Theater Education Drives Innovation: Hong Kong, USA, and the Economics of Arts Education Policy

As a teaching artist, I’ve had the privilege of spending a few years teaching drama, directing performances, and leading workshops in Hong Kong.  It was wonderfully fulfilling, meaningful, and well-compensated work; exactly the sort I struggled to find in the US in enough quantity to make a living in my field. Why is Hong Kong so keen on drama? There are a few reasons arts teachers, and particularly drama teachers, are in demand in Hong Kong.

Language development: Hong Kong’s official languages are Cantonese and English (a legacy of British Colonialism, though the Hand-over, as it is commonly called, from the British back to China occurred in 1997). Cantonese is largely the mother tongue, but as English is typically thought of both as prestigious and necessary to success, it is taught in every school and every grade level. Drama exercises are extremely well suited to language study, practice, and acquisition; many studies support their effectiveness.* For this reason, drama teachers are sought out either for full-time positions in schools, or via other organizations. Here in California, we face a similar challenge in preparing ESL learners to be engaged citizens. It’s interesting, however, thank unlike in Hong Kong, using arts for ESL development seems to be among our lowest public priorities according to our funding patterns.

Innovation mindset: In addition to language acquisition, drama classes help people learn to think “outside the box”. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, led in part by the efforts of Hong Kong Drama/Theater Education Forum and its accumulation of research in the field, have concluded that the skills drama education affords people are those most necessary for success in business and entrepreneurship, as well as for balanced personhood and community involvement. In the Confucian method of education, rote learning plays the leading role, and individualistic creativity is discouraged. As a colony, Hong Kong became a haven for independent thinkers whose lives were put in jeopardy during the cultural revolution. The government of Hong Kong is now leading the Chinese state towards an innovation mindset; recognizing that rigid conformism does not make for successful business people. Spontaneity and free association are a few of the necessary talents developed largely through the arts, and drama in particular. Public speaking and fluency.  A sense of confidence. The ability to work as a team, under pressure.  Creative thinking skills. The ability to innovate. A free imagination.

Americans continue to rationalize our historic economic power and continuing potential using a narrative in which we inhabit an innovator archetype. The conceit holds that simply by being born in the US, a person has a certain ownership of creativity, talent, and the entrepreneurial spirit; and that such characteristics are somehow denied to others born and raised in India, or China.  In reality, these skills and values are developed, not bred, are we are quickly losing our hold on them, while other nations make the choices necessary to invigorate their populaces and economies by funding the arts as a fundamental part of a basic education.

* (Coyle and Bisgyer 1984, DiPietro 1982, 1985, 1987, Green and Harker 1988, Haught 2005, Kao 1992, 1994, 1995, Kramsch 1985, Nunan 1987, Sjorslev 1987, Shacker et al. 1993, Wilburn 1992, Wagner 1988 and more).

Contributed by Jean E. Johnstone


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