Our third stimulus was a talk from a senior teacher in our school, who had previously spent many years working in an African school. Amongst the many things I learnt from him, perhaps the most vivid was the attitude presented towards intellectualism, and the desire to do well. The teacher explained how in Africa one must pay hefty fees in order to attend school and how only a few children are be funded by each village. This of course puts immense pressure upon pupils to do well academically, as it is anticipated they will go on to get a good job and return with money to their village. It is perhaps no wonder, that education is such an exciting thing to them and a huge privilege. The teacher talked of how some pupils were so eager to do well, that they “rocketed”, a term used for pupil’s who studied when they were meant to be sleeping.
Teachers in Africa are also held in particularly high esteem. Triggered partially by the pupil’s motivation to achieve, they are seen as particularly important figures. This is just one of the aspects of African education that seems entirely alien to us and was one that we decided to explore further by constructing a short play. Our set comprised of two desks, arranged with gaps in the middle. Whilst two English school children sat at their desks, the African children knelt down to show their impoverishment. As the lesson started, the teacher walked across the desks. To demonstrate the lack of interest and lack of respect for teachers present in British schools, the teacher would slow down their voice into a scarcely interpretable monologue whenever he passed a British pupil.
When passing an African pupil however, the teacher would talk in a fast and exciting manner. Not only were we showing to different attitudes to education, but also how education is only what you make of it; if you don’t pay any attention and don’t try hard lessons will seem boring whereas if you are enthusiastic you will reap the rewards. This particular non-naturalistic strategy of changing ones voice when talking to different figures gives the audience an insight about how different characters perceive each other. For example, whilst the African perception of the teacher was interesting and lively, the British perception was dull and boring.
Finally, we read excerpts from the plays of Charles Dickens and watched part of Nicholas Nickleby. A staunch critic of the educational system of his time, Charles Dickens exposed sociological injustices through gripping satire. Studying the satirical elements of his work gave me a great insight into how to weave an underlying message into a play and in many ways a parallel exists between his caricatures and Brecht’s idea of gestus. Both are exaggerated in order to give a message, and it is this idea which is so fundamental to this piece of coursework. What message am I trying to give? What attitude am I trying to show?
To explore the ideas of Dickens further, we used the explorative strategy of cross cutting. Often used to change between two contrasting scenes, cross cutting involves dividing up the stage into two segments. To make the changeover as smooth as possible, the lights focussing on part one of the stage are dimmed whilst the lights focussing on the other part come up. On one segment of the stage, one group member played a Victorian teacher, whilst another two played the part of pupils. One the other segment, a modern classroom was instantly recognisable by the comparatively laid back attitude of its pupils and teachers. One of the prominent social injustices which Dickens often focussed on was the brutality present in Victorian schools. Pupils would often be beaten simply for answering questions in class incorrectly.
To investigate these issues further, and contrast them with modern day education, we acted out a day in the life of a pupil from both eras, frequently switching between them to highlight key differences. We wanted to demonstrate the harshness of education in the era, and achieved this not only by displaying the terrible acts of violence committed but also from the emotional state of the pupils. At regular intervals, we had a series of freeze frames where the actor would speak what his or her character was feeling. Whilst the Victorian pupils displayed signs of low self esteem and high levels of cautiousness, the modern day pupils were generally over-confident and relaxed.
This can be heavily attributed to the difference in the level of discipline enforced and of course the presence of corporal punishment. Speaking out our feelings to the audience during those freeze-frames immensely aided our understanding of our characters. Playing a victim of bullying by the teacher in a Victorian school, I was forced to look beyond the short term effects of corporal punishment to the long term psychological effects of the bullying.
In preparation for devising a play on education, I have looked at four stimuli, each of which has given me an insight into a variety of aspects of the education systems of different counties and different eras. From the vivid caricatures of Charles Dickens which lend themselves so brilliantly to the ideas of Bertolt Brecht, to the African “Rocketers” so desperate to succeed, I have uncovered through the medium of drama just some of the many trials and tribulations teachers and pupils face. If there is any one conclusion I should draw from and propel forward into the development phase, it is that education is about people, and their will to succeed. Education is the liberation from ignorance and the liberation from ignorance is the start of prosperity.