In education a lot is written about peer group pressure. Generally when it gets mentioned it is very much in a negative context. It’s linked to pupils underperforming because of the influence of others or children being led astray because they don’t want to stand out from the crowd.
These sorts of examples are recognizable to anyone who works in education.
However peer group pressure can have a sort of flip side. Let’s leave all the negative connotations behind and call the flip side The power of the crowd. A winning football or hockey team gets something of this quality, people are swept along on its success, individuals within the team are lifted up by their achievement and share in the achievements of others in the team. We see glimpses of these sorts of qualities in education from time to time, but for me is difficult to imagine anything to match the effects of the music, song, dance and drama project that we have visiting our school this week.
A group known as the Young Americans visit our school every two years. It is a group of about forty or so performing arts students, principally from the U.S. but also from a large number from other countries around the world. They visit for three days and work for that time with all our bilingual second and third classes (ages thirteen to fifteen), normally a total of around 180-200 pupils.
During two and a half days of intensive workshops they put together with the Young Americans, a performance of music, dance and song that is presented to a packed theatre on the evening of the third day. For the Young Americans it is a well-practiced and well-oiled format that allows them to integrate all of the pupils into the performance, often with all of them on or around the stage simultaneously. It is for all the pupils an incredible experience.
I am used to having to motivate and engage a class of thirty pupils. Sometimes that’s easy, other days you have to work a lot harder. I am also all too aware that there are odd pupils in classes that in the normal run of things are simply quite difficult to ‘reach’ or quite difficult to motivate. So how is it that they are up there on the stage dancing, singing, smiling and enjoying it with the rest of them?
Well the answer to that lies in the power of the crowd. It starts with the overwhelming enthusiasm of the Young Americans. The pupils really don’t know what’s hit them to start with. They show them just how cool having a go can actually be. They support and encourage, they applaud and put an arm over the shoulder when it’s needed. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Their high fives and shouts of encouragement edge the nervous pupils forward. And before you know what is happening the pupils are joining in, cheering their classmates on. There is a growing belief in the group that they can make something special. Pupils who are normally ‘background’ inhabitants are suddenly discovered, and they find themselves making the giant step from the background, literally into the limelight.
Come the performance in front of 600 parents, family and friends the tension and excitement rise. Suddenly that thirteen year old who has hardly said a word all year in class is on the stage singing a solo, maybe only two lines before someone else takes it over, but she has done it and in doing so performed to a theatre full of onlookers, an achievement she wouldn’t have dreamed of just two days earlier.
What has brought her to this point? Well that is part the sheer enthusiasm of the Young American group, but it is also partly the subtle shift that has occurred in the peer group. They have been swept up in the enthusiasm, the excitement and plain thrill of performing.
As a teacher involved in the arts and cultural education it is fantastic to see. Often I feel there is just a handful of us at school to defend and promote the importance and value that the arts in the curriculum have. Watch one of these shows and a door is opened on the possibilities and crucial role culture, drama, music, art, dance, etc. can have for our young people.
The Young Americans will undoubtedly be returning to our school.