in, bringing the students in (metaphorically) through my hand gestures.

This second circle, as I’ve suggested in terms of theatre and music, is a fantastic way of connecting with your audience, and it’s a way of demonstrating your passion for your subject, for what you’re teaching and what you want your students to learn. And so, in that second circle, you’re fully present in the moment as well, you’re there with your students, you’re not distracted by other things such as your nervousness, your notes or something that’s beyond your students. You’re all in there together in the room or even online.

These ideas of circles of presence don’t necessarily just apply to being physically with your audience, with your students. I think they can also apply to online teaching. The way in which you’re engaging with the invisible audience, albeit through a small web cam on your computer, the way in which you’re thinking about their presence and your own presence can be reflected in your voice. If there’s a video there it can also be reflected in what they see of you in terms of your expressions.

If you’re interested in ideas on how you can improve your performance with an invisible audience, my friend and singing coach Hattie Voelcker made a really interesting video on this topic which will be relevant for teachers as much as it will be for singers and other performers.

At this point on my podcast, I then briefly illustrated the 3 circles of presence in audio format only – which clearly won’t come across in a transcription – do have a listen, I’d be interested to know if you can hear a difference between the three. In the first circle I’m in on myself, I’m probably a little bit nervous and I’m looking down and I’m reading my notes. Third circle, I’m looking out and beyond and I’m possibly pointing at something in the distance but I’m very much not making eye contact or connecting with you. Second circle, I’m really thinking about you as my audience and talking to you as if you’re in the room here with me. My body language is more relaxed, my arms are certainly moving around as I’m talking.

Thanks for reading! Next time we’re going to go back to the theme of Intentional Learning & Development and have a look at how we can make time for professional development within our other busy activities in higher education.

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