The Play’s the Thing

What do students learn from field trips to see live theater?  As it turns out, quite a lot.  That’s the finding of my new working paper co-authored with Heidi Holmes Erickson, Angela Watson, and Molly Beck that was posted on SSRN this week.

We randomly assigned groups of students to receive free tickets to see a play or to remain in their school to serve as the control. We repeated this experiment for five different plays over a period of two years.  For two of the plays we added a second treatment condition in which students left school to see a movie comparable to the play, while some were randomly assigned to see the play and the rest remained in school as the control.

Across all five plays we found that students randomly assigned to see live theater scored significantly higher than the control students on measures of tolerance and social perspective taking as well as a test of their knowledge of the play’s plot and vocabulary.  For the two plays in which there was also a movie treatment, we found no difference between students who saw the movie and those who remained in school as the control.  Seeing live theater produces important social and cognitive benefits for students that are not realized by showing them a movie instead.

This experiment cannot tell us the exact mechanisms by which these benefits are produced.  Our best guess is that leaving school to see a play exposes students to a broader world, which helps them gain greater understanding and acceptance of that broader world.  For many students, theater is a window to different people, places, and ideas.  Movies may not have the same effect because they lack the personal interaction of live theater.  Perhaps students are more intellectually and emotionally engaged when there are people acting out a story in front of them than when they see that story on a screen.  The relative novelty of theater may also be a factor.

Dan Bowen, Brian Kisida, and I saw similar tolerance and knowledge benefits in a previous experiment in which students were randomly assigned to go on field trips to see an art museum.  There appears to be something about the in-person exposure to cultural activities that affects student values and knowledge of that material.

The new working paper builds on and improves upon an earlier article that presented the results from the first two of the five play experiments we conducted.  With significant help from Cari Bogulski, Hunter Gehlbach, and Thalia Goldstein we revised the original study design to collect pre-treament measures of outcomes, add the movie treatment condition, and to include social perspective taking as an outcome.  The new study presents the results of all five plays combined although the estimated effects are remarkably consistent for each play separately.

Our research of both art museums and theater shows that out of school arts experiences produce significant benefits for students.  Much may be lost if we continue abandoning these activities as schools narrow their focus on math and reading test results.

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3 Responses to The Play’s the Thing

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Strong research with interesting questions for further study:

    1) Play was voluntary for teachers but not students, eliminating “it only helps students who like it” problem. My gut tells me teacher opt-in is much less problematic – though it would be interesting to have more hard data on the rate at which teachers opt into this kind of opportunity. Taking this to scale as policy will involve that question.

    2) Good variety of periods and subject matter among the plays offered. Doesn’t appear to be a narrow “Shakespeare effect” or something of that sort. Would be interesting if there were an opportunity to hone in more precisely on what kinds of experiences are beneficial.

    3) Having a glitch and lost access to the full text after writing the above. Did the movie groups watch the movie in school or go to a theater? I could see strong theoretical reasons why the presence of live humans would change the experience but a change of physical venue may also be important.

    • Thanks, Greg. I can’t do much about points 1 and 2, but I can assure you that we addressed 3 pretty well. Students who were in the movie and play groups left school on the same bus. Some got out and walked into the theater to see the play and the others were basically across the street at the University Union watching the movie. So the experience was quite similar for the movie and play groups besides the actual intervention.

      Briefly on point 1 — We did have some difficulty recruiting school groups to accept free tickets to see a play. We had to sweeten the offer to reimburse schools for the cost of the bus and even then it was a bit of a challenge getting schools to accept. Most of the resistance seems to come from school administrators, not teachers. Administrators may be worried about taking time away from preparing for math and reading tests. They also just seem risk averse to leaving school for any reason. As they see it, nothing bad can happen if the kids stay in school but there might be some trouble or someone might complain if they leave for a play. I suspect these are the main constraints on out of school arts experiences, not tight budgets.

      • Greg Forster says:

        A third issue is protecting bureaucratic turf against outsiders. My chips are on that number. This and the other items are interesting policy questions but don’t take away from your study.

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