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How can drama be used to improve achievement and engagement across a range of subjects?

Written by: Sarah Simm
Photo by Sven Mieke on Unsplash
4 min read

The aim of this project was to see how drama could be used to contextualise understanding across a range of subjects. Dorothy Heathcote MBE created ‘Mantle of the Expert’ (2008) to develop teaching and learning through dramatic-inquiry-based approaches. This approach has been used successfully at primary level for many years, but I wanted to see whether it could be applied across a variety of subjects in an 11–16 setting.

A secondary aim was to remove the barriers about using ‘the arts’ to teach across the curriculum. Adults often respond negatively to the notion of role play; this raised the question: If they would not participate themselves, could they actually be encouraged to apply it in their teaching?

The experts

I wanted there to be a clear focus on developing understanding of careers associated with the subjects that students learn; therefore, staff were asked to adapt their lessons and give students an industry-recognised job role. As ‘the experts’, students were asked to complete a commissioned work. For example, in maths, students could become architects designing a new football stadium, having to calculate the area of the pitch and use geometry to design the stand. This replaced traditional questions about area and angles, with the emphasis on working out calculations in order to fulfil their job role. Through tasks set by the teacher, students had to research and explore in order to fulfil their role – they were expected to respond as if they were an industry professional.

Breaking down the barriers

I made the decision, for the purpose of this research only, to change the name from ‘Mantle of the Expert’ to ‘Meet the Expert’ (MTE) for CPD training. I was concerned that staff who found drama outside their comfort zone would have reservations. As part of the evaluative process, I made it clear to staff that they had actually used Dorothy Heathcote’s approach, which was a drama tool for teaching. Some staff, like the students, didn’t realise they had been involved in learning through role play and stated that they now felt confident to use it in their teaching as it was easier than they thought.

Outcomes

Teachers used ‘Meet the Expert’ in their own way in order to accommodate their schemes of learning. For example, music students ‘worked’ for a licensing firm, looking at copyright and performance rights, whereas computer science students ‘worked’ as a team of architects, project managers and technicians who needed to rewire a building and add a new network. Staff differentiated learning by carefully selecting the job roles and commissioned projects for their students. Students could also work independently or as a group of ‘experts’.

The classes who learned about the same topic without using MTE had less-detailed work, showed reduced understanding and enthusiasm, and talked ‘in general’ about types of careers associated with their subjects.

All the teachers involved reported that ‘Meet the Expert’ had a positive impact on learning. Students also responded positively, with 93.3 per cent reporting that ‘Meet the Expert’ helped them to learn – although of course there are limitations to self-report. They also reported that they felt engaged in the lesson and enjoyed their learning. Students were able to discuss in detail what types of careers their subjects could lead them to.

To give one example, the food technology teacher reported that students began debating in character as members from the ‘Food Standards Agency’ and restaurant owners, which showed that they not only understood the topic but they were also able to apply their learning in context – students stated that it ‘felt more important’ and was ‘like a real job’. The research took place in lessons from Years 7–10, with a range of abilities; the outcomes were positive in all instances.

One advantage of using MTE is that it can be applied to any subject. For teachers, it isn’t something that requires hours of planning and, if students are trained in CPD sessions, they are able to pick up the strategy quickly without the need to explain it in each lesson. Of course, even with CPD training, staff will however have to adapt the methodology to fit with their subject areas.

This approach might also be used to support the Ofsted framework focus on ‘intent’, as student learning is sequenced to allow them to understand the knowledge and skills needed for future learning and employment.

Conclusion

This strategy was recently shared with primary and secondary colleagues at a TeachMeet event, whereby further ideas across subject areas were shared. Ideas included using book editors in English, commissioning a parade float for the Mayor’s celebration in design and technology, using weather forecasters in geography and becoming tour guides in modern foreign languages.

Recommendations

Teachers are advised to select a wide range of careers linked to their subject areas in order to cater to the abilities and interests of all students. It is also essential to deliver staff and student CPD training so that MTE can be implemented effectively.

The Department for Education (2016) maintains that successful CPD should have the following:

  • Professional development should have a focus on improving and evaluating pupil outcomes
  • Professional development should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise
  • Professional development should include collaboration and expert challenge
  • Professional development programmes should be sustained over time.

This small-scale project meets the first three points; the fourth point is a work in progress, as not enough time has yet passed since the end of the project. It would be interesting to see the lasting impact of such teaching methods, which can be an effective way of contextualising learning and enabling students to further develop their knowledge and skills across both the primary and secondary curriculum using drama.

References

Mantle of the Expert (2008) Homepage. Available at: www.mantleoftheexpert.com/ (accessed 16 July 2019).

Department for Education (2016) Standard for teachers’ professional development. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/537031/160712_-_PD_Expert_Group_Guidance.pdf (accessed 16 July 2019).

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