Academic journal article Education Next

Learning from Live Theater: Students Realize Gains in Knowledge, Tolerance, and More

Academic journal article Education Next

Learning from Live Theater: Students Realize Gains in Knowledge, Tolerance, and More

Article excerpt

AS SCHOOLS NARROW THEIR FOCUS on improving performance on math and reading standardized tests, they have greater difficulty justifying taking students out of the classroom for experiences that are not related to improving those test scores. Schools are either attending fewer field trips or shifting toward field trips to places they know students already enjoy. When testing is over, schools are often inclined to take students on "reward" field trips to places like amusement parks, bowling alleys, and movie theaters.

The nature of culturally enriching field trips is that they are often to places that students don't yet know they might enjoy. In a previous study, we examined the impact of field trips to an art museum. We found significant benefits in the form of knowledge, future cultural consumption, tolerance, historical empathy, and critical thinking for students assigned by lottery to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (see "The Educational Value of Field Trips," research, Winter 2014). In the current study, we examine the impact of assigning student groups by lottery to see high-qullity theater productions of Hamlet or A Christmas Carol. This is the first randomized experiment to discover what students get out of seeing live theater. Our results are generally similar to those found in the previous study. Culturally enriching field trips have significant educational benefits for students whether they are to see an art museum or live theater. Among students assigned by lottery to see live theater, we find enhanced knowledge of the plot and vocabulary in those plays, greater tolerance, and improved ability to read the emotions of others.

Our goal in pursuing research on the effects of culturally enriching field trips is to broaden the types of measures that education researchers, and in turn policymakers and practitioners, consider when judging the educational success or failure of schools. It requires significantly greater effort to collect new measures than to rely solely on state-provided math and reading tests, but we believe that this effort is worthwhile. By broadening the measures used to assess educational outcomes, we can also learn what role, if any, cultural institutions may play in producing those outcomes.

Research Design

The opportunity to study the effects on students of seeing live theater arose as part of a collaboration with TheatreSquared, an award-winning professional theater in Fayetteville, Arkansas. TheatreSquared agreed to add matinee performances of A Christmas Carol and Hamlet, and school groups in grades 7 through 12 were offered the opportunity to receive free tickets to one of those performances. A total of 49 school groups, with 670 students, completed the application process and participated in the study. Twenty-four of those groups applied to see A Christmas Carol, and 25 applied to see Hamlet. Applicants were organized into 24 matched groupings based on their similarity in terms of grade level, demographics, and whether they comprised a drama, English, or some other type of class. Lotteries were held within each of those matched groupings to determine which groups would receive the free tickets to see a play and which would serve as the control group. A total of 22 school groups attended one of the performances, and 27 were in the control group. As one would hope from a lottery-based research design, the resulting treatment- and control-group students are generally alike in terms of gender, race, and the grade in which they are enrolled.

During the winter and spring of the 2013-14 school year, surveys were administered by members of the research team to 330 treatment- and 340 control-group students. The information was collected from each matched grouping on average 47 days after the treatment students in that matched grouping saw the play. Of the students who completed the consent forms necessary to participate in the study, we collected surveys from 78 percent in the treatment group and from 79 percent of students in the control group. …

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