Curriculum - Sounds creative

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Classroom noise is the bane of most teachers' lives, but in some subjects it is not only desirable but essential. Dan Clay reports on drama teachers who want to pump up the volume

It starts with a frown, continues with the casual glance of the head peering around the door, and ends with a teacher from the classroom next door bursting in to complain about the unholy racket coming from your lesson. As an inevitable part of any subject that encourages group work and creative learning, noise is often as welcome as an Ofsted inspector - and treated with as much suspicion.

Although many different curriculum areas have inspiring teachers who encourage children to thrive in a creative atmosphere, drama teachers are frequently targeted by colleagues who believe that the only noise to be heard in class should be the sound of their own voice.

There are a number of subjects in which varying degrees of noise are an essential part of the lesson: composition and performance in music, and encouragement and communication in PE, for example. So what is it about the drama that encourages high-volume activity?

"Noise is inevitable in drama," says Rachel Simpson, head of drama at Broughton Business and Enterprise College in Preston. "It's necessary at times to break inhibitions and show that pupils are being creative.

"It's good to have noise in a drama lesson - you can't teach the subject without it to some degree," she adds. "Noise in the lesson shows pupils are really getting into it ... it highlights their level of participation. If pupils aren't talking to each other, discussing ideas and trying things out, then they are probably not focusing on the drama work as much as they should be."

David Sidwell, a professor and former director of theatre education at Utah State University in the US, agrees. "Noise is mess. If you were painting with pupils in art, you would expect there to be mess. In the same way, noise is just the mess that is made from creating drama," he argues.

But knowing that noise will come and how to tell if it is purposeful is a skill every drama teacher should develop, he says. "I tell my students to expect it and that I don't mind it, so long as they are on-task," he says.

Occasionally, though, colleagues might not agree. Some teachers see a lack of regimented seating and the presence of noise as a sign that pupils are not learning. One trainee drama teacher, posting on The TES's web forum, complains that her mentor told her: "If you must teach this bloody stupid subject, get in the classroom, make them sit down and get out the Shakespeare."

So how best can a teacher manage a noisy, creative drama session and ensure that fears of lack of discipline are dispelled? By making sure that the noise is work-related and recognising the sources, advises Alan Needham, an advanced skills teacher and former head of drama.

"Noise shouldn't be a problem in class if children know exactly where they are going in the lesson," he explains. "Use your imagination and creativity. If you know noise might be an issue, try to find a hall or classroom that might be more suitable."

"Noise rarely needs managing if the working place is suitably located and soundproofed, says Brian Radcliffe, teacher and author of Drama for Learning in the Teachers' Pocketbook series. "All that's needed is a clear visual mechanism for creating silence when required, for example a raised-arm signal. Confidence in the efficacy of the techniques you use and the ability to think on your feet with creativity and flexibility are useful."

Mr Needham adds that pupils should understand what level of noise is acceptable. "It's important to ensure there are clear guidelines and boundaries so that pupils know what is expected of them. In the drama classroom, teachers need to make sure they have adequate control to eliminate problems."

David Sidwell goes further, saying the secret to managing noise in the lesson is a good use of pace. "I always like to add a feeling or urgency to my lessons. Creating an atmosphere where the lesson is exciting and fun, and that the pupils need to hurry along with it, is a good thing," he explains. "Making them hurry often helps them do better and not think it over so much, but rely on their own brain capabilities."

This may take some organisation since expectations and attention-getting mechanisms must be devised and communicated beforehand. Once that is agreed and in place, it shouldn't be too much trouble, he adds.

As far as inspections are concerned, it seems that Ofsted positively welcomes noise. The inpsectorate's 2008 annual report criticised teachers who "fail to inspire pupils with boring lessons". It cited evidence showing that behaviour deteriorated more often in these lessons rather than in those where teachers took creative risks. Ms Simpson agrees, highlighting areas of the drama curriculum in which noise is essential.

"Some scenes in a drama improvisation require a shock factor, which may involve noise. Most pupils like a good shout and enjoy being creative in this way," she says. "Others may feature a crucial argument with raised voices, which takes practice to be totally effective." She cites Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which has several pivotal courtroom scenes, some of which require characters to express emotions that can only be achieved through screaming.

"Many improv games and warm-ups feature some kind of noise, and if pupils are working on a soundscape project that entails voice warm-ups, then you have got to teach them how to project their voice, all of which creates some level of noise," she adds.

"If a teacher had concerns about the level of classroom noise, I would ask them to come and watch the final performance and see the end result," she says. "That way they can see why the noise was necessary."

However, recent research indicates that noise, however necessary and creative in a lesson, not only affects pupils' listening effort but can also impact on their ability to learn.

Clare Howard, a trainee audiological scientist at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, measured the effect of noise on children's performance on a secondary task as part of her research for an MSc in audiology.

Thirty-one primary pupils from Years 5 and 6 were asked to listen to and recall monosyllabic words at different noise levels and then remember a series of numbers. Ms Howard found that there was a reduction in performance on the numbers task as the noise level increased from the first.

"The increased listening effort in noisy situations suggests that there will be less available resources for other classroom tasks such as following instructions," she argues.

"Therefore attainment and achievement may be compromised in poor listening conditions."

However, further work is needed to determine if the effect of increased listening effort in noise is maintained across all ages."

Ms Howard points out that lessons such as music, drama and PE are in general noisier than lessons that require a level of reading or factual recall. "The time to be cautious is when giving instructions as good speech communication is essential," she says. "Ensure that there is little background noise at these times so that the instructions can be heard without increased effort to try and listen."

Ms Howard recognises that noise should not affect pupils' ability to work creatively. "When the primary task is not one of listening, background noise should not be causing them to use up resources that need to be available for thinking, learning and focusing on the task."

That said, no one would expect to see an art lesson where pupils do not spill paint or get messy; nor would they be surprised to see a dirty PE kit after a game of rugby in the mud. Noise is just one form of mess, and like any part of the lesson can be managed and nurtured in the right climate.

"It's important to realise that in a noisy, creative classroom, the teacher is helping to make the noise, too," says Mr Sidwell. "They may be coaching, making announcements or just walking around assessing and cheering on the pupils. But whatever they do, it is adding to the noise."

The key is finding the balance. And often, the most significant way to effectively manage noise in a creative subject such as drama is to know when to keep quiet yourself.


From January 12 to February 6, schools will be able to see a new production of Dr Faustus at the Stratford Circus theatre in east London. The production company, Present Moment, is providing any school that books tickets with a free education pack, as well as a chance to follow the progress of the production on its website, When booking tickets, teachers will receive a code to access the learning resources area of the Present Moment website. They can also download the education pack, which was written by a drama teacher. Teachers can look at the director's blog to see the production's progress and watch video footage of rehearsals. Tickets can be booked from www.stratford-circus.comeventsbookinfo.


- A list of fun and creative drama games submitted by Emilee at

- A favourite among drama teachers, Kenneth Taylor's Drama in Education site has materials, lesson plans and resources to keep lessons lively. See

- Andrew McCann's detailed site has original lesson resources and links. Head over to for a look.


- Make sure you have a clear signal for establishing silence.

- Expect noise. It shows pupils are busy and engaged with the task.

- Make sure you can tell the difference between purposeful noise and chatter.

- Give lessons some urgency and pace - pupils are less likely to misbehave.

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