Clear insight

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Ruth Moore and Paul Bunyan look at drama's role in developing pupils'

critical thinking and creativity

The year 2003 is an important one for drama in schools. During this time publications and initiatives from the key stage 3 strategy, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Department for Education and Skills, Ofsted and the Arts Council highlight the importance drama is given within the curriculum and recognise the effect it can have on pupils'

progress and the development of their critical analytical skills.

Here is an example: a Year 8 class have been using a variety of drama conventions to investigate the novel Holes by Louis Sachar. The students are now sitting in a circle surrounding a coat that's been placed carefully on the floor. It's being gently lifted by the "sculpted" figure of Holes character Stanley Yelnats, who is portrayed by a pupil in role. Behind the pupils, projected on the wall, is an extract from the novel describing Stanley carrying his detention-camp friend Zero up the mountain. The pupils are all keen to position Stanley exactly and are able to articulate in a highly skilled way whether or not he should have his legs bent, whether his face should look frightened or upset, and in what direction he should be looking. They quickly learn that the actions described in the novel are difficult to replicate in real life and a discussion begins about the author's technique and his choice of words to create effect rather than reality.

Returning to the scene with Stanley and Zero, the teacher asks another pupil to represent "the author". She then asks the class to place him in the scene according to which character he might be closest to, what he can see and so on, at a particular point in the text. A pupil quickly volunteers and sculpts the author in a position close to Stanley and mirroring his pose. The pupil explains his choice, talks about empathy and uses evidence from the text to support his comments. Another pupil disagrees and instead moves the author to the edge of the circle so that he is able to see and control what is behind and in front of the two sculpted characters. The discussion that develops, helped by the visual positioning and the need to provide specific evidence from the text, demonstrates high-order reading and thinking skills.

When another pupil is asked to be "the reader" the discussion develops further and the pupils begin to explore the authorial techniques in detail.

Drama, as defined in Cracking Drama: Progression in Drama Within English (National Association for the Teaching, pound;19.50) is "the collaborative exploration and analysis of meaning through the enactment of events".

Progress in drama supports progress in English and, in the wider context, progress in the skills needed for independent learning. Effective drama teaching improves pupils' speaking and listening, reading and writing (through developing thinking), communication skills and critical analysis.

As pupils become actively engaged in drama they are aware of, and therefore understand, the learning process in which they are involved. Central to this process are enactment and engagement through the establishment of fictional environments with clear boundaries between the real and imagined.

In the context described (part of the workshop training materials delivered to all KS3 English consultants this year) the teacher is using a combination of drama conventions to place exacting demands on the critical thinking and emotional engagement of the class. Planned drama approaches, which develop pupils' critical analysis and creativity, move them from a superficial response to texts, ideas and situations to a more sophisticated ability to think critically. This ability is at the heart of what is required in learning and language development at KS3 and is increasingly understood to be vital in primary education and in transition work between primary and secondary phases. A drama workshop was, therefore, chosen as the stimulus for cross-curricular transition work between Hasland Hall Community School in Derbyshire and its feeder schools Hasland Junior School, Calow Church of England Voluntary Controlled Primary School and Hady Primary School.

The Year 6 class has carefully set up, on a table and surrounding floor, items that might be found in the study of Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei. Behind the table is a projected picture from the text Galileo's Treasure Box (originally known as Five Secrets in a Box) by Catherine Brighton (Walker and Company pound;9.99), which they are using as a guide.

Each item, including a telescope, flasks, quill pens, globe and scientific books, is deliberately and carefully placed. Once the study is set up, the pupils place one of their fellow students in the scene as Virginia, Galileo's daughter.

The teacher asks the pupils to work in pairs to produce two identical copies of the texts that might be found in Galileo's study. Once complete, the scene is again set up with Virginia and Galileo, and the pupils carefully place one copy of their text among the items in front of them.

Some are neatly folded into a scientific book, while others are screwed up on the floor or secreted in Galileo's pocket. The teacher uses music as a prompt as alternately Virginia and Galileo pick up a piece of text and freeze. As they freeze the pupils seated in a circle around the scene read out their piece of text in the way they have rehearsed. The texts vary from emotional letters from Virginia's mother to a scientific statement about a planet, but all are written and spoken with integrity. The appropriateness and demanding nature of the language, and therefore their reading of it, exceed what might be expected from pupils this age. Once all the pupils have read their texts and the scene with Galileo and Virginia is drawing to a close, Galileo picks up the final text - a sealed scroll that has been carefully placed in the scene by the teacher. Galileo opens the scroll and freezes as the teacher reads aloud a letter from the Vatican demanding Galileo's presence before the Inquisition. The lesson ends.

The Galileo workshop, taken from Cracking Drama, was the starting point for various units of work in different subject areas. In science, Year 6 pupils explored the theory and concepts of lenses and made their own telescopes.

English classes analysed in detail the letters from Galileo's daughter to her father at the time of the Inquisition. Humanities work focused on the view of the world at the time of Galileo. Maths teachers developed their pupils' understanding of size and measurement using the pictures from the text. Bilingual humanities (that is, humanities taught through French) also used the pictures from Galileo's Treasure Box, as did art, as a stimulus for initial language work.

The transition programme highlighted the benefit of placing drama and critical thinking at the heart of KS3. Many teachers have been aware of the "dip" between the two years, but have often been encouraged to approach transition work by concentrating on content and knowledge, rather than the desire to encourage pupils to think critically about learning. What is important is not the understanding of drama as a cross-curricular tool but as a starting point for critical analysis.

This year is, therefore, not just a time for new publications and initiatives in drama but the opportune moment to recognise the impact of drama on pupils' learning. We need to move beyond rigid subject boundaries and specialisms towards an understanding of the ways that pupils learn and the impact that drama can have. The discipline of the art form needs to remain. Without integrity and discipline and an understanding of the drama process, the modelling and development of analytical skills is impossible.

Specialist drama teachers have much to offer, as do specialist teachers trained to teach English, drama and media.

Throughout both units of work, the debate and discussion is enhanced through the visualisation of ideas. They are driven to seek for meaning because they are emotionally involved and this affective impulse leads to cognitive understanding.

Ruth Moore is deputy headteacher at Hasland Hall Community School, Derbyshire and past chair of NATE.Paul Bunyan is curriculum adviser for drama in Northamptonshire Inspection and Advisory Service and chair of the NATE drama committee. Both have written for and provided training on the KS3 strategy

KS3 strategy "Drama Objectives Bank" and "Drama Workshop" can be downloaded by visiting www.standards.dfes.gov.ukkeystage3strandspublications?template=downamp;pub_ id=2520amp;strand=english

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