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Using Drama for Learning – how and why it works

Written by: Patrice Baldwin
Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash
6 min read

Up-skilling teachers in ‘drama for learning’

It is worth all teachers knowing some drama strategies and conventions and how to use them effectively. There are many drama strategies that can be used effectively by teachers of any subject, yet most teachers know few. With some ‘drama for learning’ CPD, teachers can learn many strategies and how to create and sustain imagined worlds with children, within which real learning happens enjoyably.

Most children will have experienced a few basic drama strategies in English lessons (usually hot-seating, freeze-frame or ‘Conscience Alley’). Some will also experienced well-taught, ‘whole class drama’ lessons and, if so, they often talk with more insight about what drama offers:

Drama is great. It’s my favourite lesson. When I do things in drama, I can sort of see them. In drama you can actually do it and you can really understand it.

Baldwin, 2009

Dramatic play, drama and theatre

Drama for learning works with all ages, yet few schools maximise its potential beyond the Early Years. Whether it is a professional actor playing Hamlet, a young child dramatically playing or a drama lesson, the participants are together, pretending to be someone else, somewhere else (in a different time and/or place), with something happening (that isn’t really). The roots of theatre lie within dramatic play, and children bring these skills to school.

Dramatic play and drama enable skills practice and builds confidence. The children (often in role as adults) interact verbally and non-verbally, inter-think (Littleton and Mercer, 2013) and rehearse being successful. It involves imitation, mimicry, improvisation and enacting the familiar and unfamiliar. They engage in small-world play and puppetry and take on the roles of characters from real life, screens and stories. In dramatic play and whole-class drama, children often act as adults and feel empowered by this and in control. They behave ‘as if’ they already have skills and behaviours that they aspire to. Dorothy Heathcote’s ‘Mantle of the Expert’ (Heathcote and Bolton, 1995), one drama for learning approach, focuses primarily on this.

Being able to interact with others in a ‘pretend’ way requires children to shift from the ‘here and now’ to the ‘what if?’ This helps to develop thinking, inter-thinking and empathy and understanding of others’ perspectives.

The role of the adult

An adult can join in dramatic play, modelling appropriate language and behaviours and increasing the level of challenge. A playful parent might become a customer at the child’s café, eat and then say that they can’t find their purse to pay. How will the child respond and how might they resolve this problem? The adult can introduce unfamiliar vocabulary and phrases in context, e.g. ‘I do apologise. I can write you an IOU.’ The social interaction gets the child’s attention and the purse problem challenges them to problem-solve in role.

Stepping from dramatic play to drama

If children are lucky enough to go to schools where teachers have had some drama for learning training, their dramatic play skills may be developed through whole-class drama. The teacher first needs some basic drama strategies and to negotiate a drama contract (protocols) with the class, e.g. ‘We all agree to pretend that what is happening is real’ and We will try to keep the pretend going ,’etc.

Teachers most often use drama strategies in English lessons (e.g. hot-seating a character from a story), but they might try creating imagined scenarios for other curriculum areas where this is appropriate, e.g. the children are with Pepys as eye-witnesses to the Great Fire of London, or with Theseus as he sets sails for Crete to kill the Minotaur.

Trying out ‘teacher in role’

‘Teacher in role’ is arguably the most powerful drama strategy. Children should know whether their teacher is in or out of role at any time. The teacher should have a clear purpose for being in role. Some training will help teachers to acquire the knowledge, skills and confidence to work effectively in role.

Children are fascinated by teachers in role. It grabs and holds their attention and makes the associated learning highly memorable. A teacher in role can talk and behave differently or change status for a while, freed by the distance that being in role brings.

Teacher in role can be used to:

  • give and/or gather information and ideas
  • model language appropriate to the situation and audience
  • provoke and challenge thought and action
  • support children ‘in role’
  • move the drama narrative forward.

Drama strategies scaffold ‘thought and talk’

Drama strategies can be adapted and/or combined to stimulate and scaffold different types of ‘thought and talk’ to help learning. For example:

  • A character can be played by a group (collective role). Each person answers questions in turn, as the character (hot-seating).
  • A hot-seated character can have several children standing behind, who speak the character’s thoughts (thought-tracking/collective thought).
  • The class can form a circle around the character and pass by him/her in turn, voicing their thoughts about/to the character at a particular moment (passing thoughts).
  • They can position themselves physically in relation to the character and justify their positioning aloud (proxemics).

Drama strategies can be seen as ‘thought and talk’ frames. Voice 21 offers several talk frames within its free Oracy Project resources (Voice 21, ND), and some of these forms will resonate with drama teachers.

Drama is a social learning medium

Drama is a social learning medium. Humans sense and interpret each other’s verbal and non-verbal signals and attribute meaning to them, in real life, drama and theatre. Whether improvising or moving and gesturing in improvisations or polished performance, the participants and audience are operating together, reading each other’s signals, interacting neurologically and emotionally.

In drama lessons, children often devise scenes to present. This requires them to generate, listen to and share ideas, negotiate and justify their selections, try out speech, actions and gestures in various ways, and evaluate the communicative impact on others. The personal, cognitive, social and emotional skills used when devising a scene in drama are skills that are also important in real-life situations, including the workplace.

Varying drama strategies ensures that group dynamics, constitution and formations are frequently and easily changed. Various drama strategies require children to have eye contact, speak in and out of role, individually, in pairs, in groups and with the whole class. The drama lesson is social, providing opportunities for spontaneous and rehearsed speech and movement within groups of changing size and constitution.

Drama is an emotional learning medium

Attention is a prerequisite for learning. Drama provides emotionally charged hooks, contexts and content that grab and hold attention. The children co-develop the emerging drama and this gives them a personal and emotional stake in it. Learning with emotional association is tagged across many brain areas and therefore more easily retrieved. When you have slain the Minotaur with Theseus, you are more likely to remember the myth.

…emotion and cognition are supported by interdependent neural processes. It is literally neuro-biologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion… we need to find ways to leverage the emotional aspects of learning in education.

Immordino-Yang, 2015

Drama as ‘embodied cognition’

Everything arrives at our brains through our body and its senses. Drama intentionally uses and plays with the body and senses. This aids recall, as sensory-motor experiences result in more triggers for recalling (voice) and remembering (body) associated learning, thoughts and emotions. 

…cannot locate meaning in the text, life in the cell, the person in the body, knowledge in the brain, a memory in a neuron. Rather, these are all active, dynamic processes, existing only in interactive behaviours of cultural, social, biological, and physical environments systems.

Clancey, 2008

Drama is a narrative learning medium

Brains in all cultures are wired to connect with and through stories. In drama, we become interactively immersed with others in the same story, so being actively involved in stories through drama might well make such inter-connections stronger.

When we measure brain activity when people actually interact with each other and when they interact with a highly immersive story, we see almost identical brain activation.

Zak, in Kelly, 2018

To conclude, drama has a unique way of bringing learning through stories alive. It does so actively, interactively, personally, socially and emotionally, within meaningful and relevant contexts. It makes significant and purposeful use of the body, emotions and senses, making learning enjoyable and memorable.

References

Baldwin P (2009) School Improvement Through Drama. London: Network Continuum.

Baldwin P (2012) With Drama in Mind: Real Learning in Imagined Worlds, 2nd edition. London: Continuum.

Clancey WJ (2008) Scientific antecedents of situated cognition. In Robbins P and Aydede M (eds) The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 29–32.

Heathcote D and Bolton G (1995) Drama for Learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert Approach to Education. London: Heinemann.

Immordino-Yang MH (2015) Emotions, Learning and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience. New York: WW Norton & Co.

Kelly P (2018) Why do our brains demand a narrative? (Quoting Dr Paul J Zak) Available at: www.headspace.com/blog/2017/09/18/brains-demand-narrative (accessed 25 July 2019).

Littleton K and Mercer N (2013 ) Interthinking: Putting Talk to Work. London: Routledge.

Voice 21 (nd) Resources. Available at: www.voice21.org/our-resources (accessed 25 July 2019).

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