Applied theatre at the heart of educational reform: An impact and sustainability analysis

Gallagher, K., & Service, I. (2010). Applied theatre at the heart of educational reform: An impact and sustainability analysis. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 15(2), 235-253.

Abstract:

Researchers analyzed the impact of a theater-based intervention on teacher-student relationships and communication, teaching practice, and general understanding of issues of poverty. Participating schools received funding, resources, and professional development to implement the drama program, and participating schools hosted a school-wide performance of the poverty-centered play Danny, King of the Basement. Teachers received workshops, play scripts, and a DVD to support their implementation of material associated with the poverty-centered play. Over two years, researchers collected data from focus groups with educators, administrators, and support staff, researcher field notes and photographs. Researchers coded and analyzed the qualitative data and organized information into salient themes.

The research suggests the drama intervention deepened teachers’ understandings of poverty and facilitated dialogue and positive relationships between teachers and students.

Key Findings:

School staff in general believed that seeing the play motivated educators and students to explore the issue of poverty. Teachers believed that seeing the play energized them to take on the topic of poverty while also helping students reflect and connect their own lives and experiences with those depicted in the drama.

Teachers generally believed that viewing a performance of Danny, King of the Basement helped them to be reflective about poverty and to reconsider previously held assumptions about students living in impoverished conditions. Teachers and students evidenced greater empathy for others in the school following their viewing of the play.

Teachers reported that after viewing a performance of the play they began to engage in discussions about poverty with students, often for the first time. Teachers reported that viewing the play facilitated such dialogue because it afforded them a safe space and fictional referent in which to learn about and discuss poverty. After participating in the program, teachers reported feeling a renewed sense of being part of a profession through which they could make a difference. Teacher and student relationships also improved. For example, students were able to talk more openly to teachers about poverty-related issues affecting them such as hunger.

Teachers reported incorporating themes and ideas from the play into their classrooms as a means through which to address the issue of poverty with their students, expand their lesson repertoire, and engage drama as an art form in the classroom.

Significance of the Findings:

Findings are noteworthy because they suggest that by viewing a play that explores poverty in a realistic way and participating in accompanying workshops and activities, educators can understand and engage in discussions about poverty with their students. Poverty is a major issue affecting educational opportunities and outcomes for today’s children and teacher understanding of this complex issue as it relate to their students greatly impacts students’ potential. The findings also suggest drama is an effective way to educate teachers on difficult social issues affecting the lives of their students, and to foster healthy and supportive teacher-student relationships.

Methodology:

In year one, eight out of fifteen elementary schools participated in a mixed-methods impact assessment portion of the study, which revealed the ways in which the play contributed to shifts in relationships, dialogue, and social issues in the school context. The eight participating schools had a high proportion of students from low-income households. The research team collected data through interviews with administrators and focus groups with administrators, educators, and other school staff members. Additionally, the researchers administered online surveys, collected relevant school documents, conducted observations, and took photographs of program implementation in the schools.

In year two, three more schools participated in a case study sustainability portion of the research project. Findings related to program sustainability and financial stability are not included in this summary, as they do not directly relate to student and/or teacher outcomes.

Researchers coded and analyzed qualitative data and used statistical analysis software to examine quantitative data. The information was organized according to common emerging themes that included aesthetic engagement (the intrinsic value of attending a theater event), catharsis and empathy (emotional responses and shifts in understanding), and dialog and changes in social relationships that resulted from watching the play. Other themes also included the use of drama as a teaching tool, and the extent to which participants learned from the drama.

Limitations of the Research:

The researchers were not present at the school sites prior to implementation of the drama program, making it difficult to draw accurate conclusions about school-level changes from one year to the next. The research is further limited in its exclusion of a control group for comparison. Without a control group, it is difficult to establish causation, especially in a study reliant on qualitative and self-reported data. The inclusion of a pre-and post-program measure would also have illuminated more accurately the outcomes that can be directly associated with the drama program.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What happens in schools two or more years after the implementation of such programs? How do students feel about such programs? Further research should investigate explicit changes in teacher pedagogy and practice and make comparisons to control groups. Additionally, research that takes the current project a step further and investigates the impact of improved teacher understanding and teacher-student relationships on student achievement will further strengthen the evidence base for drama as a teacher professional development tool.