Re-examining the role of Drama in Education

There has been no doubt about the role of Drama in a child’s development. Drama has been shown to develop key skills such as creativity, expression, confidence, communication, teamwork and language. Regular access to the drama class also develops capacities such as empathy and understanding, emotional and social regulation, critical thinking and higher order abstraction skills. Evidence has shown that retention is also extremely high in a drama environment, this is due to the nature of drama methods providing high engagement levels and active on-your-feet learning experiences. However, all this amazing potential is severely limited when locked into the limited frames of the one-period a week class or the annual performance. It is only when drama is woven into the regular fabric of a school’s curriculum practice that these benefits truly power learning in the way it is being defined in the 21st Century.

“Creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status”, says Ken Robinson, a thought leader for 21st century education. His fundamental premise: in today’s fast changing world, even the foremost future-thinkers amongst us cannot begin to imagine what jobs and vocations the coming years will actually bring. They can only point to a range of possible careers, many of which haven’t even been invented yet.   In order to prepare our children for these unknown futures we have to make them adaptable to these fast-changing times. Creativity strongly fosters the capability to innovate and adapt, and it has to be given the same urgency as literacy.

It follows then, that if for the development of english literacy a school’s entire medium of instruction is english, then to provide creative literacy at the same level, the school wide medium of instruction has to be creative. This idea is being recognized at a policy level across the world.  In 2011 Wales announced a radical overhaul of its education system, eradicated traditional subjects and mandated that the Arts be placed at the centre of the curriculum. India has taken initial steps in this direction as well. “Arts in Education” has been mandated as a module in the B.Ed curriculum and Drama has been recognized as an important learning tool in the educational space by the NCERT national curriculum framework (2005). Drama-based methodologies are rich with artistic and creative qualities and become an essential tool that allow for arts and creativity to be woven into school curriculum practices. Drama’s role in education has been rapidly shifting from being simply a subject in the timetable – taught by a specialist – to a pedagogical tool integrated for use across the school by teachers and curriculum leaders. 

Integrated correctly,  Drama-in-Education (DiE) practices are present in every class, that provide students learning journeys that – by design – wholistically contribute to the development of the entire range of 21st century learner skills. These techniques also contribute to the teachers own evolution, both in terms of their personal skills and the creative tools with which to deliver deeper learning experiences.  For curriculum planners and school leaders, DiE provides opportunities for integrated and project based learning with performance outputs. These outputs can easily become assembly presentations, parent day programmes, etc. and make for visible evidences of learning that can be seen by school stakeholders such as management, trustees, and parents.

In India, there are challenges that need surmounting. Our key stakeholder – the parent – is still more familiar with 20th Century modes of learning that they experienced; where conventional academics and grade-chasing are placed on a pedestal and drama and the arts remain relegated to the extra-curricular. Even with progressive schools, who are willing to argue for a change in this mindset, it gets harder to change minds as we near exam level grades. This is despite the fact that globally, evidence points to the need for students to be engaged in the arts throughout their studies. Multiple studies have concretely proven that students who engage with the arts achieve more academically.  In terms of successful careers, it is interesting to note here that many leaders across sectors globally had Drama and the Arts as a critical experience in their high school and early adult development. Justin Trudeau PM of Canada, Ronnie Screwvala business head of UTV, Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney, all have had defining learning experiences through drama, any implementation of school-wide drama strategies will have to parallely work with changing parents mind-sets on its role in education.

There is also the challenge of teacher skilling.  B.Ed programmes have come under constant criticism for not delivering teachers to a sufficient standard, as a result many schools have to develop their teaching bodies in-house. To make matters worse, schools who invest heavily in skilling teachers, also complain of attrition. DiE solves these issues.  Teachers skilled with DiE techniques evolve rapidly in the same way learners who benefit from drama class do. In addition, studies have further shown that it builds a much more cohesive, capable, innovative, and happier teacher body – this helps schools with teacher retention as well. A 1999 study called “Learning In and Through the Arts” demonstrated:

“Part of the increase in their satisfaction was a result of their charges, who were found to be generally more cooperative and expressive and enjoy a better rapport with educators. That wasn’t all, however, as teachers at schools that emphasized arts education enjoyed greater job satisfaction, were more interested in their work and likely to be innovative and pursued personal development experiences”.

The roadmaps on how to integrate DiE across the school are out there. Schools across Norfolk in the UK participated in Drama for Learning and Creativity (D4LC) – a drama based school improvement project initiated in 2005, in which specialists equipped the school at all levels to use DiE, which has been documented in Patrice Baldwin’s School Improvement through Drama.  Primary school is where we should start. as proved conclusively in a partnership between the management, teachers and parents of Shelton Primary School and Drama-in-Education experts Jonathan Neelands and Rachel Dickinson. These ground -breaking results have been documented in their book Improving your Primary School through Drama. In India, this author’s organisation has empowered a number of schools across boards with DiE methodologies as whole-school practice and has come up with a complete school strategy for the same.

What is clear from these case-studies is; Firstly, that school management and curriculum leaders have been able to deeply and permanently plan and implement programmes which weave drama into their school’s culture and curriculum practices over a 3-5 year time horizon.  Secondly, that teachers benefit hugely from learning DiE tools and practices, and over time, due to DiE’s collaborative and peer learning qualities, allow for happier teaching bodies that are capable of mounting performances that showcase learning, that too, without an over-dependency on specialists. Finally and most importantly, that a drama empowered school environment keeps learners majorly immersed in a creative based mode of learning, which every study has shown – develops them much more holistically, helps them to perform better academically, and genuinely prepares them to be future ready.  The question for school leaders to ask themselves is not why or how to do this, but “When do I begin?”