Learning to think with the heart: The role of theatre clowning in teacher education
Learners strengthen their sense of coherence, which is the basis for resilience and well-being, when they feel that the tasks they face are comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful to them (Rawson, 2021). If students have the sense that what they are being asked to do is relevant to their biographical interests, their learning is more likely to be intrinsically motivated and expansive. Students thrive on learning opportunities that afford, rather than hinder, the growth of the sense of coherence. Providing such opportunities requires teachers who can read and respond creatively to specific pedagogical situations and individual needs. The more the teaching is adapted to the developmental tasks and interests of the actual learners, the more sustainable and transformative the learning becomes. The core educational act involves someone teaching something meaningful to someone (Biesta, 2012). Thus, the learner has the feeling that this has to do with me and my relationship with my body, with other people and with the world.
Therefore, the teacher as a person is an important component in effective learning. A core skill is the ability to be present (Rodger & Raider-Roth, 2006), the ability to read and understand (often unexpected and unique) pedagogical situations, and the ability to respond in ways that are fruitful for all concerned. This means sensing the emotional constellation of the moment and being able to respond with appropriate words, gestures, body language, and actions. Teachers need presence to read the pedagogical moment and students need to feel that their teachers see, hear, recognise, and accept them and create learning opportunities they can relate to. The question is, how can this ability be learned?
Within the field of Steiner Waldorf education, we have found an answer to this question; theatre clowning adapted for teachers. Over the past 25 years, we have practised and researched this approach (Lutzker, 2007, 2012, Bryden & Rawson, 2022), initially with language teachers, but now with class teachers. Most Steiner Waldorf teacher education programmes in Germany (and now increasingly in other countries) include clowning workshops that are either integrated into the programme or as weekend courses.
Theatre clowning workshops involve gentle warmups to connect the participants to themselves, the space, and the group, and preparatory exercises that spur cooperative playfulness and curiosity. In groups, pairs, or solo, participants perform improvisations while the group observes the performer(s) in a supportive way. The workshop facilitator seeks to create a safe and protective social space with an atmosphere of mutual support and caring. This allows participants to push beyond their existing embodied limits, let go, and enter the moment within an overall mood of (serious) fun, play, and discovery. The process is always more interesting than the outcome.
The exercises, games, and improvisations are intended to expose participants to the clown’s perspective, which is to meet the world with an open heart and curiosity for, and acceptance of, what happens. Problems and frustrations are celebrated for the gifts and surprises they offer. The clown plays with the elasticity of a situation and taps into the deeper layers through the heart, not the head.
This may not sound like hard work, but it can require considerable courage to risk letting go of learned responses and habits and open oneself up to the moment and honestly reflect on it afterwards. Equally important to the process of letting the situation ‘speak to you’ is the simultaneous act of generous observing by the ‘audience’ (i.e. the other participants), and later reflection on the process. The sharing and the self-reflection afterwards are very much part of the process of discovery in which the others also mirror back what they experienced to the participant.
Dr Martyn Rawson has been a Waldorf teacher since 1979, both in the UK and Germany. He currently teaches in Hamburg and is also active in teacher training for the Master’s Programme at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart. Additionally, he is Honorary Professor at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.
- Biesta, G. J. J. (2012). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology and Practice, 6(2), 35-49.
- Bryden, C., & Rawson, M. (2022). Theatre clowning in L2 teacher learning: An example from Waldorf/Steiner education. L2 Journal, 14(3).
- Lutzker, P. (2007) The Art of Foreign Language. Improvisation and drama in teacher development and language learning. Tübingen and Basel. Franke Verlag.
- Lutzker, P. (2012). Developing artisty in teaching: New approaches to teacher education. Research on Steiner Education, 3(1), 52-58.
- Rawson, M. (2021). Steiner Waldorf Pedagogy in Schools. A critical introduction. Abingdon and New York Routledge.
- Rodger, C. R., & Raiser-Roth, M. B. (2006). Presence in teaching. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 12(3), 265-287.
Target audience:Head Teacher / PrincipalSchool PsychologistStudent TeacherTeacherTeacher Educator