The impact of arts interventions can be notoriously hard to quantify. Research Fellow, Dr Lynsey McCulloch, explains why collaboration and co-creation sit at the heart of Time to Act.
At the happy conclusion of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, the twins Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus — reunited for the first time since their early years — ponder one question: which of them is the eldest.
DROMIO OF EPHESUS: That’s a question. How shall we try it?
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: We’ll draw cuts for the senior.
Till then, lead thou first.
DROMIO OF EPHESUS: Nay, then, thus:
We came into the world like brother and brother,
And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.
The brothers’ creative, cooperative, and collective thinking provides the perfect analogy for the way we’re approaching our current research project, Time to Act, here at the RSC.
THAT’S A QUESTION! HOW SHALL WE TRY IT?
Our intention is to ask questions, try things out, get things wrong and — most importantly — work alongside as many people as possible to figure out the effects of rehearsal room techniques in the teaching of Shakespeare.
We’re collaborating with young people, educators, theatre practitioners, funders, policy makers, researchers, and the wider public. Together, we’re asking;
- How, why and for whom does our rehearsal based approach to teaching Shakespeare work?
- What’s the value, and future application, of arts education in the UK?
And, like Shakespeare’s famous twins, we can do all of this as equal partners in the process.
Co-creation is central to the way we have worked in partnership with schools and theatres nationwide for years and is also integral to Time to Act. Our Associate Schools Programme — our national long-term partnership programme — is founded on the concept of co-creation, working with regional theatres and schools across the country to develop programmes of work and innovative teaching and learning tools. We work alongside, and learn from, those partners who have just as much to say about Shakespeare as we do.
In a research context, co-creation can be described as a collaborative method of knowledge generation in which academics work in partnership with relevant stakeholders. Participatory research of this kind should be user-centred, inclusive, adaptive, and unpredictable. It’s not about consulting others as part of a centralised decision-making process. And it’s not about reaching a consensus. It’s about providing a platform for collaboration, even conflict. And it does not assume an end point; co-created research should be continuous and sustainable.
THAT (OR WHAT) IS THE QUESTION?
In developing this project as a co-created study, the RSC established an expert group comprised of diverse stakeholders from education, arts organisations, government departments and the third sector. Working with the project’s dedicated research fellows (Mathew Collins and myself), the group has proved invaluable as a forum for dialogue and sometimes heated debate. The questions it has asked of the research have helped form our first and evolving research objectives.
For teaching professionals and theatre practitioners with experience of using rehearsal room techniques in the classroom, the most pertinent question is:
- How can we find evidence for what we know anecdotally, namely that RSC pedagogy has positive effects on young people?
- More specifically, do these active approaches to teaching Shakespeare enhance language development (reading, writing, speaking) alongside improving students’ confidence, sense of agency and academic self-concept?
Teachers would value having the evidence to show parents, senior leadership teams, the Department for Education and others, that the pedagogy is effective. In trying to gather hard evidence, we have looked at using randomised controlled trials within education. And, while quantitative data of this kind will be incredibly valuable, we will also make use of qualitative methods. What can be dismissed as classroom anecdote is, to my mind, ethnographic gold.
Funding organisations and policy makers want answers to another key question:
- what is the impact of partnerships between cultural organisations and the education sector? Do they work and, if so, how?
Arts Council England — recognising the importance of encouraging imagination, self-expression and creativity in young people — has invested heavily in schools and expect the organisations they fund to do the same.
Our study of the RSC’s Associate Schools Programme as part of Time to Act will be evaluative, looking for the ways in which partnerships support arts learning and improve student outcomes. The funders of the project (Paul Hamlyn Foundation) have also prompted us to think about the benefits to teachers of participating in arts learning programmes. The Teacher-Researcher Network component of Time to Act will formalise our work with teachers as fellow researchers and help us understand the impact the work has on this group both professionally and personally.
One of the early questions to emerge from this co-creative process is ‘Why Shakespeare? Far from taking Shakespeare’s relevance to the lives of English school children for granted, the company is keen to interrogate its own assumptions and practices. For example:
- How can Shakespeare speak to young people growing up in areas of structural disadvantage? Can he — as a dead, white male — inform the experience of living in a marginalised community?
Professor Ayanna Thompson, a member of the RSC’s Board of Governors, has spoken persuasively of Shakespeare as a ‘secret weapon’, a classroom tool for discussing social issues that few young people expect. Students come into a Romeo and Juliet class expecting love, swordfights and poetry, and leave having discussed toxic masculinity, gang violence and Covid-19. But, as Thompson herself recognises, the situation is complex: ‘while Shakespeare can be a secret weapon used to get to social justice issues, social justice lenses provide deeper, more sophisticated, and potentially more complex understandings of Shakespeare. Shakespeare needs social justice pedagogies as much as social justice pedagogies benefit from Shakespeare.’*
In traditional teaching, Shakespeare is the source. We look to him for ideas, for enlightenment. But why not make him the target? The focus for young people’s own interests and concerns. And how might rehearsal room techniques, with their emphasis on a very personal engagement with Shakespeare, enable this reversal of roles?
One final question from me. If we consider that the ‘end users’ of all of this are young people themselves, then where are they in this co-created research process? How might school pupils themselves participate in this project beyond their role as test cases? How might they become part of the RSC’s research community? Something for us to consider. Watch this space…
*Ayanna Thompson, ‘An Afterword About Self/Communal Care,’ in Teaching Social Justice Through Shakespeare: Why Renaissance Literature Matters Now, edited by Hillary Eklund and Wendy Beth Hyman (Edinburgh University Press, 2019)