Hands-on learning is having something of a renaissance in the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) curriculum, giving students the opportunity to put theories into practice and the freedom to experiment. But why restrict hands-on learning to Steam when it's ideally suited to the arts as well?
Arts subjects thrive on risk-taking and embracing failure, and the fact is children don’t mind failing. It doesn’t destroy them, doesn’t break them; rather it pushes them forward, forces them to look at why they failed and try to understand how to avoid that failure in the future. Children have been doing this since day one, because as they play, they fail, and then try a different approach to solve whatever problem emerges.
We need to bring that failure into the classroom and not just allow students to make mistakes but also to embrace them, without being terrified about affecting their grades.
I often use LEGO® within the drama curriculum. For instance, in order to get students to comprehend a highly esoteric theatre as envisaged by the French practitioner Antonin Artaud, I get them to build it out of LEGO. They have fun, they joke about each other’s designs, but, more importantly, they quickly realise why certain ideas wouldn’t work because it is there in front of them and they have built it themselves.
It’s so different from reading about it in a book. They are allowed to make mistakes, whether it’s a tower toppling over or the realisation that a piece of scenery looks great but completely blocks the audience’s view. Yet, because it is couched in fun there is a disconnect with the normal baggage of school.
I often find that when the majority of students read text, they slip into a rhythm whereby they drop their pitch at the end of each line. This causes other actors to start their line with a lower level of energy and so the scene spirals ever downwards, killing any dynamics.
Model learning in arts subjects
A simple exercise is to get them to build a set of LEGO steps. Then cut out the text into phrases or sentences. Physically place that text on to a step and get the other person to place their text on a higher step. Now ask them to read the text so that it matches with the level. You will see pretty quickly how the students now compete to build on the other person’s energy. Suddenly the scene comes to life. Because they have built the system, they understand the system. This is also a great way to understand and to play with status. Of course, one can be far more technical and create model boxes that revolve, moving trucks and different lighting states: a hands-on way to understand how design can play such an integral part in theatre.
In music, have students use different-coloured and different-sized bricks to represent different notes and move them to mimic rhythm and pace. I recently observed a class where a student was struggling to hit and sustain a particular note. She couldn’t picture what her body had to do, so her music teacher created an analogy to help her picture the physical movement.
For students who are newer to vocal work, be it in music, drama or public speaking, begin with models. I’ve used scientific models to show what body parts need to do to control and sustain breath, but because the students have no ownership over the models, there is limited understanding. But how about spending a couple of lessons building models? The quality of the models isn't important, because as soon as students physically create something or even attempt to do it, they relate to it and they understand.
Another colleague was struggling to make clear why the designs of places of worship were significant. She’d prepared trips to local religious centres, but felt that the introductory videos were a little tired and simply gave her classes a chance to switch off. Instead, she asked her students to build their place of worship out of LEGO. The results were truly mind-blowing.
Thor may have been standing on the Bimah of a synagogue and many of the congregations were made up of orcs, Jedis and Ninjas, but what was impressive were the many ways in which the students had engaged with the subject matter. They’d clearly thought about the positioning of different parts of the model and what might be the relevance of those placements. They marvelled at how classmates who worshipped within the same religion brought in a vastly different model and it became a fantastic discussion point. Even the students who didn’t claim to have a religion brought in models of football stadiums or open fields. But more than all of that, they felt emboldened to experiment and play. What had been a fairly undemanding part of the curriculum swiftly became an eye-opening exercise that fully stimulated the class.
Hands-on allows a person of whatever age to fail and make mistakes, but it doesn’t have to be confined to engineering. As teachers in the arts and humanities, we should be OK with that too, and because we’re not prepared to be beaten by a brightly coloured brick, we don’t give up.
Rob Messik is director of theatre at the King Alfred School in North London