Last week I attended a national conference on theatre education. It was an illuminating and frustrating experience. And this fall, I started attending graduate school in applied theatre at CUNY in New York, where I am participating in a wonderfully illuminating course, Group Theatre. Part of the ongoing dialogue and work in Group Theatre has centered on challenging ourselves as facilitators and educators to push the boundaries, to ask difficult questions, to encourage student-based learning, to promote critical questioning and dialogue. Sitting in a group of secondary and university theatre educators from across the country, I was struck at how strongly the field was focusing on banking education…still. Freire identifies banking education as “the scope of action allowed to the students extending only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits…it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system.” (Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing, 1970).
The workshops consisted of theatre teachers sitting in small rooms with facilitators in front of them feeding them information to file away and apply later. Every time ideas were brought up that suggested socially responsible practice or truly comprehensive theatre education, as elucidated by Joan Lazarus in Signs of Change, a full fifty percent of educators shifted physically away from the presenter. The discomfort in the room grew palpable. The challenge to use theatre to engage students as members of society and citizens of school and the world seem to puzzle some teachers. The idea of a holistic educational practice that allows students to learn and practice collaboratively in all roles from actor to researcher to audience frightened some. It makes me question how we can continue to argue for arts education in our nation when we are so resistant to education and change ourselves. If we are not willing to be part of a bigger, holistic educational process, which includes shared decision making, dialogue, collaboration, risk-taking and experimentation as part of socially responsible theatre practice than of what use are we? The national debate of changing educational pedagogy from the industrial age of training workers for an economic factory environment to creating critically thinking creative members of global society centers around a holistic approach to not just theatre but all areas of education. Why then are people so resistant to Zemelman’s list of principles of best practice outlined in Ms. Lazarus’ article? The argument seems to center around “character education” versus “cognitive development.” Zemelman’s list includes such ideas that learning must be expressive, reflective, social, collaborative and democratic. The current educational system with standardized testing focuses more on math, reading and IQ – measurable skills with empirical data. So, if future success depends on these cognitive skills, why have the arts at all? Why have discussions about holistic, reflective, social learning?
When I go to these conferences or sit in the professional development offered by my school district, I often am struck by the exact same feelings expressed by Ms. Lazarus in Signs of Change. “I know that a look at what is brings with it the realization of what isn’t that my vision isn’t yet my reality. If I try to envision what might be and what ought to be, I get wildly enthusiastic, but then face fears of what may never be.” (Lazarus, Joan. Signs of Change: New Directions in Secondary Theatre Education. Portsmouth, NJ: Heinemann, 2004) I embrace ideas that lead me into new opportunities within my own classroom to explore more social dialogue and co-intentional teaching. But I feel isolated when I see the resistance and anger from some of my colleagues. With that resistance is derision and scorn for the new ideas and applications. I hear people saying things along the lines of, “That won’t work. These kids are crazy, they’ll go nuts if I try that.” “Right, try that with my freshmen!” “I have to get the unit completed otherwise I will hear from my supervisor, I don’t have time for dialogue and debate.” And I can empathize with some of their concerns. I currently am struggling with applying the group theatre activities from our class in my Intro to Drama course. It has offered a much more engaged group than is normal for this early in the year, so I feel excited by that. I question, is that the new activities? Is that my awareness of trying to really be co-intentional? Or are they just a great group of students? But I also worry that we have a state and district mandated amount of material that I MUST cover. Will I get through it all in the time allotted, given that I am allowing the students more time to debate, dialogue, really have a collaborative voice in the process of their education? So, when I hear the concerns of the teachers who are teaching the standardized test material, I empathize. Theirs’ is a concern not just of meeting their deadlines but also of keeping their jobs.
There is an interesting study occurring that fascinates me and ties in directly with Ms. Lazarus’ article. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner, started a study to look at the success rates of GED graduates versus high school. He discovered that by our society’s measure of success – money earned successful jobs, marriage and family life – that high school graduates were consistently more successful. He questioned why? The GED tests the same cognitive skills that the high school standardized tests do. So why the disparity? He came to the conclusion that the difference came in the reflective, social and democratic educational practice – i.e. character education. So he has set out on a journey to empirically measure the impact of the United States’ shift of focusing on cognitive education in order to maximize standardize testing scores versus those schools who are still including more holistic collaborative, student-centered and constructivist learning. He is attempting to find empirical data that there is a link between the holistic education, what Zemelman calls Principles of Best Practice Learning and Lazarus calls Best Practice in Theatre Education, and “success” in post graduate life.
I agree with Lazarus that theatre has an ability to offer students the best of Zemelman’s practices – a holistic, student centered, catalyst for social and civic dialogue that offer students genuine challenges and an opportunity to re-create and reinvent the systems they encounter. By analyzing existing theatrical forms, reimagining published scripts, devising new scripts, staging and designing technical solutions to theatrical problems; students can apply existing skills to new and creative problems. They can find analogies between the fictional stories they explore and the very real world in which they struggle. They can use the safety of creativity and “drama” in the theatre environment to explore and build solutions and dialogue about the challenges they perceive.
The debate and discussion offered not just by Lazarus but by Heckman and others is relevant and necessary. The pushback from the current educational community is real and based not just on a resistance to change but on real fear for the repercussions. We can debate and dialogue and dream of a utopian system but we live in this very flawed one. I am stuck in the dichotomy of what I am learning from the readings and the class and what I am experiencing in my job. I am reaching a point of crossroads. How do I resolve my desire for change and personal evolution within an antiquated and resistant system? How do I navigate the waters I find myself treading?