Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dramatic engagement that leads to understanding complex ideas

Brian Edmiston (from Ohio State University) offered a session at the Te Toi Tupu hui in Hamilton. Brian is a professor of drama in education. He has a focus on both the practical and the scholarly and looks into how we can build engagement at the same time as mediating complex learning. As such, he is studying ways of enhancing learning with active and dramatic approaches – across disciplines. In particular, he aims to encourage higher order thinking and increasing leaners' understanding of complex ideas.

Brian has his roots in Ireland, and now has his home in America. As such, he has a bi-cultural view of the world, and has a good understanding of the differences between dialogue and monologue. In monologue, people and the institutions that give them authority, seem to treat other people as objects that can be used and discarded. Shutting down dialogue because of a sense of superiority is negative. Dialogue, in contrast creates conditions where people can recognise the conditions for people to reach out to one another.

Edmiston, says that "challenging authority is something that children need to learn to do, when it's the "right thing to do". Dialogue doesn't necessarily mean the use of the spoken or written work, but rather it is something that can happen even where there is no shared 'language', but there is shared human experiences. Teachers need to make sure that the conditions exist for dialogue, and Edmiston suggests that this transformation of learning spaces "needs to be honoured and valued; it's never on a test".
The physical space is a fundamental aspect of this process, whereby desks can create barriers. On the other hand, sitting in a circle without physical barriers can open up the opportunity for dialogue and equal contributions - where everyone wants to learn. "In too many classrooms students are bored to death" because they aren't engaged and don't feel empowered to contribute, and do not feel included.

Jack and Jill (nursery rhyme)

Responsiveness to immediate needs is also essential. If a learner has had a traumatic experience, or who has been involved in family commitments, then acknowledging this and giving the person the space is as important as providing opportunities for equal engagement.

Edmiston's second value is "We're all in this together". Shared stories are an important part of learning and dialogue, especially if there is a "big problem" to be solved. It can lead to deep engagement. However, something needs to happen - there needs to be something to solve - "a big problem that we're going to dialogue about".  For example, some of the problems in Shakespeare's Macbeth - "should you do what your wife tells you?", "what do you do if your friend kills someone".

One of the points Edmiston made was that "we must want our students to achieve friendship". He referred to Maxine Greene's words:

Our classrooms ought to be nurturing and thoughtful and just all at once; they ought to pulsate with multiple conceptions of what it is to be human and alive. They ought to resound with the voices of articulate young people in dialogues always incomplete because there is always more to be discovered and more to be said. We must want our students to achieve friendship [and citizenship] as each one stirs to wide-awakeness, to imaginative action, and to renewed consciousness of possibility. (Releasing the Imagination, by Maxine Greene, Ph.D.).

Many of our learners are articulate, but are not much interested in dialogue apart from with their friends. So, shared stories, with problems that students care about, and can dialogue about, can help mediate complex learning. It's about understanding that people can be caught in difficult situations where blurry lines and double binds are the norm.

Edmiston closed by saying that "all we can do is try to understand each other, and try to do our best" - "in dialoguing problems...where no-one is excluded, this gives me hope that vital and transforming events can take place".

  • A French-speaking Canadian volunteer helps two Haitian students with their English. The volunteer was in Haiti with the volunteer group EDV to help recovery efforts after the earthquake in early June 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Jack and Jill (nursery rhyme) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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