Heterodox economics: having a laugh

What is the pedagogical role of performance?  Can improvisation inspire? And should silliness support learning about sustainability? Gill Seyfang thinks so, and she’d like to tell you why.

Teaching complex abstract ideas to students requires every trick in our pedagogical toolbox. I’ve been leading a team in developing the performing arts as a teaching tool, to engage students on an emotional – rather than a cognitive – level, and so improve their learning.

Whether through music, drama, poetry, dance, literature or comedy, the performing arts has a huge potential to enrich our teaching repertoire, and produce truly memorable and transformative learning experiences for our students. Here, we are tapping into comedy improvisation’s ability to engage an audience.

“Getting to grips with competing perspectives on society and the environment is particularly challenging for students who are more used to dealing with facts than theories.”

We lecturers who are practicing Comedy in the Classroom create different characters who represent competing views or theories, and we perform a short piece of theatre where the characters interact with each other – bringing debates to life. We’ve won a University of East Anglia teaching excellence awards for this work, and I’ve been recognised with a National Teaching Fellowship in 2017.

We are dedicated to taking this work further afield. Our ideas are catching on in other subjects, universities, and countries. We are a team of social scientists within an interdisciplinary school of environmental sciences, and our students come well-equipped with maths and physics skills, but often with no social science background at all. Getting to grips with competing perspectives on society and the environment is particularly challenging for students who are more used to dealing with facts than theories. In response, we have developed “Theoretical Theatre”, a semi-improvised performance and teaching method with wide applicability across the curriculum. Think Horrible Histories-style sketches but for any subject you like.

“Students say how much they enjoy seeing lecturers as more human, approachable and accessible, after one of these sessions.”

Feedback has been hugely positive. Not only are the sketches fun and completely different, but students report much greater understanding when they see ideas personified and acted out. An unexpected benefit has been that our students say how much they enjoy seeing lecturers as more human, approachable and accessible, after one of these sessions.  They say they feel more confident to talk to us once they’ve seen us jump off the academic pedestal.

In a follow-up survey, 89% of first-year students said the class was more memorable than a normal lecture/seminar; 78% said it was more effective at communicating complex ideas, and 87% found the class more interesting and engaging than a normal lecture. This class really made an impact: 76% discussed it afterwards with their classmates, and 44% even told friends and family outside UEA about it. One student reported how she gave her parents a lesson in sustainability by explaining what she’d seen. If a true measure of learning is whether someone can explain the subject to someone else, I think we succeeded pretty well.

The essence of it is to boil down an abstract concept into a character. For instance, rational choice theory could be a white-coated scientist representing cold logic, weighing up costs and benefits, and promoting free market efficiency. In contrast social psychology could be a people person – keen to know what makes people tick – quite gossipy, a trend follower and always on social media. While these two characters have some common interests, including understanding how individuals make decisions, they also disagree about pretty fundamental stuff and sparks will fly when they get arguing about the merits of Boris Bikes in encouraging people to take up cycling.

“The essence of it is to boil down an abstract concept into a character.”

The performances are inherently funny because none of us are actors. But we do get into the essence of the characters and have to deal with each other. For some of the performances – for example “Theoretical Blind Date” – we also ramp up the innuendo and get the students laughing and joining in. For others such as “Theoretical Question Time”, the set-up is more straight-laced with lecturers in character, in a serious panel debate about how to achieve sustainable development.

We’ve organised performance skills and Improvisation training to support us in doing these activities, and we enjoy getting props, costumes, title sequences and visual aids together to really create a sense of occasion.  But there’s no denying that this does take a lot more time and effort than a conventional lecture.

The benefits of active learning and transformational teaching are enormous. When it comes to teaching heterodox economic approaches, comedy in the classroom is a teaching tool that should be taken much more seriously.


Swipe Right for Sustainability
It isn’t easy being green. Daisy “de-growth” Beansprout and Gareth “green growth’’ Juggernaut are both looking for someone to save the planet with. Is this their lucky day? They post their profiles on “Greender”, a dating site for environmentalists, flick through some hopefuls, swipe right, and make a match.  Follow Daisy and Gareth on their first date – they’re both passionate about sustainable living and seem to have so much in common…. what could possibly go wrong? The performance follows them on their first date, as they are excited to find out how much they have in common, they’re hopeful about a romantic future together. But as they get to know each other a little better, soon the conversation becomes strained with awkward silences and tense stand-offs. Do they still have a chance of romance? This is a new piece for spring 2018, to explain two very different approaches to sustainable development. Students follow up with a workshop exercise where they re-write Daisy and Gareth’s Greender profiles, to make sure they never end up on such a disastrous date again. This focuses on bringing out the differences between these two characters/approaches, as well as their similarities.

Gill Seyfang

Gill is a Reader in Sustainable Consumption at the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia and a National Teaching Fellow (2017). You can find out more about her …

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