The time honored tradition of teaching students to tell time has gone the way of the rotary phone.
Need to know what time it is? Check your cell phone, tablet or one of the plethora of digital devices at your fingertips. Just don’t look for a clock on the wall, once a ubiquitous reminder of how many minutes were left in the school or work day.
So, what’s a second grade teacher to do? Enter stage left, Peter Duffy, University of South Carolina theater professor and advocate of the theory that drama activates learning. This is how he helped a Columbia school teacher to explain the telling time concept to her students.
“The thing the classroom teacher and I came up with — get 14 students, 12 in circle; one child is the minute hand, one is the hour hand, we’d call out a time, and kids in the middle had to move to get to the appropriate time,” Duffy said. “That was so much more active than just giving them a worksheet and using a pencil. This way they’re up on their feet, and they’ll remember the exercise in a way that is richer than just giving them a worksheet.”
Betsy Hunter, a teacher at Round Top Elementary in Blythewood is a believer of the drama teaching theory, and said drama in the classroom enriches student learning by connecting the mind, body, intellect and emotion.
“Most recently, Mr. Duffy led my third graders in a Revolutionary War lesson about Francis Marion and his militia,” Hunter said. “Most children have no connection to this period in history. By simulating a ‘sneak attack’ students not only experienced the story of the ‘Swamp Fox,’ but also some of the emotions that led Patriots to fight for their country. Mr. Duffy’s techniques are easily managed and incorporated and truly make a difference in student engagement.”
Duffy became fascinated by the theory that acting can be a useful tool to learning when he stepped in to replace a drama coach at a school in Maine, where he saw the potential to increase classroom learning through using drama activities. At the time, he was teaching German and English.
“I saw that theater was completely ‘process oriented’ and I wondered if anyone had ever thought to put theater and learning together as a pedagogy, and then I discovered a 150 year history,” Duffy said.
What he discovered was a body of research that supported the theory that educators can activate the curriculum using drama techniques regardless of the subject area. But Duffy was more interested in why it works for one child and not another one, and wondered whether researchers can study cognition theories like learning transfer, embodied cognition, and analogy through theatre activities with children.
To delve into the cognitive theories relative to drama and learning, Duffy is partnering with Dr. Ken Kurtz, a cognitive psychologist from Binghamton University, to try out some techniques in Columbia and Lexington schools to see which models complement the work he’s doing.
“Research in cognitive science shows that drawing analogies between examples or experiences helps people learn new concepts and solve problems,” Kurtz said. “Our inter-disciplinary collaboration explores the use of drama as a way to improve learning and reasoning by encouraging students to interpret situations or problems by drawing upon similar examples.”
“The problem is, once you take cognitive research outside a lab in very controlled circumstances, you’re in a room with 25 kids and anything can happen,” Duffy said.
Nevertheless, Duffy is convinced there’s no better way to personalize and turn on the learning switch.
“I tell my graduate students if I could get the same learning results through kickball, I’d be a professor of kickball,” said Duffy. “Because drama really is the most dynamic way or pedagogy that I can think of that personalizes learning, increases student participation and gives them ownership in the process. I think that’s a pretty good day’s work.”