• Learning in, with and through Drama.

In the book Drama of Colour Saldaña discusses a study done by researchers Gourgey, Bosseau, and Delgado (1985) with lower socio-economic Black and Hispanic students in elementary school. After a six month improvisational drama project, gains were observed in vocabulary and reading comprehension. Survey results also suggested that students also showed improvement in attitude areas including trust, self-acceptance, acceptance of others, and empowerment

from: http://www.angelfire.com/ego/edp303/whydrama.html

Julia Balaisis in her paper The Challenge of Teaching “in role” attempts to analyse and understand why drama teachers find the “teacher-in-role” strategy so challenging and looks for ways to further support teachers in applying this strategy in their classroom practice.

She examines how teachers, in qualifying in drama education, have many opportunities to participate in dramatic exploration where the various aspects of working in role are employed, worked and analysed. While teachers are struck by the power of teaching in role, many still have considerable difficulty integrating it into their daily drama programs while others avoid it entirely.

And it is at this juncture that I find myself confirming her assertion, as I encounter a wide range of schools in my roles as curriculum moderator and supervisor of training teachers, Drama teachers seem to be abandoning drama strategies like teacher-in-role and even student-in-role, in favour of traditional transmission models. These transmission models are widely regarded to be the least effective on the active-passive learning continuum and yet drama (and other) teachers are opting for them.

The following chart looks at the continuum. It isn’t hard to see where the best Drama approaches sit, they are generative, liberational and broad in scope. I am especially impressed by the work of people who can reflect this sort of approach. And I find that amongst Drama teachers, most teachers on the “MORE” end of the scale will declare some influence of of the work of Dorothy Heathcote in their practice.

Common Best Practice Recommendations*



  • whole-class, teacher-directed instruction (e.g., lecturing)
  • student passivity: sitting, listening, receiving, and absorbing
  • presentational, one-way transmission of information from teacher to student
  • prizing and rewarding silence in the classroom
  • classroom time devoted to fill-in-the-blank worksheets, dittos, workbooks and other “seatwork”
  • student time spent reading textbooks and basal readers
  • attempt by teachers to thinly “cover” large amounts of material in every subject area
  • rote memorization of facts and details
  • emphasis on competition and grades in school
  • tracking and leveling of students into “ability groups”
  • use of pull-out special programs
  • use of and reliance on standardized tests
  • experiential, inductive, hands-on learning
  • active learning in the classroom, with all the attendant noise and movement of students doing, talking, and collaborating
  • diverse roles for teachers, including coaching, demonstrating, and modeling
  • emphasis on higher-order thinking; learning a field’s key concepts and principles
  • deep study of a smaller number of topics, so that students internalize a field’s way of inquiry
  • reading real texts: whole books, primary sources, and nonfiction materials
  • responsibility transferred to students for their work: goal setting, record keeping, monitoring, sharing, exhibiting, and evaluating
  • choice for students (e.g., choosing their own books, writing topics, team partners, and research projects)
  • enacting and modeling of principles of democracy in school
  • attention to affective needs and the varying cognitive styles of individual students
  • cooperative, collaborative activity; developing the classroom as an interdependent community
  • heterogeneously grouped classrooms where individual needs are met through inherently individualized activities, not segregation of bodies
  • delivery of special help to students in regular classrooms
  • varied and cooperative roles for teachers, parents, and administrators
  • reliance on teachers’ descriptive evaluations of student growth, including observational/anecdotal records, conference notes, and performance assessment rubrics

*excerpted from Best Practice for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools, by S. Zemelman, H. Daniels, and A. Hyde, Heinnemann, 1998.

And to my mind, this chart is a validation of Process Drama/Applied Theatre approaches to Drama education. Unfortunately, some people around the globe, and many of them close to home seem to focus very much on the process of producing plays, and do so in quite mechanical ways. I would say that the product of groups like the XLD-Express done in Queensland (I saw the Mayne Inheritance in 2003) are the exception and are able to reflect exemplary process and exceptional product… My own belief is that the mechanical approach to Drama education limits educational opportunities and that the actual learning in “putting on a play” is minimal, let’s face it, play production is not really all that demanding a process except in terms of time management. Too often I witness “training” over “education”, where “training”, is a single path, single purpose and single methodology approach. Students are led through “the right steps”, they are not challenged to discover their own understanding, or device their own approaches to creating work, be it original or scripted.

Once again, I am certainly not say that we don’t work towards performance, what I am questioning is the most effective LEARNING pathway to get to the final product. I guess most of you would agree that teacher as autocratic “director” is likely to be the least effective. It is possible, and more interesting, to use teacher-in-role strategies, mantle of the expert, and other in-role forms, to work towards play production.

We need to remember that kids strutting on stage is not the purpose of school Drama. We need to question what LEARNING is occurring and if our list doesn’t include critical thinking, reflexive praxis, and a raft of other skills as articulated in such documents as curriculum frameworks:

The arts and the life of the community
The arts play an important role in the life of the community. While some works of the arts are presented in formal settings, such as galleries and theatres, the arts also permeate everyday life. Their influence is evident, for example, in the design of the clothes we wear, the buildings in which we live and work, and many of the objects we use every day. The arts are important for the expression of the life and culture of communities, and contribute to the transmission of values and ideas from generation to generation. They play a major role in the forms of communication and entertainment we experience on a daily basis. They also have major industrial and economic significance and arts industries form a significant part of the modern Australian economy. All students will experience the arts in various forms through their personal and working lives beyond school. For some, the arts will provide an avenue to a specific artistic career. For others, their learnings in the arts will be applied in other occupations, be part of their leisure or feature in other parts of their daily lives.

The arts and communication
The arts are a major form of human communication and expression. Individuals and groups use them to explore, express and communicate ideas, feelings and experiences. Each arts form is a language in its own right, being a major way of symbolically knowing and communicating experience. Through the arts individuals and groups express, convey and invoke meaning. Like other language forms, arts languages have their own conventions, codes, practices and meaning structures. They also communicate cultural contexts. Students benefit from understanding and using these ways of knowing and expressing feelings and experiences.

The arts and values
Artistic works can inform, teach, persuade and provoke thought. They can reproduce and reinforce existing ideas and values, challenge them, or offer new ways of thinking and feeling. They can confirm existing values and practices, and they can bring about change. As a result, the arts play an important role in shaping our understanding of ourselves as individuals and members of society and our understanding of the world in which we live. The Arts Learning Area contributes to the development of core shared values in students, in particular, helping them to critically reflect, make personal meaning and show enterprise and initiative.

The arts, creativity and satisfaction
The arts provide a major means of personal creativity, satisfaction and pleasure. They allow the opportunity for creative problem solving, self-expression and the use of the imagination in a range of different forms. The study of the arts can provide students with immediate satisfaction as well as providing the basis for lifelong enjoyment. The opportunity for creativity in the arts develops students’ abilities to plan, visualise consequences, experiment, try different approaches, solve problems and make decisions in situations in which there may be no standard answers.

The arts and life skills
Working in the Arts Learning Area involves the development of students’ skills across a wide range of human activities. Learning in the arts promotes the integration of skills from different areas of human potential, promoting ‘multi-sensory’ learning and the development of ‘multiple intelligences’. The arts develop verbal and physical skills, logical and intuitive thinking, interpersonal skills and spatial, rhythmic, visual and kinaesthetic awareness. They promote emotional intelligence, a way of understanding, using and making responses through the emotions and students’ intrapersonal qualities and experiences. Through the arts, students learn to use and experiment with a range of traditional and emerging technologies.

WA Curriculum Framework http://www.curriculum.wa.edu.au/

I would advocate that we all continue looking at our practice, and whether or not we are getting the kudos of school community – as we all do when kids present work – we need to honestly interrogate our approaches and the quality of learning we are offering. If the work we do with students is not about them discovering, visualising, questioning, deciding, problem-solving, experimenting with drama elements and steeped in values, then it may be that our practice simply doesn’t measure up to best practice.

Drama is pedagogy as well as product… and I think it sage to remember that we as Drama educators reflect that – ANYONE can work towards putting on a scripted production – it isn’t brain-surgery, and despite the efforts of great practitioners (Robert Wilson, Peter Brook and their ilk) the type of work produced in most schools doesn’t really push the packet very far…. what is important in our work with students is the different approach to learning that we offer… and lately I have been disappointed to find that it very hard to distinguish Drama teachers from any others, because their is nothing significantly different in the way they teach, and I believe that is the critical difference that should be immediately apparent… and to that end I encourage you all to revisit, or discover, the work of Dorothy Heathcote, Gavin Bolton, John O’Toole, Philip Taylor and others and really hold your own practice up in comparison… you may not yet be the great teacher they are, but you are able to model their practice, isolate and identify key strategies and incorporate them in your own practice… regardless of whether you are doing investigative group devised work, play production, text study or skills development, process and in-role methods can be applied to enrich the learning experiences of students and expand the scope of their learning beyond mere “training”.

One thought on “Learning in, with and through Drama.

  1. Pingback: Father Sez – Learning Theatre / Drama

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