Research provides evidence that live theatre is vital to student learning
Should attending the theatre be as much a priority as improving math and reading scores in our schools? Do students emerge from the theatre more empathetic and tolerant of other peoples?
To address these questions, educational researchers conducted the first randomized study of its kind in collaboration with Theatre Squared in Arkansas. The study reaffirmed that students who see live theatre emerge with an enhanced capacity to not only understand plays but also tolerate other viewpoints and better read the emotions of others.
The study divided groups of students in grades 7-12 into two different sets of groups based on a lottery.
While the controlled groups would not see a live performance, the groups selected from the lottery would view either Hamlet or A Christmas Carol. After these performances, both sets of groups were tested through a number of novel methods that managed to quantify results outside the system of standardized testing. One such method, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, measured how much a student could comprehend the feelings of another.
"The version of RMET we employed was developed for use with adolescents and has 28 photographs cropped to show only people’s eyes. Subjects are asked to pick one of four words that best describes what the photographed person is thinking or feeling," said four project collaborators.
The RMET and other techniques showed students who attended live productions like A Christmas Carol or Hamlet increased their knowledge of plot and vocabulary, scored higher tolerance levels and were ultimately better able to comprehend the emotions of others in comparison to students who did not attend a performance.
Even though students may have already read A Christmas Carol or Hamlet or seen filmed versions before viewing the plays, the experiment also demonstrated that live theatre provides additional benefits for students.
"And adding controls for reading or watching films of these works did not substantially change the estimated effect of seeing the live performances. The intensity and immediacy of live performance appears to have conveyed this ability to recognize what other people are thinking and feeling in a way that watching a movie or reading a text could not."
By providing evidence that theatre-going is an educational resource that produces measurable benefits for students, the experiment reinforces that “not all learning occurs most effectively within the walls of a school building.” The walls of a theatre, too, can be a space of learning.