Drama - Act one

5th December 2008 at 00:00
Making a drama out of a crisis can be just the way to help learning, says Ros Hicks

Chaos seems to reign in the hall at Great Hockham Primary School in Thetford, Norfolk. A blackbird has been pecking off noses and the palace destroyed in the ensuing riot. But order is being restored: the king is being helped to count his money, the queen in the parlour is making honey sandwiches and the maid is hanging out clothes.

Almost without noticing it, the four and five-year-olds are counting money, using the language of mathematics to cut the sandwiches into squares and triangles, and pairing, matching and number ordering as they peg up clothes.

Drama provides a context for them to develop their understanding of mathematical concepts. They may have been transported to a fantasy world, but when they return to the classroom it is clear that this approach means their learning is embedded more deeply.

Acting not only is the context for learning, it moves thinking forward. At Cragside Primary School in Newcastle, nine and 10-year-old pupils have been learning about the impact locally of Henry VIII's dissolution of the Roman Catholic Church.

In their role as monks, one group is discussing how to respond to his demands for them to hand over precious items. Some pupils are fierce in their opposition, others fearful of the wrath of the king. The argument is passionate, full of conviction and a sense of injustice. And then the voice of reason cuts through the clamour. "Let us keep the wooden crosses or make new ones and instead give the gold crosses and riches to the king. What difference is it, wood or gold? They are still as spiritual. God would not want us to fight."

Four Dwellings School in Birmingham uses personal learning and thinking skills to help develop an expertise curriculum. Acting takes a high profile through the work of Hugh Blackwood, a specialist drama teacher. So, for example, 16-year-olds develop short improvised pieces to offer positive solutions to the concerns of new 11-year-old pupils.

Teachers in other subject areas are encouraged to use drama to heighten the profile of science in the school and to develop dramatic approaches to challenging issues, such as slavery in history or the fate of Brazilian rainforests in geography.

What is happening in these lessons is much more than a pick and mix selection of theatrical techniques to enhance learning. These pupils are engaged through the drama of the situation, combining the world of the imagination and real situations.

Drama is a shapeshifter. It has the potential to link pupils' learning experiences and be a powerful route to new knowledge and skills. This is being realised in science laboratories, classrooms, playgrounds, on field trips and everywhere learning happens. It can seem risky and challenging for teachers and pupils - you can never be quite sure what you are going to get - but more and more teachers are understanding what drama can bring to their subject

Ros Hicks is curriculum adviser for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

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