Friday, 21 September 2012

PhD begins

So my big news of this autumn is in October I'll be starting my PhD research at The University of Warwick. Thanks to a studentship from the Economic and Social Research Council I'm going to be studying full time. It's going to be a fantastic new chapter and I can't wait to get stuck in.

Here's a summary of my planned research:

Playing Shakespeare:
Assessing the impact of theatre-based approaches to teaching Shakespeare at key stage 3
Essentially I am interested in whether a greater understanding of how learning through play occurs within early secondary age children could give new insight into assessing the impact of theatre-based approaches to teaching Shakespeare with that age group.
 Theatre-based approaches to teaching - in Shakespeare and more widely - have grown in popularity since the mid-90s. These approaches broadly favour a more constructivist approach to learning; as the RSC's Stand up for Shakespeare manifesto (2008) describes it, they ensure experiences are 'inclusive', 'collaborative' and use 'exploratory, problem-solving methods'. Alongside this, 'creativity' has become an increasingly important subject in educational research and policy. Though there is a growing literature exploring the positive impacts of theatre-based and 'creative' approaches to teaching Shakespeare, there is little consensus on what the value of working this way is, or the most effective way to assess its impact. Particularly within the arts education sector there has often been little support for organisations - where time and resources are often limited - in developing rigorous evaluation practices.
 Now more than ever with funding cuts looming it is vital that any theatre education company wishing to survive has robust evaluation methods. I hypothesise that framing evaluation in the terms of 'creativity' limits its' scope, partly as it has become inextricably connected to the reductive skills vs knowledge debate, and partly because becoming more 'creative' is only one aspect of theatre-based approaches to learning. Other theorists, notably Neelands and his concept of ensemble within learning have provided more nuanced frameworks, however I feel play theory has something to offer in this field.
 Within early years' education the importance of play as a mode of learning has been much developed and is a fundamental part of the early years' national curriculum. Play theory has a rich genesis in education literature, in particular theorists such as Vygotski and Bruner, while more recent theorists such as Pat Kane have postulated that we are increasingly living in a 'playing' culture. Yet it has been practically ignored in education research from mid-primary age onwards. My MA study looked at play in key stage 4 children and found it could be described as imaginative, social and transgressive in nature, that it can be defined by mode rather than specific acts, and used these characterists to evaluate the quality of learning in GCSE and BTEC drama workshops. Therefore I hypothesise that developing an impact assessment framework based on a an understanding of the play 'mode', in addition to a review of current best practice professionally and in academia, could suggest new impact assessment frameworks for theatre-based approaches to teaching Shakespeare.

 I'm hoping to explore this hypothesis by carrying out research in the evaluation practices of several theatre education organisations, and ideally carry out some action research on evaluating theatre education Shakespeare projects with key stage 3-age children. So far I've been talking to Shakespeare's Globe and 2nd tier organisation LEAN and am going to be looking for other potential research partners throughout this year.

 If anyone's interested in reading the full proposal (it's got references to back all this up and everything!) please drop me a line. I'm hoping to be a very social and collaborative researcher (see my thoughts on collaboration from January) so if you have any thoughts, suggestions or questions please do drop me a line!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

5 things I love about working with Early Years'

A very busy 2012 for me so far (for all kinds of reasons - watch this space for more exciting news!). Have been getting involved with some great new companies, nearly all of which focus on work with Early Years and Foundation Stage children (EYFS), and I'm loving it. Since my first days at Globe Education I've been taking their nursery and KS1 Shakespeare projects into schools, and now as a Discover Story Builder and practitioner with companies like TDLP and Dramabuds I've really found my stride.

 Having been a childminder and nursery worker in a past life the challenges of early years that seem to scare off some of my peers - snotty noses, sicky tummies or (worse of all!) soggy nappies - don't phase me. In fact I think drama work with EYFS is some of the most exciting and rewarding out there, and here's why:

1. Imaginative Freedom
Baring in mind my earlier comments on the 'cuteness factor' I'm wary of hyping this too much. Sometimes what is touted as incredible creativity and imagination in EYFS is just the result of children not yet knowing that the answer to a question needs to somehow connect to what is asked (e.g Q: "What colour is the sky?" A: "spiderman"). But even so, the physical and cognitive freedom to go anywhere, be anyone and of course question everything with very little self consciousness is exhilarating for a dramatist. Seeing how limited, in contrast, this freedom can be in older children/teenagers makes me wonder if Ken Robinson was really onto something when he said we educate children out of their bodies, into their heads and so out of their creativity.

2. Zero Politeness
What I mean by this is: if they're bored, you'll know about it. When you know a group is liable to be distracted by their own shoes or the contents of their nostrils, walk away or even fall asleep ( though come to think of it, none of these are restricted to EYFS students!) it makes you pick up your game. Every ensemble only operates by consent of all its members, and this is never more true than with EYFS - There's never playing along; only playing totally in the moment or else nothing.
 The flip side of this is how ready EYFS children are to engage in 'rituals' (drama-speak for doing the same thing over and over!). There's endless mileage in revisiting songs, games, opening and closing sequences session after session - extending and altering until they're totally owned by the group and give them more structure and concentration than you'd ever think a pre-school child could have.

3. The Full Arsenal
No, this is not about recruiting young children to my partner's favourite football team, but how the majority of early years work calls on you to use the 'full set' of drama tools. Songs (oh, always songs!) props, sound effects, costumes, music, pictures, physical theatre, puppetry all pop up on a daily basis. And by the way, taking a step back from the Brooktian 'empty space' idea so loved by progressive drama departments and other dramaturgs with no budget to speak of, aren't the bells and whistles of theatre (always in service of telling a proper good yarn, of course) something we all delight in?
 Every day I'm adding to my box of tricks, from Makaton signs to 150 ways to get 3 year olds into a circle. For me there's a sort of alchemy when you bring together a song here, a puppet there and everything clicks into an amazing session.

4. Language Use
Another challenge I love - and which appeals to my rigourous, academic side - is the need to be precise, appropriate and consistent in language use. I'm a big believer that in theatre a word or gesture should never be wasted and that's especially true in EYFS theatre work. An instruction given in different ways with different words can throw a group into confusion, as can repeated use of an unknown word or phrase without checking understanding (a wonderful, though rather erudite, fellow practitioner fell into all kinds of problems with a year 1 group when using the word 'gabardine' to describe a raincoat).
 Language is so important to this age group because it's so new, and that means alongside the need for clarity, there's endless fun and excitement to be found in discovering the richness of language, which is only widened when - as is so often the case in London - there's a lot of EAL children in the group.

5. Rate of Development
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly this age group take on new information. I find - again being wary of the cuteness factor - it does reinvigorate my own sense of wonder and excitement in the world rediscovering it through the eyes of young children.
 Since my MA I've been a big believer in the educationalist Bruner's idea that you can teach anything to any age group if you scaffold it appropriately enough. Luckily for me, this seems to be bourne out through working with nursery and KS1 children, particularly in Shakespeare and other 'literature' - especially in developing their own responses to the stories and characters' choices.

And so it's because of all the above that I've been working on (BLOG EXCLUSIVE!) a new project with amazing practitioner John Kirk, called Story Boxshops - sessions for EY and KS1 children to creatively explore Shakespeare, Dickens and Greek myths. More about this project will be coming soon on my website but here's an exclusive look at the new flyer (designed by Tom):


Tuesday, 3 January 2012

What I learnt in 2011: When life gives you lemons, collaborate and make rigourous and innovative arts education provision

Things are tough and getting tougher. This will be of absolutely no surprise to anyone - cuts are being imposed in all areas of arts-based education (thanks to The Guardian you can now follow @Culture_Cuts on Twitter, just to keep up with all this slashing) There is also a massive cloud of uncertainty and pessimism around the formal education sector; from the increase in tuition fees to reform of the National Curriculum many teachers and practitioners seem to be feeling hesitant, brow-beaten and uncertain.

But I say, to everyone in arts education (myself included) feeling the pinch - suck it up, redouble your rigour and see the opportunities inherent in this economic downturn.

Use the opportunity of fiercer funding competition to generate quality research/evaluation around your work. Prove it is vital (if you can't? Look to improving it then) We should be reevaluating our own aims and indeed constantly questioning the value and role of arts education itself. The positive results of quality arts ed. are often extremely qualitative, frequently open-ended and long-term and nearly always hard to easily record.
Arts education research has never been theoretical but now more than ever there's a need for practitioners and researchers to be sharing skills, ideas and building a basis for advocacy. With the paradigm of higher education and academic research changing, initiatives like Dougald Hine's University Project suggest new ways research, intellectual rigour and knowledge-sharing can be approached.

No one can afford to be an island any more. We should be asking where our aims cross over with other organisations, schools, charities and local authorities. If we are truely committed to providing the best, the most accessible and the most sustainable arts education to our communities, and to doing this effectively with limited resources, then increased partnerships and skill-sharing is surely the way forward. STEP and it's annual festival based in the vibrant Borough of Southwark is a prime example of this happening within an arts education community, having just completed it's largest and longest festival to date. Alternatively a recent article in TESpro highlighted how new and money-saving approaches to CPD at Poole Grammar School, Dorset facilitated skills-sharing and innovation between teachers. Elsewhere RSC's Learning and Performance Network provides an exciting model for practice-sharing between schools and arts organisations while the theatre's links with The University of Warwick CAPITAL Centre is another great example of cross-organisational research and practice-sharing.

I am entering 2012 with renewed commitment and excitement about the opportunities for sustaining and developing quality arts education provision, I hope you are too :D

Thursday, 29 September 2011

TEDx London - Education Revolution: a few thoughts

Thanks to the generosity of The Camden Roundhouse and my obsessive twitter addiction I was lucky enough to score myself a place on the guestlist to the TEDx London Education Revolution conference hosted by the Roundhouse on 17th September. You can find details and (I think) vids of many of the talks through TEDx London but I wanted to talk about a few of my personal highlights and some thoughts on the issues they raised.

 Our lord who art in LA; Sir Ken Robinson opened the conference with a video talk and a nice comparison between Dramatist Peter Brook's theory of the primacy of the actor/audience relationship and the same in the teacher/learning relationship - that when this relationship is of the highest quality, there is no need to add anything unless it enhances this. A good anchor as we delved into the world of flashing, beeping new apps and technologies (my position towards which can be best defined as warmly sceptical).

 Youth campaigner Adam Roberts began the live talks with a nice point about our current need for children to be literally and figuratively 'in line' because of the current inadequacies of the education system. This chimed with one of my current hobby horses; which is the question of how many structures exist in schools because of their educational worth and how many exist for the purposes of crowd-control and money-saving?
 Carmel McConnell from the excellent Magic Breakfast underlined this issue of basic inadequacies by revealing thousands of children in the UK misbehave and struggle to learn everyday because they are hungry. For 1 in 4 children the only hot food they are EVER given is school lunch. Perhaps I am being naive, but I find this staggering. For this to be occurring, it is clear our young people are being failed in much bigger ways than by the education system and therefore to be focusing on the redeeming properties of music apps or drama workshops seems to be widdling in the wind until we can be assured the children we teach have this basic level of care.

 One of my personal high points though has to be Ken Spours burning a righteous flame on the stage, stating that a true education revolution would involve education ceasing to be a political football for career politicians; creating false polarities within teaching practice in pursuit of highlighting their clever new idea. Echoing a common sentiment for this conference, Spours ended by pointing out good ideas don't prosper because they're good, but because conditions are there for them to prosper.

 Dougald Hine's talk on creating a new university had me wriggling excitedly on the edge of my seat - the PhD lives again! Hine's central point that 'learning is not a commodity to be exchanged, it grows between people over time' and his talk of the current existence of a 'university in exile' were eloquently made and I will be following developments on The University Project with interest.

 Artistic Director of The Southbank Centre Jude Kelly gave the final talk of the day, and well deserved the standing ovation she received for it. Her commitment to breaking down the false dichotomy that 'adults appreciate, children learn' and passion that everyone should have access to the arts was smartly brought home by placing herself in the continuum of pioneering individuals who have opened previously closed cultural doors to ever-widening spheres of society. In the same way it is a staggering crime young people are not fed, it is a similar crime many people still believe elements of our arts and culture are not appropriate or accessible to all our young people and I'll be watching The Southbank Centre with interest to see how Kelly's pledge to work towards ending this inequality becomes reality. My last PhD proposal set out to explore how arts-based practice effects learning, and I find myself wondering if Kelly would have an interest in this research.

 For a natural optimist like me, nearly every conference has that moment when you give yourself up to the collective wave of euphoria and mine was during Kelly's talk when she spoke of how through childhood ballet lessons 'I have become the person that I have been ever since'. That experience of yourself, and therefore the world, suddenly making sense though a particular field or craft made perfect sense to me. It felt clear to me in that moment that there is something in the world that does this for each of us: a door we walk through to find ourselves. As educators we have been lucky enough to find the ones that work for us and surely our commitment has to be to patently, rigorously and creatively opening as many of these doors as possible to as many young people as possible. You will never know if it's the door for them, or even if they are in the right place to walk through it. But if we all - subject teachers, artists, sportspeople, techno-types, business moguls - aim just to try - to 'pass it on' as The History Boys Hector would have it; then surely that's not nothing?

 Of course, revolutions of the past have taught us it's relatively easy to give rousing speeches and feel your heart soar in the company of your peers. But as we headed out into the balmy Camden night how much of what we had heard and seen would stay with us, would continue to make sense in our everyday practice and become reality, and what would be left behind? David Price addresses this issue more fully in his excellent blog on the day, however the impression I am left with following this conference is that education is certainly going to exciting new (and exciting old) places, but does the underlying structure of our education system, and the support society as a whole affords it through the care and valuing of it's young people, provide the conditions for these good ideas to flourish?

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Onwards and Upwards

The news in brief:

  1. No PhD funding from the ESRC this year :( Dissapointing, but not deterring. The plan is to continue improving my academic and research skills and refining the ideas for my proposal (possibly by getting an article published in an academic journal - any advice RE this on a postcard please!)

  2. With the end of the summer term work is winding down and I'm taking the opportunity to engage in some career development - had a wonderful day with Sound Connections today developing my use of singing, voice and music with early years. Next week will see me dusting off my ballet pumps and heading to The Place for a week's intensive Introduction to Ballet (in an attempt to improve my flexibility, agility and creativity with physical work) If anyone knows of any other exciting training/courses happening over the summer, please let me know!

  3. In a recent holiday to Cyprus (visiting the girls who I studied with on my MA) I read Mike Alfred's book on acting and directing Different Every Night. I'm really excited by his approach to the rehearsal process, and as I've always believed the reheasal process has the most to teach drama and theatre facilitators on curriulum and pedagogy I'm excited to look over my own practice to see where I can intigrate some of Alfred's ideas....

And that's really all for now folks - a few ideas cooking for the next term, but can't give it all away up front, so watch this space!

Monday, 2 May 2011


I've been neglecting you for far too long. So before I leap out of my house to take advantage of this continued gorgeous weather with a jog round Peckham Rye Common (I have recently signed up for a 10k charity race, lord help me!) I thought I'd update you on all recent happenings...

Deadline for PhD application is tomorrow, so the current cadaver's head balloon following me around is finishing that and drawing all the many MANY disparate parts together. Im applying for four years' of full time funding, the first year being taken up with a masters in research methods (known as an MRes) before beginning my PhD research the following year. More on the exciting content of this research later - for now I'm superstitious about jinxing it.

A busy spring term of freelancing, and summer term now gearing up. After little luck last term have managed to secure myself on the freelance books of another TIE company, this time one based in North London; who have a fantastically specific approach - maths through music, history though drama, storytelling through dance. Simples. I have some training with them this week and I'm looking forward to getting stuck in to something new.

I've also been trying out a non-curriculum path a little over the past term - children's discos and birthday parties. It's been a massive challenge, but really interesting do to work so far removed from my usual fare and also great to have a platform to be unashamedly silly. The company I've joined is run by one of the most enthusiastic, personable individuals I've ever met, who manages this company alongside holding down a part time job in the finance sector and running a professional development company for creatives. Inspiring freelancing!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Musings from Morocco

Just returned from a cheeky start to 2011 surfing, sunning and stuffing my face with tagine up and down the Moroccan coast. My winter sun reading was Pat Kane's The Play Ethic and I've been musing on it's meanings for me - both professional and personal.

The book written with a verve and energy that is inspiring, and while much of the theory occasionally feels fuzzy in that it's quite broad and doesn't rough out a clear way forward, the underlining message: that by rejecting the work/play binary of the Protestant work ethic we can allow ourselves to fully embody our lives and be creatively in control of every aspect of it - felt very right to me. My partner, who is also freelance, could not understand why this was such a strong and (for some) radical message - all those successful in his field are by necessity those who are successful 'players': combining commercial popularity with artistic integrity.

I think it's really exciting to live this way - I often feel frustrated by those who can only see the instability and financial uncertainly in my freelance lifestyle. Living by the 'play ethic' doesn't mean having to work within the arts, or being self employed or freelance. But it does mean having a sense of authorship over your life - a feeling that your life has meaning in it, and you are able to control and manipulate the elements of it to some extent.

My life's motto for several years has been 'Nothing worth doing will ever be easy'. After a fascinating training session on inclusivity* recently I came to realise the main generator of exclusion was FEAR. True inclusion will always involve taking risks - on the part of the participants and the providers. And so: 'Anything worth doing will always be difficult and scary'. Doesn't scan as well as the first motto perhaps - but I think there's a fair bit of truth in it. I've now been self-employed for nearly 6 months and 'difficult and scary' certainly sums up many moments - particularly facing my financial realities - but the challenge of seeking out work, being creative (nearly!) every day and getting involved with some great companies has made it worthwhile - here's to 2011!

*This training was run by the same youth theatre I've been volunteering for and blogged about last time. Just to keep you updated we've now halved the group size and no longer use the library as part of the sign in procedure. The group is now working on a performance of Hansel and Gretel. No more bookshelves have been jumped off. So sometimes you do need to say no (and step back, rework until you can say yes again)