The Hierarchy of Audience

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In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
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How can teachers and school leaders consider the use of ‘audience’ in lesson planning?

The most effective way to engage students in learning is to create an authentic audience; a sense that someone else (besides teachers and parents) cares about their work.

In a recent conversation with Dr Debra Kidd as part of our weekly chat for Teacher Hug Radio, Debra mentioned Hierarchy of Audience: the more genuine an audience is, student engagement can improve.

I am familiar with Ron Berger. In fact, I’m a huge fan of his research, yet surprisingly ‘late to the party’ discovering this Hierarchy of Audience theory. As a teacher, it all makes sense. I’ve seen this over the years in all sorts of scenarios. However, before I offer those, allow me to unpick the research and thinking for you.

Hierarchies in and out of the classroom

There is not very much published work on this topic. Berger himself has written about the ‘Ethics of Celebrities, 2010‘ and how the internet has provided everyone (beyond celebrity status) to move beyond traditional hierarchy:

“…the global internet and technology in general in the 21st century allows much greater dissemination of countless images and global stories about the everyday lives of celebrities…”

This new world creates prestigious hierarchies and we can see it happening to all of our young people on Tik Tok and Instagram. In a paper published by Expeditionary Learning (2008), Stephen Levy suggests that “teachers know about the power of audience. When you write an essay, you have to know who your audience will be so that you can adjust your message and style accordingly.”

It’s a teacher most of the time, and occasionally moderators who mark exam papers or coursework. The range of subjects this ‘audience’ will change if a subject requires a live performance where, perhaps, an examiner has to watch. We know parents can also be the audience at home and in school assemblies or parents’ evenings.

Levy continues, “If you happen to work with students who come to school eager to win their teachers’ approval, you won’t need to do much to motivate them.”

This is so true, and no more apparent in my experience working with students in very challenging schools. When the audience changes, a student can totally change their attitude to learning.

This is why the importance of role models is so critical in the classroom.

Audience scenarios

How often have you found yourself in a scenario where Mr McGill pops into your classroom and you bring the teacher into the actual conversation or lesson and involve them in a quick assessment? “Sir, have you got two minutes. Please will you choose a winner!”

Or, when the headteacher is walking around the school with a visitor and the students are very keen to learn who this person may be. It may be a parent, an inspector or indeed a local politician or celebrity!

Perhaps you have a student who is totally demotivated and disengaged with school? As soon as a local footballer, musician or a YouTube celebrity pops into a school assembly, you see a totally different side to the student! They are so excited, show oodles of enthusiasm and work night and day to receive positive feedback from their (valued) hierarchy of audience.

This is why we have to work hard to bring in ‘the public audience beyond schoool’.

Once the students know who the person is, and they have an alternative audience to their regular teacher, the dynamics of the classroom changes. This is also evident in long-term projects, assemblies or local competitions where students can be involved with their local community. Cognitive apprenticeship discusses this in greater depth…

Towards Cognitive Apprenticeship

Sociological aspects of learning

Levy (and Berger) argue that the “most effective way to engage students in learning is to create an authentic audience, given them a sense that someone else (besides the teacher) cares about their work. This is important for teachers who work with students who do not have the support at home to provide them with the feedback or praise they need to keep motivated.

We know that memory is shaped by our emotions (episodic memory) and if we provide a child (as part of the learning process) with positive feedback for completing a specific task, they will associate completing future work with positive feedback in the future. Feedback and audience matters.

If we return to cognitive apprenticeship for a moment, you will see the sociological aspects of developing expertise is closely linked with situated learning, providing tasks in a relevant environment whether in class or locally.

To provide students with a sense of ownership. For example, re-designing a local community area and working towards a coherent goal that offers some intrinsic motivation.

The power of feedback from an audience and how this escalates through hierarchy will make a difference to your students’ engagement.

The importance of a second adult

I understood the importance of local community, competitions and the role of a second adult in the classroom as a design technology teacher taking part in local and national projects. As a school leader, popping in and out of assemblies and other teachers’ classrooms, one could see the dynamics of the classroom change in seconds, just by the simple fact that you were in the room (and your role) to offer some feedback, praise or an opinion. If how this hierarchy is considered, in terms of how the second person is used to support classroom work, I think all teachers can consciously develop something quite coherent and systematic.

For me, discovering this term (hierarchy of audience) is something I can now attach to all my experiences. It all makes sense.

The message here for teachers is to always involve a second adult where possible. For school leaders reading, do not underestimate the importance of you being in the classroom.


  1.  Expeditionary Learning (Levy, 2008)
  2. Ethics of Celebrities, (Ju Choi & Berger, 2010)

2 thoughts on “The Hierarchy of Audience

  1. This is such an interesting topic and way to consider giving feedback, thank you for highlighting it.

    As a music teacher, I absolutely see how pupils’ attitudes to their appraising (exam-based) work and performance work are different. They commit to performance in an authentic way.

    My concern with many things that inspire and create one-off excitement for pupils is that the fact that they are rare and novelty is one of the biggest contributing factors to their engagement.

    This is where taking lessons from one-off events is difficult to implement into a curriculum that is repeated (often with the idea of refining it).

    Thank you for bringing this topic to my attention.

  2. I agree with Anthony when he says hierarchy of audience is a thought provoking topic. The opportunity to share creative output with a wider audience, thanks to online platforms is incredible. But of course, needs to be handled in ways which follow safeguarding guidelines.

    As an EAL teacher, giving children the opportunity to write for an audience of their choice definitely increases motivation. Writing letters to politicians or on behalf of NGOs like Amnesty really underscores the importance of the written word as a vehicle for social change.

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