By 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.