“It’s important to eat healthy but we also need sugars, although in moderation.” These are not the words of an expert on BBC’s Food Programme, but a Year 5 student at Chillingham Road Primary School in Newcastle, fidgety and impatient for the next activity to resume. And the caution came about not through a series of in-depth interviews by public health researchers such as myself, but through ‘dramatic enquiry’. Brad McCormick and Katy Vanden from Cap-a-Pie, the theatre company that developed this approach, describe it as one that “places participants in a fictional scenario where they are in-role from start to finish. They are placed in a situation where there is no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer and where they have to express their own beliefs and values.”
|Brad directing the drama|
Over the course of a week, we conducted four such dramatic enquiry workshops with three schools in Newcastle, each session comprising approximately 30 Year 5 pupils (10-11 year olds). Although these workshops were part of the public engagement strategy of my ongoing ESRC funded project* that seeks to understand psychological drivers of confidence in probiotics products, we decided to explore broader themes beyond just probiotics. The aim – suggested by Brad and Katy and gladly welcomed by us – was to avoid a top-down health education approach, and instead utilise this engagement format to get children to think and talk about fundamental issues: why do they eat what they eat? Can food be healthy and unhealthy at the same time? Should the government control what foods we consume? What is the relationship between responsibility and choice in the context of food? We used these themes as a funnel to eventually involve the children in a discussion on probiotics.
Each workshop starts with the children seated in a semi-circle. As soon as they are settled, Brad catches them off guard. He starts shaking hands with one of them and says “I ate at your restaurant last week, superb!”, and then goes to another: “I read your article on raw food diets, so interesting!”, and so on and so forth, setting off a series of giggles or muffled peals of laughter among the children as they make sense of the goings on. Soon after they are informed that they are all members of the Food and Drink Committee of Arcadia (a fictional country) and are asked to take a pledge of allegiance to Arcadia. A series of dramatic games such as DilemmaRama, Shake Hands/High Fives and Stop/Go has now completely warmed them up to Brad and to each other. This lays the foundation for their enthusiastic participation in the ensuing small group activities, each of which is followed by a philosophical discussion or reflection.
The small-group activities include identifying and enacting their favourite dish in a freeze frame, contemplating what it means to be healthy, and explaining the rationale for why they agree or disagree with a certain food policy from different viewpoints (as a journalist, scientist, manufacturer, etc.). In the second half of the session, they are introduced to a fictional probiotics product, to develop a commercial for it, and then asked to make a decision about whether it should be sold after exposing them to news articles reporting conflicting evidence related to the health effects of probiotics products.
As a researcher, observing these sessions live can be tough – it’s so much fun, you want to participate with the kids and leave taking notes for later. And taking notes is not easy either, even after you have committed to it. For, you realise quickly that every activity and philosophical discussion reveals a new strand of thought among children, a sharp, counter-intuitive insight, or a larger ethical perspective. As someone who is newly baptised to this form of public engagement, I realise how uninhibited and enthusiastic kids are in terms of participating in what would seem tricky terrain for adults, and how even seemingly quieter kids volunteer to voice their opinions. I am beginning to understand how this approach lends itself to unearthing perspectives of greater complexity and nuance than a traditional research method, such as a survey or experiment would. Essentially, if one were to invest in dramatic enquiry as a means of formative research for investigating a public health problem, they would reap a rich, and dare I say endless harvest of research questions worth investigating in a format that’s fun, engaging, and revelatory.
If you are waiting to know what we learned from these workshops, I will share links to a podcast series (on this blog) sometime over the next few weeks. These podcasts will give you a more detailed idea about dramatic enquiry, how the participating children benefited from it, and some perspectives that emerged about how kids perceive scientists, media, and the industry that really surprised us.
When I first arrived into the UK academic environment in February 2017, public engagement seemed a policy or media interfacing, translational exercise for researchers. Being involved in dramatic enquiry has now broadened my personal understanding of public engagement and triggered a cascade of ideas about creative ways to get a conversation going with communities whose lives we seek to positively influence through public health research. And, without a doubt, it has given me my most enjoyable week in eight years as an academic. Brad and Katy deserve some chocolate cake, but in moderation.
*Acknowledgment: This project was funded by the Consumer Data Research Centre, an ESRC Data Investment, under project ID CDRC 085, ES/L011840/1; ES/L011891/1.