03/07/2017 4:29 PM AEST | Updated 03/07/2017 5:47 PM AEST

Teaching Kids About The Stolen Generations Was Always Going To Be A Tough Lesson

Lessons that are uncomfortable are not always bad, in fact learning itself is a dangerous act.

Ron Koeberer via Getty Images

Last week a misguided lesson on the Stolen Generations went horribly wrong. Year 4 students were engaged in a day-long 'role-play' in which they were told they would be removed from their families.

According to reports, a nun entered the classroom in the morning, apparently with a letter from the Prime Minister, and told the class they would be taken away from their parents, as they weren't being looked after properly. The exercise continued for five hours until the end of the day when students were informed that this was a lesson on the Stolen Generations, and were asked how it made them feel.

Parents expressed concern. Media outlets inflamed reports of the 'psychological abuse' that occurred to the children. Meanwhile, drama teachers watched aghast as the story developed, wondering how such a potentially powerful lesson had gone so wrong and become a media storm.

The Stolen Generations are also a dark part of Australian history which must be recognised by all members of our community if reconciliation is to occur.

The lesson, as reported in the media, made an attempt to use the drama conventions of teacher-in-role and role play. These are two strategies found in the beautiful and transformative pedagogy of 'Process Drama'.

Process Drama is a teaching strategy which, as the name suggests, focuses on learning through drama rather than performance. It is a powerful teaching tool when used ethically, as decades of research, literature and teaching practice can attest. But it seems it wasn't employed in this instance. This lesson seemed much more like 'invisible theatre', where the participants did not know that they were in a fictional context or that the teacher was in-role.

Invisible theatre is more commonly used with adults, whereas Process Drama has as pedagogy of care built in. Students know they are in the drama and in the fiction. Students and the teacher move in and out of role; they don't play themselves, rather they take on the role of other people. At the end of a particular strategy or moment in the class, students may need to de-role (get out of role) and discuss and debrief the moments that had preceded while they were in-role.

Process Drama works within a fictional context, often using a storybook, image or novel as the focus. The text might be read before the class enters the world of the story, suspending disbelief and taking on the roles and characters, the situations and relationships in the story. It's a process students are familiar with. We see small children playing and going in and out of role all the time.

The teachers in the school concerned were acting with the best of intentions. They may have seen highly transformative learning experiences, such as Jane Elliot's Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment and attempted to replicate these lessons. It should be noted that this lesson sparked outrage at the time, but is now considered a watershed moment in addressing racism in schools.

However, there are limits to Process Drama's reach. Process Drama has been critiqued for its attempt to replicate the experiences of disadvantaged people at critical times in history. Can we really ever understand what it's like to be part of the Stolen Generations, and is it offensive to suggest that we can replicate those experiences?

Indigenous children's writer, Trina Saffioti, whose books were used to inspire the school's lessons, was deeply uncomfortable with the exercise, stating that it almost cheapens the experience.

While it's true that we can never truly understand what it was like to be a part of the Stolen Generations, the ability to see life from another's perspective may be the most important lessons that one can ever learn.


Low Expectations Hold Indigenous People Back

Post-9/11, English novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan wrote: "If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed [....] Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself.... [is] the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality."

Process Drama has been effectively used by qualified teachers and Teaching Artists to teach about the Stolen Generations in careful, respectful and sensitive ways. For example, books like 'The Rabbits' by John Marsden and Shaun Tan and 'The Burnt Stick' by Anthony Hill serve as rich starting points. When educators use drama in this way, they are protecting their students in role. Through role, we avoid the manipulation of 'psycho-drama' and can explore the space where the real world and the fictional world overlaps.

It is abundantly clear that those facilitating these lessons were ill prepared for the nuances of this delicate teaching strategy. The transformative power of drama is still largely misunderstood in schools. New teachers can have as little as two hours training in Drama in their teacher preparation courses and this is a failure of our system.

Many teachers would like to use drama to enhance empathy, challenge students' worldviews, and to facilitate deep and critical thinking, but often don't know where to start. If teachers make a misguided attempt, or no attempt at all, we deny our students the opportunity for them to engage with complex issues through an incredibly powerful pedagogy.

Lessons that are uncomfortable are not always bad, in fact learning itself is a dangerous act. Students cloaked in safety and shielded from discomfort will not be able to reach their potential, both as learners and active citizens.

The Stolen Generations are also a dark part of Australian history which must be recognised by all members of our community if reconciliation is to occur. Students and schools are not exempt from this. Far from being too young, these students are in a prime position to discern racism, prejudice and injustice.

The school and Catholic Diocese have bravely said that these lessons will continue, albeit in another form, emphasising that the intentions were sound, but the execution was flawed. We need educators who are risk-takers, willing to tackle big issues, particularly our shameful treatment of indigenous Australians.

It would be incredibly sad if this isolated incident prevented teachers from being creative and using drama effectively in their classrooms.


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