What can we learn from TiE’s past?

What can we learn from TiE’s past?

At the recent Inspiring Curiosity conference Deborah Pakkar-Hull our Artistic Director was invited to appear on a panel discussing ‘What Can We Learn From Theatre in Education’s (TiE) Past? – In light of the challenges posed by a rapidly changing world, what can we learn from TiE’s past and what if anything, does TiE have to offer young people in the present?  Alongside her on the panel were Roger Wooster (TiE Practitioner and Academic) and Tony Jackson (Emeritus Professor of Educational Theatre, University of Manchester)

Here is the provocation that Deborah presented for discussion;

The fortunes of TiE, and to some extent, the shape that it has taken over the past 50 years has been influenced by notions of curriculum, and of course, curriculum can be seen a cypher for the presiding values of the day.

I use the term ‘notions of curriculum’ very deliberately as I want to suggest that curriculum is complexly constructed, as Neelands’ puts it, not “a dehumanised, inert structure…nor curriculum as grand plan”.

So what of the relationship between TiE and curriculum…

TiE emerged at a time of great social and political liberalisation and against a backdrop where heuristic, child-centred, critical and play based approaches to learning were beginning to take root. It was also a time when there was no centrally determined national curriculum and, it could be argued that it was this very lack of formal structure that created opportunities for agency that led to the establishment of both DiE and TiE practices in schools.

But, this was a situation that was turned on its head with the Education Reform Act of 1988 and the arrival of a new centrally determined National Curriculum. This prescribed programmes of study and set associated learning objectives. Of course, this was only part of an overall picture of reform, but it resulted in the closure of many TiE Companies, victims of a fundamental incompatibility between the new subject based, outcome and knowledge driven curriculum and the critical, holistic and humanising processes of TiE.

Throughout the 90’s and 2000’s the National Curriculum remained and to some extent flexed to accommodate creative practices through initiatives such as Creative Partnerships. A new breed of TiE, also came into existence, Companies who actively identified with the form and who positioned themselves, as has already been mentioned, within the Personal Social and Heath Education curriculum, broadly following instrumentalist agendas.

And today…we are again going through educational reform, where there is a new scrutiny placed on curriculum, this time within a wider discourse of standards, knowledge acquisition and global competitiveness. This has resulted in a narrowing of curriculum and an ever greater emphasis on key subjects (for example the so called STEM, EBacc and Facilitating subjects). In many schools, this has led to the stripping out from curriculum of anything that is not prescribed or formally assessed and this has particularly impacted the arts. This represents a renewed threat to TiE and the small number of Companies still in existence report a significant decline in their school numbers. So contrary to my initial assertions about the complexity of constructing curriculum, I suggest that we currently find ourselves in a situation, where curriculum is viewed as ‘grand plan’ alone.

However, this is where I would like to raise a provocation, one that puts forwards the idea that TiE, in the hands of some Companies, has become adept at working within curriculum, even at its most structured and prescriptive, whilst simultaneously exerting a quiet radicalism.

The best way I can illustrate this is by offering an example in practice:

I want you to imagine a class of 5 and 6 year olds in an inner city Primary school in Birmingham. Within the class, most of the children are bilingual with English being their second language. The teaching assistant in this class speaks Urdu as her home language, something she shares in common with a significant number of the children. Despite this, the teacher tells us that the use of home languages are banned in this class, as they are seen as a barrier to developing proficiency in English. Today, the class are going to participate in a TiE programme called Mosaic, a piece that links to the school’s literacy curriculum and that has been booked to provide a stimulus for writing – indeed a number of writing activities connected the programme’s narrative are outlined in detail in accompanying online resources. Traditional stories are included in the school’s literacy curriculum – all drawing on European folk and fairy tales – and the school are linking the programme to this unit of work.

The children go to the hall and there they encounter two ‘dark’ clowns cast in the mould of Jacques Lecoq’s‘ bouffon’. These are misshapen, playful and grotesque and speak a lexicon of grunts and ‘gobledigook’. The performance that follows plays with what happens when these bouffons discover a magic box containing tales from around the world in many languages.

These stories are activated by a series of hats and head coverings from the box, which when worn by the bouffons invoke strange transformations wherein the wearer morphs into characters from the story, assimilating their speech and physicality to play out sections of narrative. The children encounter imprisoned Prince’s, ogres and ship’s captains amongst others and participate in a composite story made up of elements from archetypal narratives from different cultures.

Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Arabic, Polish and Mirpuri and English – all common languages in Birmingham schools – are spoken within the performance – both as recorded narrative links played from within the box, and spoken by some of the characters. Children are involved in the programme building context, enacting sections of narrative, using home languages to problem solve and in mediating the relationship between the bouffons.

Taking a moment to reflect on the experience of Mosaic, I would suggest that Postman’s ideas of ‘counter-argument’ and Jackson’s ‘subversive space’ are very much a feature of this work and by offering Mosaic as an example, I am proposing that theatre in education can both serve and subvert curriculum at the same time.

However if we are to consider this as a potential paradigm for the future, it leaves us with some very real challenges and I’ve identified three that I consider to be key:

  • How do we create new partnerships between artists and teachers who are working (and perhaps only interested in working) within a strong curriculum structure?
  • Is it enough for TiE to stand as a temporal experience for children, without having a significant relationship to curriculum (or does this undermine the power of TiE to be ‘counterargument’)
  • Is there value in continuing to use TiE within existing curriculum structures as a way of modelling broader, imaginative and human possibilities for learning, or is it time to turn up the volume of quiet radicalism?