Smoke, Suspense, and Scheherazade – Using Theatrical Devices to Engage the Student

On inspirational teaching:

When I was first at university reading Physics and Mathematics, one of my lecturers demonstrated to us Newton's Third Law of Motion ("every action has an equal and opposite reaction") by entering the lecture theatre prostrate on a trolley firing off a CO2 fire extinguisher. How can I ever forget that crucial learning experience?
I remember well another inspirational teacher; he once said to me:
"Baker, if you pass your ‘A’ level Chemistry, little pink pigs might fly…."

The blog post reports work-in-progress on a joint tutor-student action-research project being undertaken in 2015/16 at Sheffield Business School ('SBS'), part of Sheffield Hallam University ('SHU'), entitled "Smoke, Suspense, and Scheherazade - Using Theatrical Devices to Engage the Student". The project was funded by the Business School's 'Pedagogic Innovation Fund' in 2015.

Invitations for participants were posted in October 2015 and 15 people volunteered - our dramatis personae comprises eleven leading actors (students) and four stage-hands (tutors). Everybody who applied to join was accepted. FHEQ levels 4 through to 7 are represented. One young female student is out on her on industrial placement year but "wanted to be involved" and is by e-mail and via the 'virtual learning environment' site, Blackboard, set up to act as a discussion forum and as a repository for materials collected. Regular 'single status' meetings are held.

The mixed-methods study was designed by the research group formed and additionally student colleagues provided invaluable qualitative data as focus group contributors. The group's aims are to co-author a paper and seek publication in 2016, and disseminate their findings at a number of prestigious UK education and business conferences over the summer. Students thus get invaluable first-hand experience of the academic research process and conference attendance.

We are now (Feb. 2016) at the stage of finalising the quantitative survey instrument, using Google Sheets, for publication to business school students and staff next month.

Already spin-offs include two tutors presenting at a post-graduate teacher-training session in December 2015. Interest was apparent and there is potential here to triangulate SBS' findings across SHU's remaining three faculties. Other tutors have developed examples of teaching sessions incorporating their ideas. The group are currently exploring co-initiatives with Sheffield Theatres, the city's prestigious theatre group of 'Crucible' fame.

The study draws on sound pedagogical underpinning. A raft of the standard higher education business studies curriculum emanates from realist ontology: for instance business analytics; quantitative methods; and decision-making under uncertainty. Consequentially a constructivist learning scheme, in the sense of socially-constructed knowledge gained through real experiences and the exchange of perspectives about the experience with others (Piaget & Inhelder 1969; Vygotsky 1978), is misaligned. This domain's knowledge is, in the main, declarative and therefore “stifles creativity and discourages independent problem-solving and strategy building” (Bruning et al. 2011). The business school lecturer's challenge to make the pedagogy engaging and active means that innovative classroom tactics must be brought to bear.

Taking as a fundamental Hains-Wesson's premise that "students are generally more motivated by teachers who use performance based teaching practices than those who do not", the study challenges orthodoxy in session planning, for example the linear sequence of 'introduction-development-recapitulation' favouring instead deployment of learning 'hooks' - magic tricks, number puzzles, props, artefacts, circus performance and cliff-hanger endings that all serve to catalyse excitement in learning and link the topic under discussion to relevant facets of 'theatre'. Homological explanation - linking knowledge in one discipline to seemingly disparate knowledge in others, Bruner’s 'interdisciplinarity' (Bruner 1966) - was one of a number of other tactics explored.


Dr. Rob Baker, Senior Lecturer, Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University

Dr. Baker is the proponent for the project "Smoke, Suspense, and Scheherazade - Using Theatrical Devices to Engage the Student" and will be presenting a workshop focusing on classroom tactics that encourage student engagement at the Learning, Teaching and Student Experience conference on 26-27 April 2016.

Published on 10 Feb. 2016. Correspondence to



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HAINS-WESSON, R (2011) 'The impact of performance skills on students’ attitudes towards the learning experience in higher education', Issues in Educational Research, 21(1) pp 22-41.

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