Dr. Thalia Goldstein was recently awarded two grants to work with the National Endowment for the Arts. One is a shared grant with another faculty member in the Applied Developmental Psychology Concentration and collaborative with faculty from CVPA and CEHD, while the other is a solo project. While they do have some similarities, her solo one is focused on the teaching of theater itself, and how it can help kids learn, not just with the arts but in social and emotional development as well.
“My perspective and my methods are extremely broad because it is a topic that I’m interested in,” Dr. Goldstein says of the studies being done. The study she is doing solo is more focused on what she refers to as the “Theatrical Way of Knowing.” It focuses on the implicit and the explicit ways arts high schools are using teaching strategies.
Step one of her project requires the filming of students who go to these specialized arts high schools. These are high schools in which students have to audition in order to get in, and thus have a special focus on some kind of performance such as acting, music, or other type of artistic endeavor. What she’s looking for are how students are taught their craft, particularly through teaching methods and pedagogy. She focuses on what teachers are saying, how they explain the concept of emotions to students who are going to portray it in some way. She’s working from a grounded theory, one that takes a psychological view of how emotion works when it is being explained to a student.
The next step is a survey that actually goes to the teachers at these arts schools. The survey is meant to look at the different ways the teachers scaffold the teaching of these emotions, and how they bring up ideas of empathy and emotion and what are the psychological effects of this type of teaching.
There has been some study on students in arts classes, but where Dr. Goldstein’s research is different is that she is looking at the input of these classes. What types of activities do they teach, how they are relevant to things that aren’t theater, but perhaps how they can be used in STEM or other types of classes. Her take is more of a focus on what goes into these students, and what does it mean to learn theater or the “theatrical way of thinking”. Theater has its own way of teaching concepts, its own language, so Dr. Goldstein is looking into how is how that input being delivered to students, and how effective the methods are.
The biggest surprise Dr. Goldstein has found so far is that there is very little of what we would consider “acting” being taught in class. That is, the act of reading a script and embodying another character. Most of what is being taught is meditation, acting exercises, ensemble work, and warmup.
In another line of work examining how an element of acting, embodiment of character, may be affecting learning, she currently has a paper under review that is looking at embodiment with younger children, ages 3-9, and how they are affected by acting. The study breaks down the different ways young students learn and understand character. The first is by simply “telling” a story with little to no interaction, the second being the use of puppets, and the third would be what is considered acting in the embodiment of a character. She found that when investigating learning from simple scenes, different levels of embodiment do not lead to different types of learning. It is her theory that as children get older, more complex scenarios will be differently affected by different levels of embodiment.
Current research in her lab is investigating more complex scenarios, ones that have a more fantastical element and fantasy play. Then, children will be asked if they are able to determine the difference between fantasy and reality, and whether they are remembering and learning different facts depending on the level of embodiment in the play.
This work goes together with the research being done for her other, collaborative grant. Both require some kind of base in observation, and both have some kind of social understanding. All of this ties in together, and adding pieces of the puzzle are required to achieve her goal of understanding the concepts of why we keep coming back to theater.
Dr. Goldstein makes the point that there are points in history where there is less emphasis on theater and performance, but for some reason we keep coming back to it, and we keep doing it. This fascinates her, and is part of what drives her research.