Breaking the Fourth Wall


My daughter was explaining that some of the performances at LeakyCon 2013 (the national Harry Potter fandom convention this summer) broke the fourth wall. I had a blank look on my face.

“You know, when they say things like ‘let me walk down stage and talk with the audience about this.’ They are purposefully breaking the invisible boundary between fiction and realism.”

As I did some research to understand the concept better, it turns out that a few movies on my top 100 list break the fourth wall. In the foreign film Amelie, for example, the main character looks into the camera and explains that she likes to find little details in movies that others overlook. My teenage watch-watch-and-rewatch film, Sixteen Candles, has Anthony Michael Hall look straight at us and say, “This is getting good.” Even in Father of the Bride, Steve Martin opens the movie at the wedding reception explaining to us how it all began.

The next day when I was coaching a teacher who was in the middle of a reviewing expectations for conferring a student said, “This stuff is getting really old.” The teacher and I totally broke character and laughed with each other and agreed it was. In addition to laughing together, she’s also saying things like, “I feel like I’m missing something. Is there anything you would add, Mrs. Rader?” or “I’m going to hit pause for a moment. Mrs. Rader, can you think of another way to say that?” or “I’m thinking of changing our original plan based on their responses,” right there in front of the kids. Of course she’s not breaking the wall between fiction and realism, she’s breaking the wall between lone decision-making and decision-making with feedback.

Breaking the fourth wall in coaching takes time. It’s rare that it happens the first week or two that I’m in a class. It also takes a solidness with the other three walls. When a teacher has a handle on the content, knowledge of the students and the art of teaching, he/she opens up to consider the fourth wall of feedback. John Hattie’s quote, “The most simple prescription for improving education must be dollops of feedback.” In Hattie’s research ‘dollops of feedback’ was in relationship to studying students and teachers, but in my experience the same powerful truth holds with teachers learning together. There are many times that coach-to-teacher feedback is exactly what’s needed, but the most powerful feedback is teacher to coach.

Some examples:
“I don’t know where to go next.”
“I’m not sure this is meeting my expectations.”
“Is this getting at the teaching point/standard?”
“What is a different way to present this concept?”
“We need to stop and reteach.”

In these moments when we break the fourth wall, our learning is alive and kicking.

When do you break the fourth wall? What power does it hold for you?

2 thoughts on “Breaking the Fourth Wall

  1. Heather – I love the concept of breaking the 4th wall. I find myself doing it often with one of the teachers I’m coaching (we are in Week #2), and I will be interested now to see if she breaks the wall herself in the near future. Thanks for this post!

    • Dana, Thank you for joining the conversation. It’s a concept I’ve had in my head for awhile so I appreciate knowing that you experience it too in your work.

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