Thalia Goldstein visited the show on episode 084 Theater Empathy & Cognitive Load to discuss her recent paper measuring the impact of a single live theater performance on student empathy and perspective-taking.
Michael Ralph 02:40
For our first segment, we read deeper engagement with live theater increases middle school students empathy and social perspective taking
Laurence Woodruff 02:52
This was written by Reba Troxler. Thalia Goldstein, Steven Holochwost. Charles Beekman, Stephanie McKeel, and Munna Shami.
Michael Ralph 03:01
This was published in applied developmental science in 2022. And we are fortunate to have one of the authors on the show here today. She was talking about this research on social media and I was like, Cool, come talk about it with us. And so we are joined by Dr. Thalia Goldstein, who is an associate professor and the director of applied developmental psychology at George Mason University. She runs the play learning arts and youth lab co-directs the Mason arts Research Center and wrote the book why theater education matters coming out in July. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Thalia Goldstein 03:33
Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Michael Ralph 03:35
Your discussion of the research and look at the impacts of single attendance at one theater event, and the breadth of impacts that can have for students was really interesting to me, because as I mentioned, in the opening, I really enjoyed participating in a lot of theater and drama type activities when I was younger, and that was a piece of what you looked at in your research. So it was like neat, maybe this is something that a lot of teachers who are considering field trips or otherwise wanting to integrate, perhaps stem with humanities type experiences could be relevant for individual teachers who are just get them to one play. So can you tell us a little bit about your work and how the study came about.
Thalia Goldstein 04:16
I’ve been really interested in theater and performance and acting sort of for my whole career. I was actually a professional actor between college and graduate school. So I graduated from college with a major in theater in psychology and moved to New York City and worked as a nanny and a waitress and you know, checking people in at the gym and stuff like that for a few years while also auditioning and taking a lot of dance classes and going out on children’s theater tours and then coming back again. But it turned out that the the lifestyle sort of wasn’t for me, I missed. I missed the academic life actually. And I missed to the sort of scholarly reading and asking questions and doing research like I had done in college and so I decided to go get my P PhD. And so when I started working with the Kennedy Center a few years ago, they were really interested in these questions of well, what is happening when kids are sitting in the audiences of our children’s theater shows? And what changes might we be able to help with foster in gender in our kids as they’re sitting in our audiences
Michael Ralph 05:22
One of the things that struck me about just the original research concept was the relationship for live performance and live theater to other forms of media and entertainment. I’m thinking in particular, about your students can watch videos, and they can see animated models, or they can see some of these other creations.
Thalia Goldstein 05:41
I think about that all the time. This is actually a question that like haunts me, because it’s almost impossible to do a well controlled research study of. There are so many variables that are different between watching something on a television and actually walking into a space and watching it live. So some of the things I think about are ones exactly like you mentioned. So for example, there’s no fourth wall when you’re in the theater, right, so everything happens facing the audience. And so the audience members have to sort of put their own imagination into play in order to fill in the gaps, right, because as soon as you sort of sit back in your seat a little bit, you can see that what you’re watching is artifice, you can see that there is no ceiling or no real door, or that the props are just sort of imaginations of props, and not like a fully fledged, realistic scene, you don’t necessarily get that in the movie, right? In the movies, or on TV, you’re watching something that takes place in 360 degrees, because the camera can go sort of all around, it doesn’t have to be presentational. Similarly, when you’re watching something in the movies, or on film, or even social media, the person who’s doing the filming is making a lot of decisions about where to place your focus. So if the director wants you to focus in on one person’s face, they’re going to put the camera in that person’s face. And you as an audience member, have no idea what’s happening in the rest of the scene, because all you’re seeing is that person’s face. But when you’re sitting in a theater, you have a lot of choice. As an audience member, you can look at the person who’s talking, you can look at the person who’s reacting, you can look at the background extra, who hopefully is just as engaged as everybody else, you can look at the top of the stage and the top of the proscenium. You can look at the person sitting next to you, right. And so directors for the theater have a lot of tricks to orient your attention to get you to pay attention to one thing or another thing, right. But it’s not the same as something that’s filmed where the camera really is deciding for the audience member where to look. And then just to like, push back a little bit on the mirror neuron thing, because the mirror neuron system, there’s there’s not strong evidence anymore, that the mirror neuron system is really the thing that’s active when audiences are watching other humans, it doesn’t seem to be so implicated in sort of empathic or emotional processes, there does seem to be a mirroring system that is much more relegated to like physical actions. So there’s some physical action stuff there, but not necessarily emotional action. But actually, I think that makes theater even more interesting in the absence of a mirror neuron system. Because what you’re doing when you’re in the theater, because you have to apply your own, like imaginative capacity, as you’re watching things happen. You also get this opportunity to fill in yourself, right? Because it’s not so full as when you’re watching a big film or a big TV show, you can fill in a little bit of like, well, what would it be like if I did that? Or what would it be like if I was in that position? What what does this remind me of, for my own emotionality. So I do think there’s something very real about being in a real room with real humans doing real actions. I really want to do that research. But it’s, as I said, so many variables. It’s like really hard to do.
Michael Ralph 09:10
Thank you. Thank you for updating my understanding of mirror neurons. And now I have homework. I have
Thalia Goldstein 09:17
I have a great article, if you ever want to read it, it’s like it the article is called something like whatever happened to mirror neurons. And it basically traces this like rise like stratospheric rise, and then like just crashing downfall of what the research actually shows, those mirroring systems are for.
Michael Ralph 09:34
Yeah, we’ll put it in the show notes. So like that’s, that’d be great. Please, editing Michael, email her and get that get the get that link. The the other piece of what I really appreciate you pointing out is there’s a level of like communal agreement or participation amongst the audience of because I can either consent or withhold consent to put my attention in one particular place or another, there’s a sort of everybody’s kind of in it together or We’re all looking around am I on my phone? Am I looking back over here, we all have to agree to construct the scene together, it actually, Laurence, makes me think of a paper that I love that we read, gosh, three or four years ago now, where they were looking at the the impact of role playing as a part of teacher preparation. And this construction of a teatro. As it’s like mutual way to walk through scenarios in in potential classrooms, and the essential role of this communal agreement that we are all negotiating the scenario together. And we we enter characters, and then we exit characters and discuss the meta view at a metacognitive level. And we come back into them. And we participate in the scenes and more. And it sounds like listening to you talk that the live theater has an element of that if it really only works, if we are all kind of at this level of agreement that you don’t have to have when it’s constructed on a camera or on film.
Thalia Goldstein 10:50
Yeah, absolutely. And I think also that speaks to what I sort of have developed as a hypothesis of the secret sauce of theater, which is the sense of containment, and a sense of embodiment. So containment is this idea that actually comes from therapy and the therapeutic literature, which is this idea of safe space, there’s a separation from reality, a separation from self that allows you to try things out that you might not feel comfortable trying out in your real life, right? Try on new emotions, try on new attitudes, try on new beliefs, express yourself in a new way, sort of expand that idea of what’s possible for you. And then if it works, great, you can bring it back out of that space for you. And if it doesn’t work, no harm, no foul, it’s a consequence free sort of environment. And you can step away and go like, Okay, that didn’t quite work for me. Let’s try something else. So it’s this idea of like, the space is a very real space, because you’re really involved in it. But it is also has this sort of, I don’t know what’s there’s an L Word. And now I can’t remember what it is liminal. That’s what it is. There’s a sort of liminal space to it, which is that it’s in between reality and fantasy. And so you can sort of play with those boundaries.
Laurence Woodruff 12:11
So as we explore as you state, this exploration of emotions and actions, and considering what it might be like in this situation, for that situation, we actually start getting to the heart of what this paper was actually about, which was, you know, perspective taking and empathy building as, as something to look at. If you’ll allow me to do a, my, my conceptualization of what you did, and they were like, very briefly, very basically, by using surveys, we assessed students cognitive empathy, affective empathy, willingness to engage in perspective taking and ability to take perspectives, before and after different degrees of viewing live theatre. And there were multiple different treatment groups. And they sort of if I understand it was sort of a were those treatments assigned? Or was that a natural experiment? Can you help me a little bit more about the design of the five different, I think there were five different treatment groups? Is that right?
Yeah, absolutely. So most of the treatment groups were assigned, but there were some elements that were naturally occurring, according to the teachers and the teachers expertise. So basically, we randomly assigned classrooms to either attend this show, The Prince and the Pauper show, or to not attend to the show. So that was the first major sort of treatment group, then a lot of educational theatrical experiences now have some pre work or pre performance sort of workbooks or material that the students can read and engage with in order to prepare themselves to go to the theater. So we randomly assigned some classrooms to get that pre show, workbook and randomly assigned some to not get it. And then we also randomly assigned some groups to get a post show discussion and sort of reflection period and feedback period. So basically, if you were a student in our study, you either went to the theater or you didn’t. And if you did go to the theater, you either got the pre show workbook to have a discussion with your teacher, and or so some students got both and some students only got one. You got the post show discussion after you went to the theater. And those were the ways in which we sort of randomly assigned the students. There were two three additional things that we accounted for moderators that we accounted for in our study. So The first was did the theaters did the students have any additional theater experience. So had those students gone to the theater before or had they ever participated in theater before, so that we did not sort of randomly assign students to because that’s natural experience. In addition to that, some of our teachers had already had the students read the book, The Prince and the Pauper. And so we, we didn’t force the students to do that. But if the teachers had asked the students to do that, we accounted for the fact that they’d read the whole source material before they came to the theater. And so we measured the students, social perspective taking and empathy, before they came to the theater, and before they did any of the activities. And then we measured again, after they came to the theater. And after they did the activities. And for those students who didn’t come to the theater, we had the same gap of time. And we measured their, you know, what would be their sort of pre show empathy and perspective taking, even though they didn’t come to the show. And then like two weeks later, we went back to the schools and measured again, so the same amount of time between the two, but no real theater activities in between
Michael Ralph 16:11
consuming the material in one form prior to coming into this live experience, get some of the initial familiarity in there. So you can be engaging in more nuance, more subtlety, you can have larger chunks of I noticed that this is important, because I read it and like I know what’s about to happen. And so I can, I can, as you are referencing direct my attention to a place where had I not had that initial experience, I wouldn’t have the competency to direct my attention to be ready to consume that at a more robust level. And I think that the lesson is in your study, but actually is very broadly applicable to any sort of live engagement experiences, having that initial exposure to the primary content. That’s different than like the preparatory workbook that you also studied the engagement with the lip, the fiction itself, is a really powerful way to set up to have a richer experience in the live exchange.
Thalia Goldstein 17:01
So that pre show workbook is actually focused on the six tenants of hip hop, and the translation of the material, it has sort of a brief summary of the material, but it’s the translation of that sort of original Prince and the Pauper story into this hip hop driven musical, that was what was actually written and created and performed. And the engagement with that workbook, which we randomly assigned some students to do, and other students not to do actually didn’t affect their empathy, or perspective taking after having seen the show, but reading the the in depth sort of longer term engagement with the material did. And I think that speaks to your point, as well, which is, it’s not enough to sort of spend just a little bit of time that doesn’t seem to be making a difference. But the sort of deeper engagement longer amount of time, you mentioned two weeks to read an article, right, like reading this book took the teacher sort of several weeks to get through, and it was a much more full unit. So So depth of engagement really did matter there. And I think, too, you know, we found some of the strongest effects that we found for empathy, were in this post show discussion and this post show reflection period. And I think also in the same way, that deeper engagement with material ahead of time, sort of set the students up to be able to find inroads while they were watching the show, right? Oh, I remember that, or that’s this moment, or that’s that metaphor, the reflection time, you know, which was was set up from our really excellent teaching, teaching artists at the Kennedy Center, this reflection time was all about, well, what character did you identify with? Or how did you think about the way that these two characters interacted with each other, or what moment stood out to you? And I think that has a sort of broader and wider applicability as well, which is, you don’t just want to present the material, right? You don’t just want to sort of show the students what’s going on and then say, okay, great. Now you’ve seen it, see you later, right? You want to take that time to say, what’s the inroads that you were making? Where did you find a deeper connection? What upon reflection stood out as particularly important to you? Or what was surprising to you? Or what would you like to see again, or get more information about? So I think this this, this is why we titled The paper deeper engagement, right? Because it’s that sort of preliminary deeper engagement of reading the book, and then this posts show deeper engagement of reflection and back and forth, that seems to make the most difference for that perspective taking and empathy.
Laurence Woodruff 19:38
One of the things that I noticed in the paper, if I read it correctly, was that there was a comment suggesting that the engagement in the discussion was not as forthcoming of his deep from the students as anticipated. It did, and, and I, as a classroom practitioner, I kind of I empathized with the, you know, the challenge of getting students to express, like they may be in here, actually engaging at a much deeper level than they’re willing to communicate here. And if I understood correctly, the person leading that discussion was a stranger to them. And I’m wondering what would happen if that discussion had been led by someone that they were familiar with someone that they had already had a relationship with, and someone who was like they had already practice communicating and expressing themselves to as they’re wrestling with these ideas? I’m wondering if that would have a difference than a docent who was just executing the conversation?
Thalia Goldstein 20:50
Yeah,I think that’s I think you absolutely are right there. Because I think that what the the reason, I think we saw effects from the post show discussion was actually not because of what the post show discussion actually was, in those moments, right, in the 15 minutes after the show, but rather, what it primed for the students and what it sort of set them up to walk away with, right, instead of just giving them the material, we gave them the material, and then some points to take away to start walking away with. And that’s why I think we found the effect we did. However, I think you are absolutely right, that they probably were engaging, sort of mentally, right, they were sort of reflecting mentally and not communicating, because we hadn’t quite done enough work to set up that space for them with the person that they were familiar with familiar interacting with, familiar engaging with. And there’s actually really interesting work from the drama based pedagogy literature. So drama based pedagogy is this integrated art form, where teaching artists and trained teachers bring in elements from acting classes, techniques, and theories from improvisational theatre, into the classroom, to help support and illuminate and sort of make fun, non theatrical material, right? So it’s, it’s sort of like let’s, as you were talking before, about, like roleplay exercises in teacher training. Similarly, you might have students dressed in togas, and engage in a, you know, Greek debate about democracy, and set them up with tableaus and set them up with scripts and set them up with characters, and that would be considered drama based pedagogy. So there have been a number of meta analyses studies of studies of the efficacy of drama based pedagogy. And in fact, one of the most interesting findings from some recent meta analyses by Bridget Lee and Catherine Dawson and others, is that when the classroom teacher is involved, it’s actually just as good as when the Teaching Artist and is involved. And there are several different situations in which the classroom teacher is a much more important element than the Teaching Artist, right. And so even though a lot of classroom teachers are not trained in drama, are not trained in improv, I think that the role that the classroom teacher plays in having that level of communication and safety with the students, the students knowing and trusting how to communicate with that teacher is really, I think, valuable and mechanistic for these kinds of interesting experiences that the students are prompted to have, but then want to have with their classroom teacher with the person they’re most familiar with to learn from.
Laurence Woodruff 23:38
Along those lines, this is not the same thing, but it may have some resonance is that years ago, it started becoming a popular thing for teachers to create, and record themselves doing tutorial videos, there’s a flipped classroom thing going on, or really just making a bank of resources for students to access and the research found and I was like, Okay, well, you know, the Bozeman science, I got all the science recorded that could ever be done in all of human history. But then the research said the students appreciate and learn more and engage with if it’s their own teacher, making the video than some stranger that has equivalent information. Like, I could just read that script. But putting my face on the camera gives my kids a greater sense of connection and familiarity and decreases in anxiety. They don’t have to like puzzle out how do I feel about this presenter? They already know who I am, they know how I’m going to speak. Let’s just get to it. And so it sounds like you know, similar kind of thing.
Thalia Goldstein 24:38
But yeah, I mean, and this goes right back to all the social emotional learning stuff we know which is that kids learn better when they like their teacher. Kids learn better when they feel a sense of attachment to their teacher. Kids learn better when they feel a sense of social and emotional safety in their classroom. That has to be the foundation in order to get all of the other academic stuff that we care so much about in line. And I think it’s it’s all of a piece, I think it’s all connected in that way.
Michael Ralph 25:07
A couple of the findings that you reported on class preparation actually had significant negative impacts on some of your outcome measures, meaning that greater preparation actually reduced the the degree of growth of the scores on some of those emotional measures. And it makes me think of striking this balance between building the sense of mutual commitment and investment in the work without going so far as to crush the play space, necessarily reducing the space for students to explore, if you get all the way to, this is what we expect, this is what you will do, this is what’s going to happen, you lose that opportunity for exploration or for like projecting themselves into the space and actually see a reduction in performance. But I actually overlap very closely with some of the best stuff out of this out of this work, like the very responsive discussions, which I it’s in my notes, I loved the responsiveness of those facilitated discussions, the way that you design them, it just makes my heart sing. And so I think it’s worth calling out and all of this investing in the classroom space and the understanding that students can enter that space with a degree of vulnerability of healthy vulnerability and how they can imagine that, you know, being in these different character places, but not getting to a place where I’m going to say over invest or, or reduce the space for them to then insert themselves if it’s too much that it actually has negative impacts, which actually was some of what was in your findings? Did you read those findings? Similarly, or did I misunderstand?
Thalia Goldstein 26:44
The death knell in theater is that it’s boring, right? The death knell in movies or in TV is that it’s boring people, people can watch something and hate it or watch something and love it. But if they watch something, and it’s boring, they’re gonna turn it off and walk away. And so I do worry sometimes, that if we spend too much time, sort of pushing on the pedagogical goals of engaging in theater, and saying, we’re going to give you this experience, so that you can gain in X, Y, and Z, and so that you can learn x, y and z, then you sort of take away the intrinsic motivation to engage in it, or the fun of it, or the playfulness of it. So I do think, you know, and this is something that I that I’m actually concerned with, quite often in the research that I do, because what I’m looking for is the effects of theater and the effects of engaging in this activity that is intrinsically motivating and fun. I don’t want it to become that the reason we go to the theater is to increase empathy, or the reason we do arts activities is because it makes us better at something else, right? I want them to be engaging and worthwhile and put forward for children and given to kids in their lives and in their schools. Because they’re enjoyable in their own right. And they’re useful in their own right, and they are necessary in their own right. So I do think that some of these negative findings that we that we had, were probably because of the amount of preparation and the maybe the the way in which it became much more of a pedagogical experience or a straightforward experience and sort of took a little bit of the fun out. This is one of the things though, that I hope that we can do in some future research. And this work continues, and we’re still doing studies in this area and on these topics, which is to get even more in depth into what the teachers are actually doing in the classrooms. And because one of the things is that that, you know, we can provide the guides, and we can provide the books and we can provide the the questions and that kind of thing. But that teacher knows those students and what those students are ready for and where those students want to go with their q&a. And what those students what’s going to light them up and what’s going to get them sort of excited and ready and engaged. And so I think this is this is what makes this area both super difficult to study and super difficult to like do experiments with but also really, really exciting, which is that I think there is I often think of theater as a flexible toolkit, right? It’s a box of tools that teachers can use to give their students what their students need and to meet their students where their students are. And you can use different different aspects of that toolbox for different student groups. So yeah, I My hope is that we can start to get a little more detailed about the individual differences amongst the classrooms, into how teachers were engaging with these materials. And we can start to look at also start to look at sort of student student motivation to engage in the materials outside of what the teachers are presenting to them, like, what is activating them to want to go read more books on this topic or go see more shows, right? That’s something that we’re really interested in to is like what what gets them excited about engaging in artistic experiences that may or may not be paired with materials that they’re working on in the classroom?
Michael Ralph 30:27
Well, thank you for joining us, this has been a really pleasant and productive conversation. I know I appreciate that. In your paper, you made a lot of the instructional materials freely available. So if somebody was to see your discussion guide or your pre preparatory materials, they can already go online and see those things that are posted as part of your publication. But for people who want to learn more from you and the work that you do, where can our listeners find more of your work?
Thalia Goldstein 30:52
Oh, well, thank you so much for having me. This was super fun. I love this paper. I love talking about it. You can find me at playlab.gmu.edu That is the website of my lab and also my soon to be launched personal website which is Thaliagoldstein.com For when my book comes out, Why Theater Education Matters. But yeah, buy my last thought here is go see some theater. Take your kids to go see some theater. Go see some live theater go see some community theater go see a Broadway show. Go see some some live actors doing the thing that they’re best at and, and have some fun while you’re doing it.