Learning across time and space; ‘smoke, suspense and Scheherazade’ using theatrical devices to engage the student

Rob Baker and Adrian Frost
Sheffield Hallam University

On inspirational teaching: In the early 1970’s and before much focus on ‘Health & Safety in the Workplace’, a lecturer once demonstrated to us Newton’s Third Law of Motion (“every action has an equal and opposite reaction”) by entering the lecture theatre prostrate on a trolley firing off a CO2 fire extinguisher.  How can we ever forget that critical learning experience?
This paper reports workin-progress on a joint tutor-student action-research project undertaken in 2015/16 at Sheffield Business School (‘SBS’), a Faculty of Sheffield Hallam University. Referencing practice and theory, the study is examining potential approaches to incorporating theatre in HE ‘business’ teaching.  Made possible by a successful SBS Pedagogic Innovation Fund bid in 2015, volunteers were invited – both staff and students – to form a research group in October 2015. The resultant mixed-methods study was designed by the group – originally 14 students (our ‘leading actors’) and 4 lecturers (the ‘stage-hands‘). Additionally, student members provided rich qualitative data as focus group contributors; they co-developed several examples of teaching sessions incorporating their ideas; and gained valuable academic experience by presenting the study at conference.

Based on the premise that inclusion of ‘theatrical devices’[1] has engaged the authors’ personal learning over time (see epigraph above) and taking as a fundamental Hains-Wesson’s assertion that “[…] students are generally more motivated by teachers who use performance based teaching practices than those who do not” (2011, p22), our research is investigating different types of ‘devices’ and metaphors, and their applicability and efficacy. We draw upon research by Pineau (1994) and Sawer (2007) who make a clear distinction between conceptualising the use of theatre as, on the one hand, direct instruction and, on the other, the application of theatre techniques as part of an improvisational process. In addition the study is examining potential for information technology to move the application of theatre metaphors beyond the boundaries of space and time (Giddens 1981). We argue that learning for longevity, informing our social systems, transcends  these boundaries when the student is stimulated by such ‘learning hooks’.
The research recognises certain limitations in its context. First, it challenges pedagogical received wisdom: for example, orthodoxy in session planning and executionthe much-vaunted linear sequence of content delivery: Second, it recognises that a raft of the standard HE Business Studies curriculum emanates from realist ontology: for instance topics such as business analytics; quantitative and statistical methods; and decision-making under uncertainty.  These topics, in the main, are declarative knowledge – and therefore according to Bruning et al. (2011, p17),   “[the subject matter] stifles creativity and discourages independent problem-solving and strategy building”. Consequentially a constructivist learning scheme, in the sense of socially-constructed knowledge gained through real experiences and the exchange of perspectives about the experience with others (Piaget & Inhelder 1969; Vygotsky 1978), is ontologically misaligned.
We assert that the Business School lecturer’s challenge to make the pedagogy engaging and active means that innovative classroom tactics must be brought to bear. One such tactic might be the inclusion of theatrical devices in the practice.
[1] A broad term coined by the team, perhaps without specificity of definition. Our working definition includes magic and performance tricks; number puzzles; manipulation of the physical learning environment – dipping lighting levels, playing accompanying stimulating music etc.; the use of ‘props’ and artefacts; and cliff-hanger endings – all serving to catalyse excitement in learning and provide essential learning ‘hooks’.