Professor to Send Students to Theater for Research

Images courtesy of TheatreSquared
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Images courtesy of TheatreSquared

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – More than 1,000 students in Northwest Arkansas schools will get to attend a free TheatreSquared production as part of a research project at the University of Arkansas.

Jay Greene, a professor of education reform, is paying for the tickets with funds from the endowed chair he holds in the College of Education and Health Professions. He is designing a study to compare what students learn from the experience of attending a live performance to what students learn who don’t see the play.

The students in grades 7-12 will see either A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in December or Hamlet by William Shakespeare in April.

An application for school groups to obtain the free theater tickets is available on the TheatreSquared website. There is an Oct. 1 deadline to apply.

“We will look specifically at their understanding of the material itself,” Greene said. “Some students will only read Shakespeare and Dickens, and some will both read the plays and see performances. We can learn about how seeing live theater may add to what students learn from reading great dramatic literature.”

Greene, who holds the Twenty-First Century Chair in Education Reform, also plans to study how student interest in the arts, critical thinking skills and values are affected by a culturally enriching school trip to the theater. Greene and his students have been conducting similar research on school field trips to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Walton Arts Center. 

“The addition of the TheatreSquared project,” Greene said, “is building a robust research program about the role of culturally enriching experiences in education.”

Greene expects the number of applications to exceed the number of seats available, so that researchers will use a lottery to determine which school groups get the tickets. This allows the rigorous comparison of outcomes for students randomly assigned to the treatment group – those who get the tickets – to the “control group” students who do not get to see the performances by lottery. 

 “People in the arts and education have long believed that culturally enriching field trips have important educational benefits, but without rigorous random-assignment studies it has been hard to prove the causal connection between arts experiences and positive student outcomes,” Greene said. “With this research, we can know with confidence that any differences observed between treatment and control group students are caused by seeing a live theater performance, which could be important in informing educational leaders, policymakers and philanthropists about how to allocate resources to culturally enriching activities.”

All students who apply for the tickets will get a free ticket to attend another performance next year, so that even those not chosen for the treatment group in the study will be rewarded for completing a survey used in the research.

TheatreSquared, now in its eighth season, offers 130 annual performances at Walton Arts Center’s Nadine Baum Studios. The company is Northwest Arkansas’ only year-round, professional theatre company, and it was honored in 2011 by the American Theatre Wing, founder of the Tony Awards, as one of the nation’s 10 most promising emerging theaters. 

“It seems very clear, at least anecdotally, that people who value the arts in adulthood and see live theater as something ‘for them’ rather than ‘for someone else’ are those who have watched or even been involved in performances at a young age,” said Martin Miller, managing director of TheatreSquared. “I hope this project will support that observation. And – perhaps equally important as any conclusion we reach – we’re so excited to partner with Dr. Greene just to bring more young Arkansans to the theatre.”

The Crystal Bridges field trip research was the first large-scale, randomized-control trial designed to measure what students learn from school tours of an art museum, Greene said.

He worked with Brian Kisida, a senior research associate in the department of education reform, and Dan Bowen, a doctoral student in education policy, on the museum research. They surveyed nearly 11,000 students who were divided into two groups, one that went on the field trip and one that didn’t. The survey assessed their knowledge about art and measures of critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance and sustained interest in visiting art museums. Results will be announced at a news conference Sept. 16 at Crystal Bridges.

Culturally enriching field trips are in decline in the United States, Greene said. A survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that more than half of schools eliminated planned field trips in 2010-11.

Reasons include financial pressures and the perception that field trips are an unnecessary frill, along with a greater focus on raising student performance on math and reading standardized tests, Greene said. There has also been a shift from culturally enriching field trips to “reward” trips as school groups choose to visit amusement parks, sporting events and movie theaters instead of museums, historic sites and performing arts theaters.

“We found in a survey of nearly 500 teachers last year that teachers with fewer years of experience were more likely to view the primary purpose of field trips as enjoyment while those with more than 15 years of experience were more likely to see field trips as providing a learning opportunity,” he said. “We wanted to see what is being lost as a result of this shift away from enriching field trips.”


Jay Greene , Twenty-First Century Chair in Education Reform
College of Education and Health Professions

Heidi Wells, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions


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