Why performance art should be central to the teaching of economics

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Have you ever used performance art to teach the intricacies of economics? If not, a group of East London artists think this is something you need to address.

In recent years, East London has become a prime example of the divide between the UK’s richest and poorest. It’s also where a group of artists are teaching people about income inequality using interactive approaches that could easily be transferred to the classroom.

The Maximum Wage is a performance publishing piece that uses art to ask questions about the wage gap, staged by artists David and Ping Henningham of the Heningham Family Press. The idea for the project came around the time of the last general election.

"The gap between the richest and the poorest seemed to be increasing, but nobody appeared to be doing anything about it," David says. “We wanted to draw attention to that.”

The Maximum Wage gets members of the public to take part in a screen-printing production line that produces special banknotes. Each production line worker is randomly allocated status within the team and then paid wages from the money that is printed. A spin of a wheel of fortune determines the level at which the highest earners’ wages are capped.

Participants are asked to work for 20 minutes in their role before they receive their wages, which can be used in participating Hackney businesses. At the end of each session, the workers are invited to reflect on the experience.

This is the type of interactive approach that the Henninghams are keen to see replicated in classrooms to help students understand economic issues. They say "living it" will be much more effective than simply learning the facts.

"What we are doing with The Maximum Wage could very easily be done in the classroom, but teachers need to be given the freedom to make it happen," David says. “They need to know that they won’t be penalised for taking time to teach about these issues.

"We want people to really think about how earning power is determined. Putting on a costume and adopting that role – whether of a manager or an unskilled worker – makes you think harder about it."

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