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Learning empathy through an arts education: An Interview with Koh Hui Ling

Translate / Wang Liansheng

Interviewer : Suhuai, Editor 
Interviewee: Koh Hui Ling, Drama Box Associate Artistic Director

Editor: What do you think is the impact of an arts education on a child’s development?

Koh : I think an arts education helps develop a child’s empathy. The very fact that a student has to play a character of a background and age which is very much different from his/her actual persona, this will inevitably lead to a clash of value systems between the student and the fictional character itself. Hence it allows for the student , thereby allowing him/her to consider and learn about the different perspectives present. Nowadays, youths are in possession of more material objects, and of course better education - Ttherefore whenever we question them, they can always provide very adequate textbook answers. However, when you request of them to empathise with something instead, they are unable to do so. For example, I recall of an incident which happened when I was teaching at an all-girls school. The students had split into groups, and were tasked to choose themes which they would discuss for their workshop. One group said, “We want to look at LGBT issues.” The teacher gave her approval, and then I went to ask the students, “What do you want to say with regards to this issue?” They said, “Everyone should be able to assert their basic human rights.” I followed up with another question, “And then what else?” They couldn’t answer. The school has given them a rational education, packed with information, but have neglected to teach them how to use their heart to feel, to truly understand why the LGBT community needs those rights. With empathy, they would then know how to deal with and analyse look at these themes, withfrom their heart. Another issue that I see plaguing the current generation is the concept of Media Literacy – the understanding of information. It also affects us adults, as we are no longer certain about information we obtain --- What exactly is the truth, reallyis the truth, exactly? So I wanted to know, how then should students dissect and deal with these the copious amounts of information? Nowadays, thisAnd this problem seems to be getting more and more acute nowadayssevere. The students are more inquisitive and have the ability google anything to get the answers they require. How then do they decide what the truth is? These are just some pointsissues which one can extrapolate gleam from learning aboutthe concept of empathy – The skill which teaches you how to understandHow should one go about understanding and look at an issue or an incident thoroughly.?

Editor:Do you feel that drama education has been more emphasized recently in schools?

Koh: To be honest, the National Arts Council has been trying their best, and their intentions to develop the arts are very clear too. However, it really depends on whether the arts had played a significant role in the lives of the school principals. This is because it affects the school’s culture. Even if NAC adopts a top-down approach, it wouldn’t go far without the support of thosee principals. For example, if a principal is an ardent supporter of the arts, the teacher will find it very easy to promote the arts in school. However, when there is a change in the principal after 3 or 4 years, and whereby the new principal is one who is more into the sciences, the work we had built up previously would be futilego to waste, and thus the teacher would also eventually give up. Currently, oOur relationship with the schools is growing from strength to strength, but there is still some distance to cover, and we definitely need more time in this aspect.

Editor: Even if the school and its teachers are very enthusiatic in introducing drama education into the school, would their requests be different from the rationale of such an education?

Koh: Maybe. Sometimes, I would ask the teacher. “What do you need us to do?” The teacher would say, “To get the students to speak mandarin.” In actual fact, these teachers just want to motivate the students to practise the language through another alternative. [Editor: Do they often want a very tangible result at the end?] Most of the time they do, and with us doing “Forum Theatre”, there is after all a product, so it is easier for us. As for those workshops without any tangible product at the end, we often have to liaise with the teachers clearly so as to manage their expectations. [Editor: Do they believe in the philosophy behind drama education?] Erm… most teachers only see us as part of a CCA, some even don’t see as a CCA, maybe just an enrichment course. After all, the arts has always been of a lower hierachy as compared to the usual classes. There may also be a difference between English and Chinese Drama. English Drama has an ‘O’ level module offered which is related to for it, Chinese Drama does not have an equivalent. Some schools are advocates of the module, and these schools are often more aware of theatre arts, but perhaps less aware of the workings of Chinese Drama. Most of the time, 98% of the teachers request for a product to be presented at the end of the workshops, even if it was an in-class presentation. I don’t think this is a good thing, but it all depends on how you look at this presentation. If you are supposed to be doing a theatre education, and not drama education, then it’s fine because a theatre education requires a finished product. So I don’t deny the teacher’s need for such a product. Sometimes, the teacher would want to find out if the students’ writing or oratorical skills have improved, but I would just look at her and reply, “We are not the teachers here.” So whatever we can or cannot’t do, and why we can or cannot do, we often have to liaise in detail with the teachers so as to manage their expectations. I can deepen the students’ understanding of the emotional journey of the character, but whether he can write it out, it has to depend on the teacher’s cooperation as well. We cannot think that we work separately from the teachers – that we are artists, and they,  are teachers; in fact, we are both collaborators, complementing each other in the work of educating these students. We need to understand what the schools’ ultimate objective is – is it something which I agree with as well? If the teacher’s goal is to ensure that the student achieves 100 marks for his Chinese test, then I will say I cannot do thatit, because I really can’t. However, if the teacher wishes to inspire the student and provide him different perspectives towards about life, such that he can is able to articulate it through his writing, then I can do that. Sometimes, as an arts practitioner, we have to be independent; other times, we have to work hand-in-hand with the teachers.

Editor:You have been involved in the field of arts education for more than a decade. What’s the biggest change yo havu’ve witnessed in the landscape sector of arts education?

Koh:  I think there is generally more acceptance now. Arts education is more common now, and people are more aware of the goals which theatre can help achieve nowadays. However, generally on the whole, things are still roughly the same. Haha.

Editor:What about the students? Have they changed? Are they more aware, accepting of theatre, etc now?

Koh:Now, students have more resources to attend extra-curricular courses. Some students hence have some concept and foundation in theatre. These students have also seen more productions, or have attended some form of theatre classes. What I have observed however, is that there is a real difference between English and Chinese Drama. English Drama encapsulates Literature as well, and since Literature is an ‘O Level’ subject,examinable subject, more emphasis is often placed on English Drama, and therefore its development is naturally faster. Many students who are involved in English Drama would also choose subjects related to it, or junior colleges with theatre studies for their tertiary education.

Editor: When you are teaching, how do you balance between encouraging a student to do what his/her intuition tells him/her to do and leading them to think beyond their limited experience and knowledge?

Koh:I see myself more as playing the role of a facilitator, not that of a teacher. As such, with regards to the concept of “teaching”, I stretch its definition to encompass a very wide meaning. Many times, I hope that I am playing a more inspirational role; I know what these students want to do, but we will also discuss whether others would agree with their actions. If the teacher says no, but the students still want to go ahead with the project, then we would have to go through many rounds of negotiation. We would sit down, understand what each party’s motivations are, weigh the pros and cons, and then come to an appropriate decision. These incidents are a routine every year. For example, students may want to do a play which has a strong moral message but may be slightly darker in nature, and the teacher may feel that such a play does not reflect well on the image of the CCA, and thus request for a more optimistic ending. This ending, however, may not be a true reflection of the students’ desires. It’s a pity that in many situations, the students then end up being oppressed, because they often rank the lowest within the hierarchy of the school system. However, I feel that the process of negotiation is an important one – the students may hold different opinions from others, but the more important learning point for them is that they need to understandunderstand these contrasting opinions as well, even if they do not get to do what they want at the end of the day. If I do agree with the students, I will also help the students to articulate their position so that the school can understand them better.  as well. [Editor:  If the process of oppressing these students through the censoring of those sensitive topics can actually be a lesson to help deepen the students’ understanding of these issues, then shouldn’t it be a good thing?] Yes, I agree, it is precisely because of this process that the students often get a deeper understanding of these issues. I would often then try to look at things from such a perspective.

Editor: Can Forum Theatre in schools touch on political issues?

Koh: It depends on what the political issues are. If it is relating to governmental policies, then maybe yes, maybe no. We conduct  the workshops, but the students are the ones who often hold the power to decide the direction of these workshops. Forum Theatre often has to touch on issues which are closely related to these students, and hence it seldom dabbles in political issues. However, I firmly believe that in inter-personal relationships, there are also often many instances of “politics”. For example, recently, I was teaching at a Chinese school, and the school wanted them to visit a Malay school, and then vice versa. Actually, such a request by the school has many “political” layers to it and these layers can be explored with the students, even if the issues they are discussing for the workshop relates to the stress they face in the course of their education. We can explore through this lens of stress management, extending it from that of exploring the relationship between parents and child, to that of looking at the schools, or even the society’s perception of what education is really about, thereby going into the “politics” of the issue. From an individual’s perspective, through recurring questioning, we hope to broaden their mindset, and also perhaps to drive home the point that many things do not exist independently; They are a culmination of a multitude of reasons and happenings. If we are talking about value systems for example, they are often heavily influenced by the make up of the society as well, and hence would have a political slant to it as well. [Editor: So, essentially, we do not have any taboo topics?] I think there is nodon’t think there is a need for such a classification, even in today’s times. For the more sensitive topics like race, religion or sexuality, we have to look at the school’s level of acceptance. Some schools have a higher threshold, while for others, it would be a taboo. If it’s a taboo, then we can explore why it is a taboo subject. So often, we are not really focusing on generating a tangible product for our work, but most of the time, we are trying to understand that particular issue on a deeper level, or essentially trying to figure out how our society functions. In the course of the workshop, wWe will also share with students why some of Dramabox’sour works have been censored previously when they were performed..

Editor:Last question, what changes would you want to see in the education system in 10 years’ time?

Koh: No more examinations. From my experience interacting with teachers, many of them do want to engage more thoroughly in the work of education. However, due to the restrictions brought about by examinations, they simply do not have the time or energy to do anything beyond what is required of them by these examinations, despite having the desire to go beyond the classroom. Then you start to observe a trend – Many teachers who are fresh out of NIE (National Insititute of Education) start out with so much passion, but then they will then lose steam eventually, and quit or become homogenizeassimilated d within the system. At that pointinstance, they will just see teaching as merely a career. I wonder, “Are examinations the only way to assess a student’s understandingknowledge?” An examination, in itself, does not present many problems – it is a useful tool to benchmark and assess a student’s understanding of a subject. However, when it becomes the final and only means of assessment, it becomes a scary thing. I have a 8-year-old nephew and he attends a school where they do not have examinations until he was Primary 3. The teachers however use continual tests and assessments as a means to assess the student, and to discuss the child’s development with his/her parents. There was once my newphew who insisted that his teacher taught him wrongly when he wrote down an incorrect answer to a test question. Then I talked with him for a long time. What exactly is the goal of these examinations? Is it a means to find out what you do know? Or in actual fact, a means to find out what you do not know? I think, if we take a closer look at examinations, it is really a form of assessment for one to find out how much yooneu does nno’t actually know. The focus is not on what is right, but on what is wrong, because it is only through mistakes that we learn. At least this is what I believe in now.
I don’t think we should not have examinations, but I think the perception of examinations have changed. It has become a monster. This is also why drama courses can never be assessed, because it is simply too difficult to do so. In such a a course, some students may “get it” within 3 months, others may take 3 years, how then do you assess the success of this e course? [Editor: And within our assessment modes, we also request of the child to be an all-rounder, to be good at every single aspect, such that we neglect to look at the individuality of the student.] Yes, just like my two nephews who are currently in the “orthodox” system. The elder one is one who scores very good grades, but the younger one is the one who is more clever, because he is highly imaginative and creative. [Editor: Do you think the schools are killing the creativity of their students?] I think they are, even though everyone else is hoping that things would change. However, the examinations are still presenta part of the system. And it is no doubt the more convenient and effective way for parents to use as a tool in assessing their children’s development. We are afterall a country that prides itself on its on the efficacy ofefficacy. The our system and the parents are an embodiment of thatparents also embody this value very well. Hence, the Education Ministry is also not having it easy either. Where, then, do we begin creating the change we aspire? I have heard from a friend who was studying anthroplogy in Sweden that in Sweden, there is no classification of the schools or its students. They are not ranked or benchmarked. Everyone is placed in the same system together, and from there, you get to see every individual’s potential and talents. I once spoke to a local teacher about this, and his reply was, “If we have such a system, the teacher would be very tired, and the more intelligent students would have to wait for the weaker students, and the teacher would have to constantly repeat his classes.” Therefore, I would often thinkwonder about how the society, and the values  system we were raised up on, have shaped our education system.

arrow  Continue reading on Issue 2 / May 2014:Opening The Door To The Arts