December 23, 2002
Theatrical teaching

In an earlier posting, I hinted in passing that old fashioned teaching with a touch of showbiz about it often works quite well. This is a story about not such old-fashioned teaching, but also with a showbiz background.

The Victorian red bricks and solid window frames are vibrating at Heathbrook Primary School, in Wandsworth, south-west London, as a year six class of 10- and 11-year-olds shout and stamp loudly. A riot? Hardly. Jim Pope is teaching literacy, numeracy and developing social and listening skills through drama - and it's one of the best managed, most immaculately planned and informative lessons I've seen.

First, the children stand in a ring chanting an action song so rhythmic that it's still echoing in my head several days later.

Then comes a gloriously simple but patently effective mental arithmetic game in which each wall represents two, four, six or eight and the children are in teams. Someone invents a sum, such as 27 divided by three minus one. As soon as they've worked out the answer, they run to the appropriate wall. The last one is out. It sounds hectic, but Pope is scrupulous about safety, constantly reminding the children of the rules.

Jim Pope is not a "supply teacher"; he's an actor.

Jim Pope is employed by the Bigfoot Theatre Company, based in south London. The brainchild of actor and educational missionary Karl Wozny - his feet are size 13 - Bigfoot has been running after-school clubs, holiday courses and performances for children for the past three years. This year, it started a supply teaching agency.

Bigfoot works with 50 "supply" actors. Few are qualified teachers but all are experienced in working with children and are "police checked". Bigfoot trains them rigorously in school practices and the curricula before they start. Once in schools, they are carefully observed until the company is satisfied that the work is up to standard. And the company continually spot-checks its actor/teachers.

The link between showbiz and teaching is an ancient one. At the boarding school I went to the all too rare staff plays were occasions to be treasured, not because it was a chance to witness teachers making fools of themselves, but simply because the pick of them were so amazingly good at acting. I remember a Ben Travers farce to this day, which to me seemed just as good as any professional show I'd ever seen. The ancient art of getting the attention of an audience, and then keeping it using it to tell a memorable story, has obvious applications to teaching.

What is interesting about Bigfoot is that they are using "audience participation" techniques first developed by left-wing agitprop theatre groups in the sixties and seventies to teach bad politics and bad economics to teach, by the sound of it, quite good basic education.

The obvious grumble about such teaching is that children only like it because their usual fare is so boring. Well, maybe so, but at least it sounds as if it is better. And anyway, this sounds like the kind of thing that might survive in a purely free market in education, with parents buying tickets to such shows much as they would buy tickets for any other, and children only attending because they truly want to and find it fun.

You get the feeling that Bigfoot was only ever in the semi-private sector, with local authorities being its major customers, rather than mere people. And now it is adding another tranch of the public sector to its customer base: schools. But it's important that the "supply-side", as my free market lobbyist friends would say, remains in the private sector. They must remain in charge of their product. If they don't, quality control will collapse.

Everything would depend on having people as good as Jim Pope appears to be, as talented to begin with, and as well prepared. The corrupting process to stay alert for is the state system deciding that it could supply lessons like this, just as well as Bigfoot but more cost-effectively and in a more controlled and monitored way, and then turning it into a soulless and tyrannical routine, in the hands of an army of teachers who don't see the point of it all, hate doing it, and take their resentment out on their pupil victims.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:25 PM
Category: How to teach