School leaders and classroom teachers have acknowledged for some time the need for doubling down on engaging their middle school students. Articles like The Middle School Mess (2011) in the ezine Education Next, for instance, provocatively describe middle-schoolers as ‘caught in the hurricane of hormones’, and trapped in the ‘Bermuda triangle of education’.
In reports like Mayhem in the Middle, a particularly provocative study by Cheri Pierson Yecke, published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in 2005, claims that middle schools are places “where academic achievement goes to die.”
Australian and British academic research shows similar concerns. In their 2008 paper, presented to the British Education Research Association, Stephen Dinham and Ken Rowe of the Australian Council for Educational Research noted
The middle years have been problematised as a critical period when young people experience a substantial physical and emotional change which prepares them for adulthood. During this time, some students disengage or are alienated from learning, and growth in academic attainment can plateau or even fall (e.g., Masters, Meiers & Rowe, 2003; Rowe, 2006b, 2007d; Rowe & Hill, 1996)… These are also the years where attitudinal, behavioural and social problems can escalate, and absenteeism, suspension and expulsion from school are most common, especially for boys (see Bernard, Stephanou & Urbach, 2007). It is also a period when matters such as body image and sexual orientation can become critical issues for some (e.g., Sax, 2005). There is an important principle underpinning middle schooling that these phenomena are attributable, at least in part to ‘traditional schooling’, and can be ameliorated by different organisational, curriculum, assessment and pedagogical approaches.
Our own experience in education makes us strive to optimise the connections between theatre entrepreneurship and a creative approach to teaching and learning. Arts-based pedagogies, which is both active and reflective encourage higher order thinking. They offer an entertaining approach to address what the Foundation For Young Australians call ‘the new basics’ (2014, 2015 and 2017) of eight key skills,
Like Nicholas Waxman, Head of Visual and Performing Arts at Eltham College reported in November 2017 in Education HQ, I have experienced how the drama curriculum helps develop these skills. This is because in drama classes
…students need to be able to organise, plan, and research their work (problem-solving); they need to be clear on the purpose and intention of their written work (communication and teamwork); evaluate the effectiveness of the script and its theatrical intent (critical thinking); bring the story to life with engaging character and stagecraft (creativity); work with projection, lighting and sound software and more to effectively present their finished product (digital literacy) while presentation skills are evident throughout the exercise. The obvious outlier is financial literacy, but most drama programs include student input. That could be a student production, house drama festival, house music performance, ensemble performance or a scene study.
However, rather than see the potential of developing enterprise skills in a general sense, we believe that there are key examples from theatre history which show how the performing arts have been a vital part of creating entrepreneurial cultures globally. Indeed, Dr Fantasia’s doctoral research Entrepreneurs, Empires and Pantomimes (1997) discovered many pantomime productions, staged between the 1850s to the 1920s, which ‘fit the bill’.
The productions are unlike the Cinderellas, Aladdins and Sinbads that are staged today. Rather, they offer a radical alternative that explores themes such as women’s rights, the spread of democracy, cultural diversity, civil rights, racial prejudice, gender roles and sexual identity. Although no longer staged, this older form of pantomime has a more direct line to the Commedia dell’Arte origins of the form that satirises the greed, cowardice and morally reprehensible nature of autocratic power (i.e Pantalone, Dottore etc).
They particularly demonstrate the quick-wittedness of Arlecchino and Colombina and other Zanni via their anti-heroic, nonsensical antics of surviving difficulties and dilemmas.
The role of women in them is particularly strong, as is that of the clown. The scripts of these older pantomimes can be sourced from a treasure trove of available scripts from State and National Libraries in English-speaking countries. Like social media today, the global staging of pantomime makes for an interesting exploration of how performing artists have a history of being part of the cultural formation of values, political beliefs and work practices. They particularly show how theatre industries were part of the ‘industrial revolution’ that turned an agrarian society into an urban-based culture in which managers and workers define workplaces within rapidly evolving industries.