From Approximations of Practice to Transformative Possibilities: Using Theatre of the Oppressed as Rehearsals for Facilitating Critical Teacher Education

From Section:
Instruction in Teacher Training
Jan. 02, 2020
January - March, 2020

Source: The New Educator, 16:1, 25-44

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study explores how rehearsals situated within two critical pedagogical approaches–Freirean Culture Circles (Freire, 1989) and Boalian Theater of the Oppressed (Boal, 1979)–opened up opportunities for novice teacher educators to critically experiment with and reflect on potentially transformative teacher educator pedagogies/practices, particularly in relation to complex, difficult-to-navigate social justice situations.
The authors then contrast this conceptualization of rehearsals with currently popular notions of the term.
While few studies have explored the use of culture circles and Boalian theater with teacher educators (Stillman & Beltramo, 2019; Stillman, Ahmed, Beltramo, Catañeda-Flores, Garza, & Pyo, 2019), a number of investigations have examined the learning of pre- and in-service teachers as they participated in rehearsals through Theatre of the Oppressed (T.O.) (e.g., Bhukhanwala & Allexsaht-Snider, 2012; Souto-Manning, 2011; Wooten & Cahnmann-Taylor, 2014).
This study builds on this research by examining how rehearsals of practice framed by T.O. and culture circles can create conditions for critical and potentially transformative learning for teacher educators.

Research focus and methodology
To begin addressing this question, the authors combed through the ethnographic data they had collected over the three-year period during which they participated in T.O. and culture circles.
These data included detailed field notes and videos from their monthly meetings; transcriptions of their dialogs and rehearsals of practice within these spaces; written reflections that members submitted to Jamy Stillman following meetings; articles, book chapters, and other texts that members offered the group; and documents of practice (e.g., syllabi, student work, course readings, etc.) that members shared from their own work contexts and that often served as the anchors for their seeds and reenactments within T.O.
Several months after their meetings concluded, Jamy Stillman also engaged each participant in a deep, ethnographic interview (1.5–2 hours), where members discussed the meaning they made around the dialogs and rehearsals within their meetings.
For this study, the authors chose to focus their analysis on video, transcriptions, and field notes from each meeting, along with transcriptions of participant interviews.
Data analysis and sensemaking were a dialogical process, akin to culture circles themselves (Freire, 1970).
Their multiple passes through the data involved inductively finding patterns regarding seeds, topics, and processes; and deductively noting instances where aspects of critical pedagogy and sociocultural learning surfaced.

Findings and discussion
In this paper, the authors have illustrated how rehearsals in the context of T.O. offered conditions for emerging justice-oriented teacher educators to explore dilemmas of practice in dynamic and contextualized ways.
In particular, they have shown how the situated nature of culture circles and T.O., which privileged participants’ experiences, contextual realities, identities and positionalities, made space for expansive and complex instantiations of dilemmas of practice, and therefore for participants’ expansive and dynamic understandings of, and imagined responses to, such conflicts.
The dynamic nature of this learning-to/for practice – in contrast to more implementation-focused notions of learning-to /for-practice – is especially crucial for teacher educators who aim to transform teacher education (Ellis & McNicholl, 2015), particularly because transformation requires an imagination for what’s possible when facing situations that are, by their very nature, “impossible” to fully prepare for, navigate, or disrupt (Britzman, 1998; Staley, 2018).
This differs markedly from the idea that educators, in this case, teacher educators, should or even could be “practice-ready” on day one (Phillip, 2019)
The authors found that learning within the space of culture circles and T.O. was both grounded in their work together and remained particular to individuals and contexts, as exemplified in the question posed by Teresa: “ … if I were in this position how would I do that?”
This question conveys two important points:
1) Given the pervasiveness of deficit discourses in education (and broader society), Teresa may likely be faced with a similar though not identical situation in her work as a teacher educator; and
2) Teresa would have to act and respond differently to any such situation in ways that are true to her identity, positionality and the particularities of her context.
As such, Teresa’s question lays bare the contrast between the theoretical underpinnings of rehearsals within an approximation of core practices versus those of rehearsals through T.O.
Specifically, rehearsals of core practices treat (effective) teaching as the reproduction of high-leverage practices across contexts, and views rehearsals as the space for practicing particular moves, allegedly leading to their more faithful implementation (Kavanagh et al., 2019).
To the contrary, the critical approach grounding the authors’ work in T. O. views teaching as an act of continual learning in context.
Instead of seeking to replicate an idealized and decontextualized set of pedagogical techniques, rehearsals in the critical tradition of T.O. have multiple and cyclical purposes: to collectively make meaning of and simulate the problems encountered in the facilitation of equitable learning opportunities; to co-construct tools that respond to the complex, multifaceted contexts of such problems as they develop and elude complete resolution; and build the capacity of educators to navigate ambiguous or unclear social justice situations.
The role of rehearsals within T.O., then, is to help participants experience and understand the complexities of their contextual realities and to imagine engaging those realities – and the impossibilities they present (Staley, 2018) – in ways that are not yet known.
Given all of these factors, the authors have come to understand engaging in rehearsals within T.O. as more akin to improvising than to practicing (Phillip, 2019), namely because such rehearsals support participants to try on new, fluid, and often ill-defined/unknown ways of being and becoming in their efforts to realize a different, more just world. In this respect, rehearsals within T.O. provide conditions for cultivating participants’ – in this case, teacher educators’ – transformative learning – the sort of learning that can engender hope and an imagination for something better than what is, as well as the sense of agency needed for sparking such transformation.
As scholars echo calls for equity and justice across the field of teacher education, the authors hope that powerful spaces such as rehearsals are used in ways that support transformative learning as itself the act of teaching (McNicholl & Blake, 2013) and not merely as teaching’s contemporary remedy.

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Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the oppressed. New York, NY: Urizen Books.
Britzman, D. P. (1998). Lost subjects, contested objects: Toward a psychoanalytic inquiry of learning. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Ellis, V., & McNicholl, J. (2015). Transforming teacher education: Reconfiguring the academic work. London, England: Bloomsbury
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum
Freire, P. (1989). Education for critical consciousness. Westport, CT: Bloomsbury
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McNicholl, J., & Blake, A. (2013). Transforming teacher education: An activity theory analysis. Journal of Education for Teaching, 39(3), 281–300. doi:10.1080/ 02607476.2013.799846
Phillip, T. (2019). Principled improvisation to support novice teacher learning. Teachers College Record, 121(6), 1–32.
Souto-Manning, M. (2011). Playing with power and privilege: Theatre games in teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(6), 997–1007. doi:10.1016/j. tate.2011.04.005
Staley, S. (2018). On getting stuck: Negotiating stuck places in and beyond gender and sexual diversity-focused educational research. Harvard Educational Review, 88(3), 287–307. doi:10.17763/1943-5045-88.3.287
Stillman, J., Ahmed, K.S., Beltramo, J.L., Catañeda-Flores, E., Garza, V.G., & Pyo, M. (2019): From the ground up: cultivating teacher educator knowledge from the situated knowledges of emerging, asset-oriented teacher educators. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, doi: 10.1080/1359866X.2019.1600187.
Stillman, J.A., & Beltramo, J.L. (2019). Exploring freirean culture circles as a pedagogical space for preparing asset-oriented teacher educators. Teachers College Record, 121(6), 1–38.
Wooten, J., & Cahnmann-Taylor, M. (2014). Black, white, and rainbow [of desire]: The colour of race-talk of pre-service world language educators in Boalian theatre workshops. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 9(3), 179–195. doi:10.1080/1554480X.2014.924005 

Updated: Oct. 05, 2020
Critical pedagogy | Ethnographic study | Equity | Student teachers | Teacher educators | Transformative learning