How Do Teachers Think Acting Classes Cause Change?

Two newly published studies asked teachers about important elements.

Posted May 18, 2020

Author's Note: This post discusses two recently published articles, located here: (Goldstein et al, Journal of Learning Through the Arts), and here: (Goldstein et al, Frontiers in Psychology). 

When teachers and artists try to explain the value of their classes, they are often asked to think in terms of outcomes, what an acting class does for its students. Much of the advocacy around theatre classes is focused on improvements students show in their psychological, social, and emotional skills, outside of acting classes, as a result of their acting classes. For example, common questions include whether students' empathy, memory, social skills, and behavior get better after taking an acting class.

Whether or not teachers want to (or should have to) engage with these types of questions, they are at the forefront of advocacy, policy, and decision making for many educators. The argument that acting classes shouldn't have to "cause" effects, that acting classes should be worthy of pursuit and study on their own is an important one (the "art for art’s sake" argument). But the question of what acting classes "do" for children remains.

Yet, these questions miss the first, and important piece of the puzzle: what happens in acting classes that may be causing effects. "Theatre" and "acting" classes can be broadly construed, including anything and everything from improvisation to script analysis to pure theory to movement technique. So which type of acting, or which activities within acting, are important for outcomes? Generally, there are two ways of thinking about the effects of acting activities- the first is holistically, and the second is piecemeal. 

1. Holistically means that there's some sort of "magic sauce" in the combination of all the different types of activities and teaching that happens in an acting class. Through the combination there are positive changes for students; There's no one piece that "causes" change, but rather the entire experience causes change. (Gestalt, in psychology terminology). Think of holistic as a meal. You need lots of different flavors, minerals, vitamins, and types of food to make a good meal and make it healthy. In the combination of these flavors is where the benefit of the meal comes from.

2. Piecemeal means there are particular exercises, behaviors, activities, or moments in a class catalytic for causing change. If this view is true, it means researchers could pull those particular moments out of class, think about how to increase their efficacy, build on them for interventions, or focus students on working in those moments in particular. (If the goal is change in particular outcomes). This is not meant to erase theatre classes, but when researchers or interventionists are thinking about how to use theatre as a way to improve skills specifically, they know where to look. Think of piecemeal as a vitamin pill, there is the singular "active ingredient" and then all the inactive ingredients, which may not be necessary to make the vitamin work.

In two recently published studies, my colleagues and I took on an essential first step in answering this question—we asked groups of stakeholders who are actively engaged with theatre programs as teachers, administrators, and aides to tell us what they think of as the critical ingredients in an acting class/activity for causing changes in their students, and then what changes they believed theatre experiences were causing. (I’ll focus here only on the elements of the classroom, not the outcomes).

In the first study, we worked with the stakeholders of a musical theatre program integrated into schools for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This program involved students, teachers, and aides working together to rehearse and perform musical revues and Broadway Jr. plays. The program is much loved in the schools and has been in place for five years. Teachers and others anecdotally report increased communication, social engagement, and verbal engagement from the students, who have a wide range of abilities. 

We asked stakeholders in multiple rounds what they believed were the active ingredients in their program (the mechanisms) that caused change in their students. After each round of answering the questionnaire, we included the previous answers from the group of respondents before sending the questionnaire out again. This allowed participants to consider the group’s average responses when making their second (and third) round of judgments, and is a way to reach consensus among a large group of participants—it’s called a “Delphi Poll” (Hsu & Sandford, 2007). After a few rounds, these stakeholders said that:

Modeling and Imitation, Routines, Physical and Vocal Warm Ups, Small Group Work, and Relaxation and Deep Breathing were the most critical elements causing change in students. What is interesting here is that these are not necessarily “core” acting activities—they are more related to the types of activities actors do to get themselves ready to act—warming up their bodies and minds, and working with others.

While a single activity was not highlighted, these activities could each be used on their own, or in smaller combinations. Warm-ups could be followed by small group work, or paired with modeling for relaxation. But the grouping of these activities as “pre-acting” is also important. This means that for this ASD population, stakeholders believe preparing to act provides an environment where other skills could be built. 

In the second study, we surveyed 173 acting teachers online. Teachers came from a variety of levels, from elementary through professional conservatory teaching, with backgrounds including theatre education, professional acting and directing, and English literature. We gave teachers long lists of possible activities within acting classes that might be causing change. We found that teachers were highly motivated to endorse the importance of a broad range of acting activities—no activity was scored below the midpoint, and the data were highly skewed towards the highest score. On a four-point scale, 26 (of 28) of acting class activities were rated above a 3! Teachers were endorsing a holistic perspective here, with everything that happens in the classroom as a possible mechanism for outcomes.

Within these uniformly high ratings, the activities that were rated the highest for causing change included reflection, discussing characterization and character analysis, social acting games, language discussions, and classroom performances. These activities are more squarely in what observers would categorize as “acting” activities.

Results from both studies show teachers are highly motivated to see their classes as containing multiple critically important elements. However, we did not directly ask about the importance of combinations of activities. It may be that we could describe classes as containing “catalytic elements” that are individual in their effects, but that an acting classroom is a unique place where all of these activities and skill-building can come together under one roof.

The very different populations of these two studies are reflected in the mechanisms teachers note as causing change. In the classes for Autistic students, there is a focus on the warm-up and preparation skills for getting ready to think about characters and performance. In the classes for typically developing students, the focus is on characterization, performance, and reflection, the elements that come after preparation and warm-up.

Together, these studies provide another piece of the puzzle that is the psychology of acting. Stakeholders such as teachers can provide valuable insight into what is actually occurring in acting classes, which researchers can use to then make decisions about where to look in future studies. We’re now following up these studies with a rich description of activities in acting classes, and their psychological components.

References

Goldstein, T. R., Young, D. L., & Thompson, B. N. (2020). It’s All Critical: Acting Teachers’ Beliefs about Theatre Classes. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 775.

Goldstein, T. R., Lerner, M. D., Paterson, S., Jaeggi, L., Toub, T. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. (2019). Stakeholder Perceptions of the Effects of a Public School-Based Theatre Program for Children with ASD. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 15(1).

Hsu, C. C., & Sandford, B. A. (2007). The Delphi technique: making sense of consensus. Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation, 12(1), 10.