Drama in education aims to give students the tools to express themselves and imagine alternative worlds, but formal exposure to it stops after primary level
Drama in education – the use of embodied make-believe – has proved to be a highly effective teaching and learning tool, from ancient Greek times to the present day. “Tell me and I will forget,” the Confucian proverb goes. “Show me and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand.”
However, the status of drama on the curriculum at primary and post-primary level in Ireland has been in dispute for some years. Drama is an art form and also a powerful pedagogical tool. Yet its frequent use in a cross-curricular context has made it difficult to define exactly what drama in education means in a working classroom.
At primary level, drama was formally acknowledged in the new arts curriculum that was implemented in 2004. The emphasis is on “exploring and making drama” as a means of investigating feelings, knowledge and ideas, and in examining relationships between people, in a real, historical or imagined context, to help students understand the world.
The primary task of the teacher, the curriculum guidelines state, is to harness the child’s capacity for make-believe and extend it into other areas of knowledge. The emphasis is on the process of creating drama rather than performance; exploring life through the creation of fiction rather than developing a piece of work for public display. The educational outcomes stressed by the curriculum include the development of social, personal and drama skills. The way in which the child acquires knowledge through drama is as important as the knowledge itself.
Dympna Byrne, a primary teacher at Burriscarra National School, a two-teacher school in Co Mayo, uses drama in every subject she teaches, and on a daily basis. “There is provision for it as a separate subject, but it has relevance across the curriculum,” she says. “A lot of the focus in primary education is to encourage children to collaborate and to be active in their own learning, and drama is a brilliant tool for that.”
Byrne says the benefits of drama as a teaching tool can be easily assessed in subjects such as English (“it helps with writing, as well as the creative aspect”) or history (“it can bring abstract things to life in a really engaging way”), but it is the way in which this type of learning emerges that is most important, she says.
“The collaborative, shared experience [of drama] takes the stress out of learning situations, particularly for children who might not be confident learners.”
Byrne also cites the way drama speaks to self-development and the emerging self-confidence of young children. “If you enter into another character through role-play, you can learn how to tackle different situations and how to take care and consideration for others,” she says.
She has seen the children in her classroom grow from shy and reluctant participants to confident, active learners. She says Ian O’Reilly, who stars in Moone Boy, is one student who was transformed by exposure to drama in the classroom.
One of her current sixth-class students, Orlaith Hughes, was a winner at the Bord Gáis Energy Student Awards last year for a short play she wrote called Maiden of the Mist. “Through competitions and performances, we can extend the students’ interest in drama beyond the classroom, because what really excites students about drama – be that learning through drama or creating a play – is that it is fun.”
Jacqueline Sheil is an English, geography and PE teacher at Borris Vocational School in Co Offaly. She also encourages her students to take part in competitions such as the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre Awards, particularly in transition year, as there is “no set curriculum and you can be more flexible” with your teaching. One of her students, Anna Hogan, won Best Short Scene Script (secondary level) at last year’s awards. Sheil says the “blank page opportunity” offered by such competitions “gives students total freedom of expression”.
The transition from primary to secondary school, however, marks the cessation of all formal exposure to drama in an educational context. Educational drama facilitator Sarah Fitzgibbon laments the situation. “A huge gap opens up once you leave primary education,” she says. “After seven years of immersion, [a child’s] drama education completely ceases until they go into transition year, where, if they are lucky, they might do a transition year play. If they are exposed to drama at all in the exam years, it is as an audience member rather than as a participant.”
“It’s like sport,” she says. “If you don’t exercise your muscles, they atrophy, and those important skills they develop through drama at primary level – the ability to improvise, to work collaboratively, to have empathy for others – are effectively lost once they enter the post-primary environment. Trying to reintroduce them to teenagers – who already struggle with issues of confidence, self-expression and self-consciousness – is a really tough task for both drama facilitators and professional artists.”
Fitzgibbon has been involved in piloting a new approach to drama at post-primary level. She worked with junior cycle students at Larkin Community College in Dublin to develop a Theatre-Making and Citizenship course that complements the SPHE curriculum. The course was such a success that it has been rolled out in several schools nationwide.
The new junior cycle syllabus, she says, “offers great opportunity for broadening the type of learning and teaching that students are exposed to. It might also have a knock-on effect in terms of promoting drama as an art form.”
Marc Mac Lochlainn is artistic director of Branar Téater do Pháistí, a bilingual theatre company that makes work for young audiences. Although Branar have worked within a postprimary context, they now focus on creating work for the 0-12 age group and work regularly in primary schools. “When we began in 2001, we were very educationally focused,” Mac Lochlainn says. We tried to make direct curricular links, but as we developed, we realised it was much better to focus on the artistic experience and let that become a catalyst for learning. There isn’t really room or context for that type of learning in the secondary curriculum”, which has a tendency towards “tick-the-boxes learning”, he says.
He says the drama curriculum at primary level, however, has not actually made it easier to create work in that context. “Drama was the very last subject to be integrated into the new curriculum”, which was passed in 1995. “That really says a lot about the value placed upon it in the educational context.” Even though “drama methodologies are now integral to the teaching skill set, it still isn’t particularly valued as an artistic experience”, he says.
With the demise of companies such as Team theatre,which operated with a specific educational remit, the opportunities for children to access professional theatre experiences in a school context have dwindled, and depend on the passion of individual teachers and the efforts of outreach departments at organisations such as the Abbey Theatre – which is currently touring Me, Michael to schools nationwide – to access audiences who might not otherwise have the opportunity to see professional theatre.
This is a grave pity, Kingston says, because the point of drama in the educational context “is not to turn all students into theatre makers, but to give them the tools to express themselves and the ability to imagine alternative worlds”. Seeing inspiring work of a professional standard gives the the capacity to “dream big – to dream bigger than themselves”.
The Abbey Theatre is running a nationwide drama competition in collaboration with the Department of Education to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising. The closing date for entry is December 20th. abbeytheatre.ie/engage/1916-schools- play-competition.
The deadline for applications to the Bord Gáis Energy Student Awards, which reward participation in drama in Irish schools, is January 29th, 2016. The competition is open to primary school students from third to sixth class, and to all secondary school students. Shortlisted schools are invited to an awards ceremony at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin on May 5th, 2016, with a chance to perform on stage. bgesta.ie
DRAMA IN EDUCATION: TWO APPROACHES
Process educational drama makes students the participants and the audience. It engages students in immersive play, where they study specific content through a particular lens. They create a fictional world, where various scenarios are enacted, and it focuses on action rather than creating a performance.
Smashing Times Theatre Company has been working in process-led educational theatre for almost 20 years. When the company was founded, in 1991, it aimed to “bring theatre to places and people that wouldn’t normally have access to professional performance”, says company manager Freda Manweiler. They soon realised the audiences they were engaging with in communities and schools were interested in using drama as a tool themselves, to “have conversations about issues that were not always easy to raise among themselves”.
Their first major educational project, Acting for the Future, was piloted in 2004. It focused on the issue of suicide and mental health, and was designed in conjunction with the HSE for transition year students to complement the SPHE curriculum. The company liaises with the transition year co-ordinator to provide pre-performance context. The workshops involve theatre games and trust-building exercises that enable students to respond to the company’s performance and question the outcomes. Smashing Times is also piloting an anti-racism workshop in Northern Ireland, which will be rolled out on a pan-European level in 2016. It runs various courses through the year to provide teachers and facilitators with the opportunity to develop process-led drama tools. smashingtimes.ie
The interactive artistic approach
Branar’s new play for primary-school children won’t open until April 2016. However, more than 63,000 people have already seen it. Well, part of it. In September it launched an interactive website, maloneysdream.ie, based on the show, which is set against the backdrop of Easter Week 1916. The play revolves around the opening of a new hotel on Sackville Street, whose owner, Thaddeus O’Sullivan, is thrust unwillingly into the heart of the rebellion.
The attractive website provides links to the research that the cast and creative team used to create the show, as well as access to rehearsal videos and theatre games. When Maloney’s Dream is performed in 2016, young audiences will be invited to make their own creative contribution to the website.
Bringing professional theatre into a schools context, artistic director Mark Mac Lochlainn says, involves pre-performance work “to allow them to watch it in a more engaged way”. Post-show workshops “deepen the experience”. Providing teachers with the tools to “build upon the learning opportunity” is also key. The idea for the website, Mac Lochlainn says, was to “incorporate all of these aspects in a fun and interactive way.”