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Do school trips to the theatre provide any educational benefits?

Written By: Daryn Egan-Simon
5 min read
First large-scale experiment examining the social and cognitive effects of theatre field trips

Title: The Play’s the Thing: Experimentally Examining the Social and Cognitive Effects of School Field Trips to Live Theatre Performances
Published: Educational Researcher (2018). Vol. 47(4), pp. 246– 254. 2018
Authors: Jay P. Greene (Professor of Education, University of Arkansas)
Heidi H. Erickson (Doctoral Fellow, University of Arkansas)
Angela R. Watson (Distinguished Doctoral Fellow, University of Arkansas)
Molly I. Beck (Distinguished Doctoral Fellow, University of Arkansas)

What did the research explore?

Cultural trips to museums, theatres and art galleries are a well-established educational practice across the world.  However, there is still little systematic evidence exploring the educational benefits of such visits (Green et al., 2018). In fact, according to the authors, this is the first large-scale experiment to examine the social and cognitive effects of school field trips to live theatre performances.

The research addressed the question of whether school visits to see live theatre benefit students in areas such as increased subject knowledge, levels of tolerance and desire to participate in theatre. The authors reported positive findings from the study and argue that they need to be considered against growing evidence that students are receiving less exposure to the arts, both within school and in out-of-school activities (Green et al., 2018).

How did they conduct the research?

School groups were randomly chosen to receive free tickets to attend a live theatre performance over a two-year period. Most schools were in semi-rural areas of Northwest Arkansas, with over half of students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunches. Teachers applied for a chance to take their class to one of five different theatre performances. The chosen plays were A Christmas Carol, Hamlet, Around the World in 80 Days, Twelfth Night and Peter and the Starcatcher.

The teachers and students were unaware that they were research subjects. The authors ‘randomly assigned one or more classes to receive tickets and one to serve as a control group… While treatment groups received a field trip, the control groups did not and continued with their normal school activities’ (Green et al., 2018, p. 248). The classes that went to the theatre were matched with control groups either within their own school or in other schools that had similar students.

In total, the researchers conducted 47 lotteries, creating 94 treatment and control groups containing almost 1,500 students.

For the final two plays (Peter and the Starcatcher and the Twelfth Night), the researchers added a second aspect. Students were randomly assigned to see a film adaptation of the play that the theatre treatment group saw. The addition of the film allowed the researchers ‘to test whether any effects of seeing a play were derived from the subject matter of the play or from the experience of seeing live theatre’ (Green et al., 2018, p. 248).

The researchers then surveyed students from both the treatment and control groups in their classrooms. The surveys included scales to measure the following among students: Social Perspective Taking (SPT); Tolerance; Content Knowledge; Theatre Consumption; and desire to Participate in Theatre. SPT is a process where a person considers the thoughts, feelings and motivations of others and is able to understand and accept other people’s points of view. The researchers chose these measures based on previous, related research, such as Goldstein and Winner’s (2012) study on the social and emotional benefits of drama activities for students.  

The Tolerance scale consisted of seven statements, for example, ‘I think people can have different opinions about the same thing’. Participants selected one of four options, from strongly disagree to strongly agree. This was designed to capture their general acceptance of other people and different opinions. The SPT scale also had seven statements or questions, for example, ‘How often do you try to figure out what motivates others to behave as they do?’ This time, however, students had to choose one of five answer options from almost never to almost all of the time.

This was repeated for each of the success measures including Content Knowledge, Theatre Consumption and Theatre Participation.

Once they had the survey responses, researchers used ‘a straightforward set of analytic techniques, designed for use in social experiments’ to estimate the impact of the live theatre trip on student outcomes (Green et al., 2018, p. 250).

Interestingly, the benefits were not as significant when students watched a film.

What were the key findings?

The authors say students get significant educational benefits from seeing live theatre. These included higher levels of SPT and Tolerance compared with those in the control groups. The students’ Content Knowledge of the plot and key vocabulary was also increased by seeing a live theatre performance. The authors conclude by suggesting that the effects of the theatre trips are most robust and significant with regards to Tolerance and Content Knowledge.

Interestingly, the benefits were not as significant when students watched a film. The effects of watching a film had no overall effect on students’ SPT or Tolerance, and it was not as effective conveying Content Knowledge.

What’s more, while a trip to the theatre may have strengthened students’ desire to consume more theatre, it had no detectable effect on students’ interests in participating in theatre.

What are the limitations?

The researchers acknowledge their lack of information on the extent to which teachers prepared their students to see the plays. This prevents them from knowing the extent to which outcomes could be attributed to the play alone or any preparation.

The researchers were also only able to observe the effects seven to eight weeks after students saw the plays so they could not make any conclusions about long-term benefits. Finally, while the results were consistent across multiple plays, produced by different theatres, and involving different school groups, all of the experiments occurred in one place (northwest Arkansas) so the benefits might not be produced for other students elsewhere (Green et al., 2018).

What ideas might you adopt for your own classroom from the research?

  • Ensure that all students are provided with opportunities to visit the theatre alongside other cultural visits such as art galleries, museums and historical sites
  • Consider the effectiveness of using film versions of plays to help students with their content knowledge
  • Incorporate additional drama-based pedagogy across the curriculum.

What questions does the research raise for teachers?

  • The authors argue that increased accountability measures have led to a reduction in cultural visits in some areas. How can we ensure that pupils are getting a broad and balanced curriculum within and beyond school?
  • Can Pupil Premium money be spent to ensure that disadvantaged students are provided with cultural enrichment opportunities?
  • Would booking visiting theatre groups have a similar social and cognitive effect on students?

Further reading

  • Goldstein, T. R. and Winner, E. (2012). Enhancing empathy and theory of mind. Journal of Cognition and Development, 13(1), 19–37.
  • Greene, J. P., Kisida, B. and Bowen, D. (2014). The educational value of field trips. Education Next, 14(1), 78–86.
  • Greene, J., Hitt, C., Kraybill, A. and Bogulski, C. (2015). Learning from live theater: Students realize gains in knowledge, tolerance and more. Education Next, 15(1), 54–61.
  • Kisida, B., Greene, J. P., & Bowen, D. (2014). Creating cultural consumers: The dynamics of cultural capital acquisition. Sociology of Education, 87(4), 281–295.
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