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Interactive Theatre: A New Way for Rural Children to Learn Better

Children in rural areas suffer from a lack of additional education that are otherwise available to urban children. This in turn has led to some of the lowest SPM and UPSR performances in Malaysia. To combat this problem, interactive theatre has been suggested as an alternative method for teaching rural children via introducing ‘play’ into learning. Preliminary findings have demonstrated success in turning these “passive” children into active participants. The project aims to expand on this achievement by introducing interactive theatre into more schools across the country.

Children inhabiting rural areas experience a serious lack of exposure in additional teaching and learning activities to enhance their self-potential, a sharp contrast with their urban counterparts who have access to a much wider variety of such activities. Indeed, according to the Malaysian Education Development Master Plan, most of the districts that recorded the lowest performance in SPM and UPSR in Malaysia are located in the rural areas of Sabah and Sarawak. Dr. Marlenny Deenerwan and the University of Malaya have been conducting research on this issue from 2017 to 2020. Taking place in SK Pekan located in the rural district of Ranau in Sabah, this study focused on using interactive theatre as a tool to develop the teaching and learning strategies for young children in rural areas, with a total of sixty Level 1 “passive and low achieving” students being involved. “Our aim is to establish interactive theatre as an alternative teaching and learning pedagogy for children in rural areas” says Dr. Marlenny.

Utilising the method of practice led-research, the researchers conducted a series of workshops culminating in a live interactive theatre production. This project utilised the actual syllabus from the teacher’s daily teaching plan, but instead of using conventional

pedagogy, the researchers transformed the teaching and learning sessions into a series of interactive drama activities such as storytelling, puppet theatre, readers theatre and forum theatre. A few professional actors were hired to serve as facilitators for these activities as well as acting together with the students.

Based on the preliminary findings of this study, it was found that “passive” students became more active when they participated interactive theatre activities. Through interactive theatre, these students are put into the same play space as the actors, thus breaking down the wall that separates these children from the world of drama. By getting these children involved in such activities, they are able to experience, interact and reflect, sharing the same stage space, becoming characters in the show, and using their abilities and ingenuity to change the direction of the drama. By immersing themselves into the performance, the students have subconsciously explored their hidden abilities by improvising situations and eloquently speak their views, creatively and critically - against the notion that they are passive and low-achieving.

Following a preliminary phase spanning two years, the project developed a model of interactive drama for alternative teaching and learning method. However, as it is a long-term plan, it needs to be implemented in few other schools in order to get more results, strengthening the teaching and learning model before it can be presented to the Ministry of Education and other higher authorities.

Interviews and questionnaires have shown that the teachers initially lacked proper exposure to the performing arts, but after several sessions they now believe that there is possibility for the development of these methods as alternative teaching and learning strategies for young children.

But what, exactly, are these kids doing during these interactive theatre sessions that improved their ability to learn and think creatively? The answer is simple: playing. By teaching children that they can learn while having fun, they will be better able to express themselves in a spontaneous manner and thus be more receptive towards the learning process. By labelling a child as passive with poor academic performance, we discourage them from exploring themselves and thus the education system will be left all the poorer without discovering these children’s true potential. This study’s findings have proven the effectiveness of the interactive theatre model, providing young children, especially those in rural areas, an opportunity to have fun while still achieving their academic potential.

Dr. Marlenny Deenerwan
Drama Department, Faculty of Creative Arts

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