The Play’s the Thing

T2 audience

Our study of what students learn from seeing live theater is now available at Education Next.

We randomly assigned school groups to see live performances of Hamlet and A Christmas Carol. We found large increases in knowledge about the plots and vocabulary of those plays — much larger than students experienced from being assigned to read or watch movie versions of those works. We also observed increases in tolerance and the ability to read the emotions of others among students assigned by lottery to see the plays.

Here is a snippet from the article:

If teachers want students to learn plays, it is much better for them to take students to a live theater performance than to have them read the material or watch a movie. Plays are taught best by seeing them performed live.

and the conclusion:

Culturally enriching field trips matter. They produce significant benefits for students on a variety of educational outcomes that schools and communities care about. This experiment on the effects of field trips to see live theater demonstrates that seeing plays is an effective way to teach academic content; increases student tolerance by providing exposure to a broader, more diverse world; and improves the ability of students to recognize what other people are thinking or feeling. These are significant benefits for students on specific educational outcomes that schools pursue and communities respect. Especially when considered alongside our previous experiment on field trips to art museums, this research shows that schools can draw upon the cultural institutions in their communities to assist in producing important educational outcomes. Not all learning occurs most effectively within the walls of a school building. Going on enriching field trips to cultural institutions makes effective use of all of a community’s resources for teaching children.

Finally, this research helps demonstrate that schools produce important educational outcomes other than those captured by math and reading test scores, and that it is possible for researchers to collect measures of those other outcomes. If what’s measured is what matters, then we need to measure more outcomes to expand the definition of what matters in education.

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2 Responses to The Play’s the Thing

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Looking forward to reading this as soon as I come up for air!

    Could the effect be wholly or partly the increased certainty that students will actually be exposed to the play? I note you said you measured seeing the play versus *assigning* them to read it or see the movie, as opposed to their actually reading or seeing it. Assign them to attend the play and you can confirm that they do it!

    • That could very well be the explanation. Students often don’t read things even when they are assigned to do so. But since all schools can do is assign reading, they are much better off if they take students to see the play — even if it is only because that is the only way to ensure that they are exposed to the material.

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