Drama in the Middle Years

The paradox of education in the middle years is; though schools want to espouse a holistic child-centric education, value driven, future oriented, they also need the numbers; numbers such as test scores and literacy rates and the need to keep the parents happy. Subjects like Drama, Dance and the Visual Arts go into the realm of extra-curricular, optional, and after school, while all classes orient themselves towards academics and assessments. When in fact, by embracing these subjects that schools can actually achieve the results that parents prioritize.

Parents, we know, for the most part, see schools as assembly lines to a good job1. According to HSBC’s global survey The Value of Education, Indian parents specifically, are quite certain; high scores in school = a good job = a bright future for their child2. And thus everything other than textbook approaches to math, science and language, is a distraction especially as children move from primary to middle and then high school.

Our unequivocal observation, across boards and school systems, is that as Learners progress to higher grades, their exposure to and engagement with the arts is categorically reduced. This means that the amount of time in the week they have to explore their inner world, make mistakes and practice social interaction, is reduced and the exploration and extension of their emotional and social selves curtailed.

Yet developmental psychology tells us at that the age of 11-13 is when children start building a value system, it is when they are emotionally vulnerable and need a space to try out different forms of peer interaction and discover their identity in relation to the world around them. Their social, emotional and cultural skill-sets are being locked into place. In short, they are becoming the people that they will grow up to be. And, for reasons beyond their control, learning environments are not allowing them to do so fully.

The fact of the matter, however is that, good grades and arts in the curriculum are not mutually exclusive. The reality is quite the opposite. A two year study across multiple countries mapped 5 of the 8 Lisbon Key Competencies across nearly five thousand learners in the age-group of 13-15. Results from geographies as varied as Romania, Palestine and the Netherlands showed that children who take drama are simply better in class – not just in terms of language, communication and problem-solving, but in civic sense, leadership, planning and entrepreneurial skill.3 Thus, it is possible to integrate childhood developmental goals, future skills and academic excellence through drama, with its in-built values of autonomy, differentiated learning and project-based collaboration. In fact, it is our imperative to do in grades 6, 7 and 8.

We’ve tested this ourselves several times and consistently achieve the same result. Drama works. One such occasion was when we worked with the history department at a school to integrate drama in to the Indian Freedom struggle syllabus. The result was a six session module focussing on character studies of the Movement’s key players, at the end of which students, created a Museum of Freedom, preparing and presenting fictional monologues as characters from history. Using the same amount of time as regular classroom teaching, students had researched not only the facts of the freedom struggle, but also embodied oppression, self-determination, resistance and choice. Not only were they capable of acing a test in history, but they learned how history applies to their world.

Time and again, studies show direct correlations between exposure to drama at school and higher scores in class tests, standardized examinations and even to doing better at job interviews.4

The World Economic Forum and the Pearson-Nesta-Oxford research team agree that the future will belong to those who can solve complex problems, are great at listening and working with other humans and have cognitive flexibility, which is to say they can learn new skills and behaviours and adapt to diverse situations faster and more willingly. And this future that we are talking about is a mere 12 year’s away5, the time when most middle-schoolers today will be joining the workforce. We know that most methods of classroom teaching and a focus on the syllabus do not tackle these areas of learning. We also know that drama does.

And as far as marks are concerned, drama’s impactful role does not exclude the STEM subjects either. New research comes to light every day about how storification and process drama can improve interest and concentration in math and science classrooms, inevitably leading to higher scores.6 There is a reason that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is now being brought to a boil by STEAM, where the A, as you might have guessed, stands for the Arts, the addition of which makes STEAM more than the sum of its parts. Georgette Yakman, a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic who consolidated the concept and now trains thousands of educators in it explains that “STEAM programmes integrate subjects in an inquiry-based, hands-on curriculum in a way that more closely aligns with what students will experience in college and the workforce.7

Consider the example of Grade 6 students in the UK. Under the UK’s National Arts Council’s Teaching Through the Arts Programme, these students took on the role of farmers managing a plot of land. They learned about area, perimeter and land surveying tools as well as the dilemmas and real-world struggles of farmers and labourers.

Thus, contrary to popular perception, middle and high school is not the time to reduce exposure to drama and the arts, shun them to the extra-curricular space or worse, eliminate them altogether. It is, in fact, the best time to put drama front and centre in the lives of students; not only to make them more aware of the world and their place in it, but to give them crucial skills that will determine their success as adults in professional and personal spaces.

So, it is time to move away from drama as an extracurricular, co-scholastic, voluntary programme or the annual day-centric, script-based, costumed performance version of Drama in Education and instead look at curricular integration, where students get at least 120-150 mins of drama as a subject and teachers get to build their classrooms with drama as a pedagogical tool. It is time that the school itself, rises above being a daily chore for despondent youth at the behest of parents raised in a different world, and instead becomes a laboratory of conscious trial and error where interests and passions are explored, knowledge is discovered and applied and futures are built every day, perhaps to the soundtrack of Calculus the Musical.

1: The Hechinger Report / Radio Atlantic Purpose of Education Survey, 2017, USA

2: HSBC Value of Education Survey, 2017, Global

3: DICE (Drama Improves Lisbon Key Competences in Education), Various countries, 2010

4: Educational Theatre Association

5: The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030, Pearson, Nesta, Oxford Martin School, USA/UK, 2017

6: Educational Media International & Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance

7: EdTech Magazine & STEAM: A Framework for Teaching across the Disciplines