25 September, 2020

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A Drama-Based Approach To Develop Social Responsibility Skills

By Ayomi Irugalbandara

Ayomi Irugalbandara

Following the article I published on 21 May 2020 in the Colombo Telegraph I have received comments, questions and suggestions that indicate an interest among readers in learning more about how to develop social skills through the teaching and learning approaches I referred to in the context of the Sri Lankan classroom. This feedback made me want to share my recent experience in designing and trialling some specific techniques which I believe can be implemented to good effect – particularly in our secondary school classrooms.  

Our traditional talk-and-chalk (or chalk-and-note) approach needs to be reconsidered in relation to engaging students’ interest and supporting them to build strong social skills. In many classrooms around the world teachers are teaching (and students are learning) in more innovative and engaging ways, with documented improvements both in terms of students’ learning outcomes and their social development. One approach which is increasingly gaining ground is that of drama-based teaching and learning. Rather than telling our students what to do, providing pre-determined input and then checking that they can do it/have learned it, the approach involves providing situations, stimuli and interactive experiences that require students to take initiatives, problem-solve, collaborate and share responsibility, and respond appropriately  to each other’s input. These are key elements of the kind of social skills and responsibilities that young people need beyond the classroom in the work place and in their lives. They need to be capable of making their own choices in the moment, of handling themselves in changing situations, contexts and interactions, whether we adults are around or not. This is where drama comes in. In classrooms around the world it is increasingly being recognised as an approach that provides opportunities for integrating and engaging learning experience in a dynamic way that allows students to explore ideas, to problem-solve, and to express themselves through adopting imagined roles and playing out imagined or reality-based experiences. This approach hands a good share of the responsibility over to the students themselves, allowing them to explore possibilities and make choices that have effect in a safe, respectful, stimulating and nurturing environment. 

We know that the need to meet curriculum expectations is a major driver in how teachers plan their instructional strategies. The challenge is how to deliver on this imperative but to do so with the help of more varied approaches to both teaching and assessment, approaches that address individual students’ needs, engage their interest and challenge them in new ways while guaranteeing sound learning opportunities for every student. The point that requires urgent attention is to broaden our focus from what to teach to include more attention to how to teach.  Change is needed; and change starts with a reconsideration of our attitudes, our settled ways of doing what we do in the classroom.  

So I will describe some of the elements of a drama-based approach that I have found effective in terms of engaging students’ interest and enhancing their social skills. A first example is storytelling. Stories are a key element of all cultures and communities. Storying is powerful. It generates ideas, creates contexts and atmosphere; it builds relationships and shares experience; and it is a key element of social interaction. Creating and enacting stories helps students to grow in confidence in terms of understanding what socialisation is, how it works, how it sets and changes social standards. It is also a vehicle for developing a whole range of skills, including problem-solving, and creative and critical thinking. When students tell stories they are free to share their own ideas, to mind map and to organise stories in ways they want to. Storytelling often progresses from linear narratives to creating other kinds of texts, for example, short, dramatic scripts, which they produce individually or collaboratively. Storytelling creates atmosphere: of lightness or darkness, excitement or sadness. It provides a way of safely communicating feelings, joys, and fears. Teachers who use storytelling with students report how students often find solutions to problems more effectively by working them through as a story than by just using a fact-based approach. Problem-solving is a basic element of so much of what happens in the classroom – and in life. It sits inside many of the elements of thinking, including hypothesising, memory, critical and creative thinking, communicating. The last two elements – critical thinking and communication – are core capabilities for young people in this current globalised world. 

Another approach is that referred to as the Hot-seat, which provides opportunities for students to debate, discuss, argue, and investigate problems, challenges and situations. It involves a student sitting in the hot seat, in role, in character, and being questioned and interviewed. The character will be one they have encountered either in the world of fiction or the real world. By taking on the character and having to respond to questions in role students come to understand the character more deeply, their contexts, personalities, moods, motivations; and to observe and reflect on characteristics of their personalities. The Hot-seat experience sharpens direct experience, allows space for disputes, polarities, and resolutions; and gives the student space for free and imaginative expression. It encourages students to focus on the now, as opposed to the fixed-in-time version of their character they may know; suggesting to them the ever-shifting range of life and personal experience. The interview begins with ‘what’ questions (e.g. what is your argument?) and ‘how’ questions (e.g. how do you experience this?), initially avoiding ‘why’ questions, which require reflection, rationalising, and justifying. The session will lead on to these more challenging questions if it is appropriate.

Another technique is that of improvisation, which refers to the many different ways in which students can perform spontaneously, without any kind of script or preparation. They respond as they wish to a stimulus, scenario or experience. Improvisation is an effective way to increase student’s self-awareness – of how they’re thinking (mind), how they’re using their body and their voice.  It also helps them to understand the perspectives of their peers, as they collaborate and engage in critical argument; and to cultivate the skills of interaction needed in all aspects of life. It improves clarity of argument and communication, and of verbal and nonverbal expression; and it strengthens their overall understanding of human behaviour and motivation, and of diversity in social situations. 

There are also all sorts of drama games and exercises which can be used to ‘switch on’ students’ minds and bodies before starting on a drama lesson; to create focus and a sense of shared purpose. These activities help to develop inter-personnel relationships, highlighting personal or shared preferences, loves and hates, strengths and weakness, friendship groups and enemies.  They are also helpful in establishing boundaries, ground rules and limitations, acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour; and – importantly – games help students to learn about the nature of risk-taking, success and failure, in an enjoyable and safe environment. These are important lessons and life skills. All of these approaches via different forms of dramatic and creative experiences have the kind of hands-on approach that challenges and supports students to move from the concrete to the abstract, and to develop and express ideas while working through different stages of the creative process. They all involve elements of playfulness, openness, acceptance, and curiosity, which are all important elements of social life.

By this point you may well be asking the question how? How do these kinds of orientations and characteristics, developed through the experience of drama, connect with the concept of social responsibility? I will explain: The foundation of this kind of drama experience is play; and playfulness connects with positive moods, release of anxiety or stress, enjoyment; and it also builds confidence. Students are encouraged to discover their own emerging sense of humour and inventiveness; and this helps them to wonder a little more about life, about self, about social connections. The drama classroom is typically an expressive space, with a lot of laughter, emotion and interaction. This atmosphere tends to impact positively on students who may be defensive or withdrawn, making them more reflective and more interactive. As in real life, playfulness brings a sense of fun and enjoyment, and diffuses difficult or tense situations. The role of the teacher is critical. This is the space for learners to develop a sense of autonomy and freedom of expression; and the role of the teacher is not to judge but to listen, watch, and become aware of the students’ experience without trying to change it. There is always a place for guidance and feedback; but the student experiences being heard, seen, and respected. It is a climate of acceptance rather than judgement. When responding to free expression of thoughts and feelings, there is no right or wrong; it simply is as it is. It can lead to later analysis and explanation, but in the creative moment it is acknowledged and enjoyed. When students experience this response from teachers it helps them to develop their own sense of openness and empathy towards others in their worlds.  

Hopefully these brief descriptions of some of the many drama-based approaches to learning can be seen as relevant to the development of our students’ social skills. In Sri Lanka, teachers devote considerable time to teaching facts about drama through the traditional lecture method of instruction and much less time actively exploring drama techniques with their students. Drama classrooms, like all classrooms, are places where students take notes, acquire content knowledge, and memorise facts which they reproduce for examination. It is worth imagining how it might work if teachers were to incorporate drama-based approaches not only into their official drama lessons but also into maths, science or history lessons. What would this look like? How could  dramatic expression, experience or movement become an element of learning content knowledge?  How could these elements support the asking of questions around content and reinforce understanding? How could they help to develop analytical skills and the ability to interpret and express what they have learned? It is worth seriously considering how to make inroads on the current controlling teacher-centred learning environment which currently combines with an overloaded syllabus and an examination focus that minimises opportunities for students to develop the kinds of social skills needed for active participation in society. 

I hope that this brief commentary provides food for thought. It is important to reflect on our teaching practice, to see it as an ongoing process of learning and development; and to think about creativity and engagement. Teachers need opportunities to practice new approaches. This practice involves new knowledge, new awareness and some shifts in perspective. It involves re-thinking the nature, intention and potential of drama education; and an improved aesthetic sense and pedagogical orientation. Change is always challenging, and guidance will be needed to help teachers navigate new considerations of the relationship between learning, social interaction, student agency and program planning.

*The author is a doctoral candidate at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia and a senior lecturer in the Open University of Sri Lanka.

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    Ms Ayomi Irugalbandara @
    thank you and a timeworthy article !
    .
    Right at the moment, mothers at large, not only the children are tied to daily telecasting TV teledramas. Mothers seem to be like no second to drug consumers which are on a rise, 30% of the youth in the country today. MEDIA mafia institutions such as DERANA and HIRU would not care much than their commercial gains. Be them SUPERSTAR hahoos or any kind – fool making programs, gaping majority would no thave better choice but be part of the viewers. Why not discuss about Medicine, SCIENCE and Technology instead ? Because those get close these channel holders are not real professionals in such fields but malicious politicians. In a country these bonds are much less, the people could learn a lot from their TV programs. I think people today learn lot more good things via SOCIAL media video clips than MAIN STREAM TV programs telecasted by state and pvt TV channels.
    #
    Some of them just telecast ” superstition based stories such as SIDU teledrama” on Derana TV. Fabricated stories based on SINHALA BUDDHAGAMA have become instrumental to main brainswashing means of the child mind today. No child psyhoclogists or sociologists seem tobe doing their job yet today- similar to the NAGAYA-BROUGHT RELICS to Kelaniya Temple shortly before last PE.

  • 2
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    Ms Ayomi Irugalbandara,

    You call it drama based approach and call it to develop social responsibility skill.

    To my mind drama based approach is a teaching methodology and not a learning methodology.

    A task based participatory methodology will be more appropriate and it includes drama based approach.

    and it could include story telling and music . It could develop an array of skills including social responsibility skills

  • 1
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    Further if I add more,

    “The main objective of learning it to learn to think and reflect of what you had learnt and to internalize and then it will become part of you and absorb into your personality and be part of you”.

  • 2
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    Ayomi,
    Learning by the students is enhanced by the environment in which they grow. Social skills are taught by the environment they are exposed to. Classrooms as well.
    .
    I recommend that students be introduced to hostel living for at least two years, while still young.
    .
    Here is a story that should educate you.
    ______________
    I was a hostel master. The school term was about to end. The hostelers would go back home in matter of days.
    A ward of mine brought in a requisition, wanting to purchase soap for the remaining days. I noticed something weird in his request. He was wanting authorization for not one but two bars. Why two bars for just a few days?
    I asked him. Prompt came his answer. “One for me; one for the others.”
    .
    What better social learning method are you envisaging.
    .
    Give it a thought.

  • 0
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    INTRODUCTION
    .
    Dear Ayomi,
    .
    I’m a retired teacher of English who has explored the field of Drama somewhat. With everybody so bothered with politics and fearfully safeguarding themselves from a virus, it is wonderful that you have succeeded in getting us to think of the positive things in life.
    .
    Comments on this article will cease to be entertained tomorrow. Four comments by three persons is disappointing. I’d like you to write another article. I’m going to submit many hurriedly written comments to help you. I don’t agree with some of the things that you say, and you will probably disagree with everything that I say. Quite O.K. Use the rot I write as platform for your next article. Education is terribly important, and today anything seems to go.
    .
    Gota had promised to admit 60,000 students to Universities every year, so he has ordered that ten new Universities be started. President Premadasa also started a dozen “Affiliated University Colleges”. Some have survived, but University Degrees are becoming a joke. The next thing that Gota did was to summon all Vice-Chancellors and asked why the graduates cannot find employment. He may not realise that Army strategies don’t work everywhere.

  • 0
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    PART ONE
    .
    As a cheap strategy, let me start attacking what you say! You want to use “Dramatic Techniques” in the secondary school. Nonsense, that’s because you haven’t taught infants! Drama starts with the infant hunting for the mother’s nipple. If there isn’t interaction between two people there cannot be Drama.
    .
    You have said this: “The role of the teacher is critical.” In what sense, at what stage? Nothing will get written unless I get slightly autobiographical!
    .
    I first trained as a teacher of English. There was this notion that every teacher had to know Shakespeare, and so at the Government Training College at Maharagama, there had grown up a tradition of staging a Shakespeare play every year. Why Shakespeare? It was an ego-trip for a dear old man, Augustine Tambimuttu,. I still recall him with nostalgia and gratitude, but I can see now that this was all wrong although I gained a good deal of confidence.
    .
    The problem was precisely that it was all Tambimuttu-centred! We were all drilled into saying things in exactly the way that we were told to.

  • 0
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    PART TWO
    .
    Clearly, for the most part of your article, you are thinking of various techniques drawn from drama for getting subjects taught effectively. A good deal of what the public mean by Drama is indeed that; and there’s nothing wrong with that perception. So, you have described a number of techniques which would make the presentations memorable.
    .
    I first began to study Drama as a discipline when some parents wanted their kids trained in “Elocution” – something that I just didn’t know. So, along I went as a man of thirty-one or so to one of the main Drama teachers in Colombo – Wendy Whatmore. She really knew her Literature and she knew the theatre, but the problem was that those who came to her were searching for “Prestigious English”. There is this notion in society that the English taught in schools is not good enough and so you must go for “elocution”. The main syllabi that we were working on focussed on self-expression and on the theatre. Sri Lankan parents wanted something else. “English teachers today don’t know proper English”. They were saying that even fifty ears ago.

  • 0
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    PART THREE
    .
    Quite rightly, the parents want at least basic English for their students, and for most of those who trained as Teachers of Drama there was the need to somehow get the language taught so as to earn an income! This problem remains. Drama teaching becomes English tuition with an “accent”added on. It so happens that I had inherited good speech from my parents and then, after my father’s demise, I lost interest in most studies. Reading took over, and also listening to the BBC. So, I had good pronunciation, but a bit un-Sri Lankan because I didn’t belong to the “Colombo elite” who had developed their own prestigious way of speaking. Since I benefitted from the BBC, I now appreciate how much more is available on the Internet. Alas, not enough young people are self-accessing.
    .
    Now Ayomi, do you notice the transition from Drama which is a social activity to learning “correct English” by oneself using the Internet. There is an obvious contradiction. Also, I have let it all get narrowed down to learning a foreign language.

  • 0
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    PART FOUR
    .
    This is a problem that persists throughout our school system. The obsession with certain “subjects”. I know that Ayomi is giving us a different message, and the few who have commented have also shown a sense of values, but what happens in our highly competitive society? Drama gets equated with learning English well.
    .
    A world apart from that ought to be the play of little children, and that I am now following owing to my grandchildren, aged 7 and 5, locked up in Malaysia. My daughter gave up managing banks the moment the children were born and focussed on “child development.”
    .
    The two girls are quite different from each other. This must be focussed on by the teacher. The mother loves the children, but also is intelligent and sophisticated. She sends us WhatsApp photographs every day, quite often videos. The elder kid is a natural performer. She looks into the camera, knows that she’s a star. Phone memory is filling up – I must learn how to download to the computer. What a nuisance it is that technology keeps improving. Why can’t I manage everything with what I already know?

  • 0
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    PART FIVE
    .
    Ideally, the kids should not be performing, they should be creative without bothering with the audience. The kids are aware of the technology that is used, and also we, in the family, respond with comments. Drama of a sort? Nothing is put on Facebook. I can’t sometimes resist the desire to exhibit from my phone. Even strangers find it cute and interesting – for two minutes! The family of four almost entirely forego commercial T.V. What are the dangers of this, Ayomi?
    .
    The younger kid is quieter, more affectionate. But she’s been playing catch-up ever since she was born. There’s Drama in that, too. They are said to quarrel, sometimes. Temper tantrums, dealt with firmly. We see none of that. A paternal Aunt said recently that they are angels! So, what we see is not “real”.
    .
    Last year they moved to Colombo, and were entered into a school that had all three language media.
    They were in the Sinhala class. The experiment didn’t work. The elder kid cried every day, mainly because she didn’t know the language.

  • 0
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    PART SIX
    .
    The Colombo school, and the staff, were good. But Sri Lankan parents are so competitive, it rubs on to many students.
    .
    Back to Malaysia. No Sinhala, no Malay. English, and Mandarin Chinese. These are two Internationals – a Primary School, and a nursery. No French. One European language will suffice. Sinhala? They know a few words. Whatever maids they’ve had were called “Aunty”. I was in Malaysia for a fortnight two years ago; two Sinhalese women used to come for an hour each per day (different times) for chores and used Sinhala.
    .
    Rewind forty years. My elder daughter was in the Tamil class for six months. Then the Sinhala class. She became trilingual. All went well upto A. Levels. She was Head Prefect. In the University it all fell to pieces. Overheard speaking Tamil. Locked up as a suspected LTTE suicide bomber.
    .
    Many problems followed. She’d love to have a child, but she’s still a virgin – or so I’m convinced! She’ll end up a religious spinster. Human lives are not meant to be lived like this. Tears well up in my eyes as I type this. Tragic Sri Lanka.

  • 0
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    PART SEVEN
    .
    Nowadays, I am asked to “judge” Drama competitions and the problems I face are precisely that the English teachers have drilled some language. The other aspects of Drama, like interaction, even where to stand on the stage, are generally not known.
    .
    Now it so happens that Drama is widely taught at A. Levels as an unfashionable “Arts Subject” – in Sinhala (and obviously, Tamil, although I’ve not been able to get into that sufficiently). I try to get the message across that Drama has nothing to do with a “superior way of speaking”, and that for self-expression, what is done in the Swabasha is equally relevant. Fifty years ago there was such vibrant Sinhala Drama, all disappeared now, it seems to me. My experience is that there are a lot of possibilities in the schools if only those who have studied Drama properly are used. They know so much of the techniques of Drama.
    .
    Ayomi, is this verbal diarrhoea? Or can you make sense of this? Please criticise. Have I ignored most of what you’ve said? If you write something rehashing some of my stuff it will be easy for me to get in early.

  • 0
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    Dear Ayomi, leelagemalli, sri krish and Nathan,
    .
    All the comments that I will be making on this article have now appeared.
    .
    I’ve come to regard leelagemalli, based in Berlin, as a friend; sri – I wish more details about you would stick in my mind.
    .
    Nathan, there have been indications that you’ve been a teacher in one of “my three schools”, but I expect that you’re younger than me. If you can please indicate briefly your desire to discuss Ayomi’s next article – and let’s be constructive in what we say.
    .
    Looking at what I’ve submitted it looks too subjective. There won’t be time for you to dissect what I’ve said, but let’s hope that Ayomi writes more. Please email, if possible. It won’t be difficult for you to find my address, if you observe the idiosyncratic spelling of my name.
    .
    Panini Edirisinhe aka Sinhala_Man

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