HOLLY SULLIVAN, HEAD OF CREATIVE AND EXPRESSIVE ARTS, ALICE SMITH SCHOOL, KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA
Mary Myatt encourages teachers to think of Key Stage 3 as the ‘intellectual powerhouse of the secondary school’, in which ‘students are entitled to a broad and diverse curriculum until the end of it’ (quoted in Amass, 2022). Designing a creative programme of study that engages and challenges all its students can be both liberating and overwhelming for drama subject leads. As Sir Ken Robinson extolled in his report All our futures (1999, p. 6), ‘Creativity is not simply a matter of letting go. Serious creative achievement relies on knowledge, control of materials and command of ideas.’ How might a drama team design an ambitious intellectual curriculum, rooted in knowledge, control and command of ideas, that does not narrowly teach to the test of GCSE and A-level? This case study explores the rationale for one drama department’s Key Stage 3 curriculum design.
At the Alice Smith School (www.alice-smith.edu.my), we sought to design our drama curriculum to ensure that the Key Stage 3 years of study are vertically integrated not only to support later progression in knowledge, skills and concepts at GCSE and A-level but also to equip students with meaningful cultural capital and the creative skills necessary to navigate modern life. This ambitious objective moved us away from simply regarding Key Stage 3 as a stepping stone to future drama study. However, achieving this is challenged by one factor more than any other: limitations in curriculum time. At Key Stage 3, drama is allocated just 55 minutes of a student’s timetable per week. With such little time to play with, important decisions need to be made about which concepts, knowledge and skills are prioritised and which, regrettably, need to be cut.
As a team, we considered a range of factors when deciding upon the underpinning principles of our curriculum. Myatt describes a good Key Stage 3 curriculum as a ‘launchpad’ for Key Stage 4, while also extolling the importance for those not continuing past Year 9 of having a ‘deep residue of important and interesting learning to draw on’ (quoted in Amass, 2022). With this in mind, our curriculum design is underpinned by four key touchstones:
- commitment to playtexts, both classical and modern
- belief in the power of drama to both notice the individual and champion the collective
- informed by contemporary and diverse theatre-makers and practices
- respect for the holistic nature of theatre-making and the role of theatre design and technology.
To overcome the challenge of limited curriculum time and maximise our impact, we had to think creatively. One of our first decisions was to plan schemes of learning that take place over a whole term, rather than half-termly blocks, as had previously been our practice. By designing progressive learning over a longer period, our students are afforded breathing space to explore concepts and skills, both playfully and in depth.
Commitment to text
Each of our Key Stage 3 schemes has an associated playtext. In our devised theatre schemes, we apply the same approach as the Edexcel A-level drama & theatre devising component, where students create original theatre inspired by an existing text. The An approach where a school aims to ensure that all children ... More of text, we would argue, adds an additional voice to the room; as well as considering the perspectives of teachers and peers, dialogue adds the perspectives of characters and playwrights. It also encourages appreciation of theatre as an art form. Over the course of Key Stage 3, drama students will explore texts as diverse as Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, modern adaptations of classic plays, and contemporary writing from international playwrights. We also recognise how rooting drama exploration in a text can also support our EAL learners by offering scaffolded opportunities with which to develop oracy skills. The very first scheme in Year 7, which introduces students to drama as a discrete area of study, often for the first time, is anchored in text. Students are taught the key drama techniques, which will be the cornerstone of their performance work at every key stage, by applying them to extracts from Tim Supple and Carol Ann Duffy’s Collected Grimm Tales (2003). Not only do students learn fundamental skills for their future learning, but they also learn them applied to professional playtexts and stories. This text is purposely placed early in Year 7 so that students can see how stories with which they are already familiar can be adapted for the stage by using theatrical conventions.
Informed by contemporary practice
An example of where in-depth text-based learning has been successful is our 12-lesson Year 9 scheme on the Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides. The first half of the unit sees students practically exploring the play in its historical-artistic context, with a focus on amphitheatres, chorus and the tragic narrative structure. The latter half of the unit introduces the work of contemporary theatre practitioner Kerry Frampton and her company Splendid Productions (https://splendidproductions.co.uk), who create ‘challenging, entertaining, politically engaged theatre for young audiences’. Frampton’s modern version of Medea transforms the epic into the personal and the myth into the everyday and asks its audience: What does it take to drive a woman to murder her own children? Is there a small human story inside the mighty myth? And whose version of history should we believe? The unit culminates in a devised performance, through which students apply the dialectical methodologies of Splendid to analyse the moral complexity of a contemporary figure of their choosing.
Noticing the individual and celebrating the collective
After a series of teacher-led workshop-style lessons on aspects of Greek tragedy in performance, followed by an introduction to contemporary interpretations of text by learning about Splendid, students are well equipped with the knowledge, control of materials and command of ideas to generate ‘serious creative achievement’ (Robinson, 1999, p. 6). As well as affording students the opportunity to gain a deep understanding of both Ancient Greek theatre and contemporary practice, our Medea scheme empowers students to apply critical thinking skills to real-life situations and current figures; one recent Year 9 group chose to apply the ‘Splendid style’ to controversial figure Andrew Tate (Das, 2022) by examining differing perspectives on ideas of masculinity. This playful high-challenge/low-threat approach encourages Year 9 students to build confidence and collaboration skills at a time in their learning journey often hampered by an increase in self-awareness and self-consciousness.
Respect for the holistic nature of theatre-making
Our desire to embed theatre design skills further down the curriculum has also benefited from a 12-week unit structure. A Year 8 scheme uses extracts of Nick Dear’s (2011) adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the starting point for applying technical theatre skills. Alongside textual analysis of a modern version of a classic story, students’ cultural capital is enriched through practical exploration of technical theatre through workshop-style lessons on lighting, sound, costume and set designers. Clips from the National Theatre’s award-winning 2011 production are showcased to enthuse students with the artistic potential of theatre. Incorporating professional theatre productions in our taught curriculum is a deliberate strategy, with the aim of increasing the students’ cultural capital; there are limited opportunities for students to see professional theatre in Kuala Lumpur, and streaming platforms such as DramaOnline are vital tools with which to replicate theatre-going experiences. The scheme culminates with a polished performance where students take on the roles of actors, directors and designers, demonstrating an understanding of their individual importance to performance and, arguably more importantly, their role within a collaborative medium. By including technical theatre skills and understanding throughout Key Stage 3, we have seen an increased uptake in drama at GCSE and A-level by students who would not previously have considered the subject for their options. At A-level, a large number of our students opt for the design route of the course, rather than the performer route. Embedding these technical design skills early on has increased our cohort size by at least a quarter for the last three years.
Underpinning our approach to curriculum design with touchstones ensures that it remains live, responsive and open to evolution. We maintain a playful approach by responding to changing student demographics, student interests, contemporary theatre-making practices and our own creative curiosity. For instance, through the inclusion of Katie Mitchell’s (2010) digital methodologies at A-level, we were inspired to bring her ‘live cinema’ techniques into our Key Stage 3 curriculum through a devising unit with Year 8. Alongside traditional theatre technology skills, students apply their sophisticated understanding of digital media communication, gained through online learning and social media platforms like TikTok, to the theatre-making process. This pragmatic approach left us in a positive position to adapt our curriculum to online learning during recent school closures. Our curriculum offer remained buoyant during online teaching by harnessing digital technologies and student expertise. While our Key Stage 3 curriculum is grounded in key touchstones and with a clear understanding of where learning will take students, the impact of our pragmatic approach to curriculum content is to model the creativity and curiosity that we wish to nurture in our students.