Why It's Essential to Actively Promote Drama in Schools
While in the UK I had the pleasure of meeting with Chris Lawerence the office manager for London Drama and Holly Barradell, the Development Manager for Drama & Drama Teaching for Trinity College London. Both of whom are on the organising committee for National Drama in the UK. They provided me with an 'eye-opening' overview of the decline of developmental drama in schools in the UK.
I was shocked to find that in the UK, the home of modern drama and pioneers of developmental drama like Peter Slade, Brian Way and Dorothy Heathcote, drama is being relegated to the same second class or is it third class status it had in the school curriculum in the 1960's. Drama and the Arts in general barely rate a mention in the core elements of curriculum in the latest government policy documents. The underlying mindset for those is that anything of educational ‘value’ can only be measured through subjects that can do so through exam based assessment.
(For an overview of what is happening to educational drama in the UK you could take time to read Patrice Baldwin's (chairperson National Drama) article in the National Drama magazine )
It is truly tragic that, despite years of proven benefit to students, drama is still not given the status is should have in education. I was a graduate of the second year of trained drama students in Australia and have struggled all my teaching career to convince management and parents that drama deserves to be a valued core component of any holistic education program for all students, not just a 'bit of icing on the cake' as long as budget and curriculum demands allow.
The problematic link between educational drama and theatre.
One of the problems associated with drama is it's close association with theatre. Don't get me wrong I love everything about theatre and believe it should be an intergral part of the education process. However, many students, parents and educators do not get beyond the individual benefits of theatre based and focused activities only for those who have a passion for acting and/or other theatre related roles. School management often can't get beyond the PR benefits of full scale school productions and see drama as simply an optional, extra-curricular, activity.
Being absolutely convinced of the broad sweep of benefits to students in general, what I would like to see, in every education system, is a carefully considered program of skill and knowledge development that flows easily from child initiated role-play in pre-school to fully developed abilities in each student to communicate and think effectively in a range of different contexts. For my thoughts on drama in the primary/elementary school you may like to follow this link to a previous blog:
Child initiated role-play in action
We all, as children, have a predisposition to role-play; acting out different situations we see in the world around us. The problem is that the school systems have not learned to take students through a natural progression from playing 'doctors and nurses' to using drama as a tool for developing essential life skills. Recently I took my grandchildren to the Science Museum in Melbourne, Australia and was mesmerised by the depth of role-play children entered into in the pretend cafe that is part of the attractions for children. One boy in particular, who was much older than I would have expected to engage in this sort of role play, diligently took on the role of a barista, serving us coffee and snacks. It could only have come about from careful observation of the real thing. No detail of our pretend coffee and snack was overlooked. Schools struggle to keep students engaged and, particularly with some boys, find difficulty in gaining the depth of focus needed for productive school work, yet here was a boy so intently focused on what he was doing that it engaged every part of his being. Within the limited framework of his personal observations he had utilised higher order thinking to create a character. Is he going to end up a barista? Who knows, but perhaps if he keeps up the use of role-play to explore the possibilities available to him, he will eventually find the role that most suits him in life and perhaps he will gain the confidence and ability to easily adopt whatever role he needs to fulfill the requirements of his future career.
How I promote my subject in schools
In response to the prejudiced perspectives of drama articulated by students, parents and other educators I decided very early on in my career that one of the most important tasks for me was to conduct a PR campaign for my subject. Sometimes it’s important to not just produce great drama and hope that those watching get enthusiastic too but to also, proactively, show people, particularly skeptics, just how important the subject is. Never lose an opportunity to sell your subject!
Here is a modified excerpt from my e-book "Organised Chaos: A Very Practical Guide to Drama Teaching". It outlines the way I have introduced the subject to students and parents focusing on the key benefits of developmental drama.
Drama is often the last subject to be introduced in a new and growing school, and the first to go if there are any financial problems. Drama is viewed by many staff (those who have absolutely no understanding of the value of the subject) as a bit of a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject; ‘a good fill in but not really essential’; not deserving any serious consideration or funding.
Students also pick up a poor opinion of the subject from parents, teachers and other students because they don’t fully understand the benefits of doing the subject. It is easy for parents and students to understand the need to know mathematics in regard to a whole range of jobs in the community but how many students are likely to become actors. What value is there in learning drama?
I spend quite a lot of time on this with any new group, particularly students making the transition from primary/elementary to middle school. I tackle this after some introductory icebreaking, energising and focusing games. It doesn’t take much time to introduce the concepts. But I make sure I always reinforce them over the following weeks until eventually the students, hopefully, get ‘brainwashed’ (in the nicest possible way) into my way of thinking about the subject.
Keep in mind however that prejudices are sometimes very hard to break. It is very important to promote and defend your subject at any opportunity because in the long term the value the school places on it will grow. In many enlightened schools drama now has a very high profile, particularly in the private school sector where the PR aspect of school productions is recognised and respected, but when I started teaching this was certainly not the case.
How to introduce the benefits of drama to students (and parents when possible)
Draw a large oval in the middle of the whiteboard and put a large C in it. Put a title at the top of the board, ‘The 6 C’s of Drama’, and ask the students what C words could best describe the 6 most important benefits of doing drama work. Tell them the central C word is the most important word and that The 6 C's of Drama bring about the central word and ask them what they think it is. Usually some of the other C words are identified, and as they are, place them in ovals around the central oval , with links between them, and discuss each of the benefits. Eventually someone suggests Confidence as the central benefit of drama. Then, through asking a series of leading questions, elicit discussion about the benefits of developing Confidence through the development of the skills that been identified around that central word.
As you proceed with introductory drama work over subsequent weeks, keep referring back to The 6 C’s of Drama and get the students to reflect on how skills are developed.
The 6 C’s of Drama
The central or key word is Confidence
Communication – discuss the communication skills involved in drama in their broadest sense; from sharing ideas within a small group to public speaking and/or performance to audiences of thousands.
Cooperation – as you do a range of games and activities to develop team work, and also later when you start work in improvisation, refer back to this and discuss what skills are necessary to work successfully with others.
Coordination – discuss the benefits of developing coordination through sports and other leisure activities and then point out to students that drama is one of the few activities in life that require a person to coordinate every aspect of their being in performance work. That it is not just physical coordination, which they already understand but coordinating their intellect, emotions and whole bodies through body language, facial expressions and gestures.
Control (self-control) – discuss what is meant by this and when and why it is necessary to develop a high level of control over your emotions and actions within the drama/theatre context as well as a whole life discipline.
Creativity – discuss the benefits of creative and lateral thinking as well as creative problem solving and the application of these in a whole range of life pursuits.
Characterisation – it is best to leave this to the last because most students do not know this term well. Point out that this is usually what people associate with Drama but that it is only one of the key benefits of the subject. Then identify clearly what Characterisation is and go through everything that an actor is required to do to create a character in performance. Then discuss role -play in real life; showing that we are all required to play different roles at different times in our life.
End up by telling them that your expectation is not that they should or will all end up as actors but, in learning the skills that are embodied in Drama work, they will develop the Confidence to face the many challenges of life with some key skills to help them in whatever area they choose to move in.
It is essential to build into your drama program an understanding of the underlying benefits of drama. They should be clearly articulated and continually reviewed as part of the process of developing skills, knowledge and creativity. Students should undergo a carefully planned program of drama studies beginning with experiential activities in the early primary/elementary years and culminating in the development of graduate students who are confident communicators in any of life’s contexts. Drama is not just for training theatre professionals. It should be a vehicle for producing individuals capable of clearly and cleverly articulated and well thought out creative ideas and concepts in any area of human endeavour.