Peaks of performance

21st September 2007 at 01:00
Role-play activities offer the perfect opportunity for 'learning by doing', writes Jenny Bloom

"What I like about drama is that we get to learn complicated stuff in an easy way". So said one of my Year 10 pupils about his GCSE drama course clearly encapsulating what exploration through drama is all about.

My experience is that the kinaesthetic nature of drama and working in role challenges pupils' perceptions of the world. The idea of "learning by doing" is something we value with very young children, so why should it be devalued as they get older?

I am convinced pupils learn through forming their own opinions. For example, when looking into oppressive societies around the world, I gather a variety of texts and mediums and explore them through drama. Pupils look at a song about Chile under Pinochet and then get into pairs to examine the status of both the oppressed and their oppressors. Or they study Mountain Language, a play by Harold Pinter about the oppression of the Kurds. Then pupils get into role as members of the remote mountain people whose language has been summarily forbidden.

The pupils have watched a horrifying documentary about life under the Taliban. Visibly moved, they saw how a football stadium, created as a symbol of hope for Afghans, was used by the regime as a place to torture and murder. Later, I got pupils to sit at their desks with their eyes closed. In front of them was a pen and a piece of paper. I told them to imagine their lives were at risk and that they needed to find a place of safety. I read them a chilling poem, "Refugee Blues" by WH Auden, that explores the plight of the oppressed. Taking on an authoritative persona, I then told them to sit in silence, turn over the paper and fill in the immigration form, which was all in double-Dutch.

Several pupils were truly horrified when they realised that they could be beaten or killed if they failed to fill it in correctly. One girl told me she felt physically sick at the enormity of the task. From subsequent discussions, it became clear that their attitudes to refugees and asylum-seekers became more informed and thoughtful.

Much of the work has its roots in subjects such as history and citizenship, but working in role can enhance the learning in many curriculum areas, including English and geography.

Work on globalisation may be more accessible for shyer pupils. The initial scenario is an isolated, self-sufficient rural African village where each pupil is given a particular skill and some basic commodities. They must ensure their survival by exchanging their skills or commodities to gain sufficient food, money and equipment to survive.

Players quickly learn that money is of little use and become involved in gaining the required goods. They also realise that they are more successful if they work as a team. It is interesting to see pupils' initial competitiveness give way to more sustainable, co-operative approaches.

This initial session can become heated and noisy. I can monitor progress and introduce various problems and controls, such as the crops being destroyed or water supplies drying up.

Any object or text can be a starting point for working in role. Through role play, pupils have direct input into, and control of, their learning and this can be a real benefit across the key stage 4 curriculum.

This creative way of working means learning is retained more effectively, with former pupils often recalling in detail experiences from years before

Jenny Bloom is head of drama and co-ordinator of expressive arts at Hammond's High School and Sixth Form College in Norfolk. She has more than 30 years' drama teaching experience

Tips for working in role

A still image is a good way to start role-play.

Hot-seating a pupil put in role while others ask them questions will develop a character.

Writing in role allows time for reflection and character development.

Thought-tracking when pupils hear what the character is thinking as opposed to what they say explores a character's mind.

"Mantle of the expert" making everyone an expert in different areas empowers and involves all pupils.

Allow time for discussion, reflection and analysis. Pupils often want to talk about their experiences, especially if the topic has been upsetting.

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