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Dramatic Ways to Engage Every Student

The goal of all teaching should be to help students make neural connections – the basis for all learning. To do that, however, the student has to have engagement and cognition around the material to be learned. At its core, dramatic activities, even when they have nothing to do with performance, have a tremendous ability to foster these connections. This happens because drama uses four modalities that, if used within a classroom context for non-performance purposes, can have a profound effect on student engagement and cognition: moving for meaning; playing for mastery; imagining while doing; and creating a story. First of all, the teacher has to see these activities through a different lens. In our society, the word drama conjures up talented “artsy” people delivering performances. But drama’s benefits are too great to be left on the stage.

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"Who is that kid?" 

That comment, made by a Grade 4 teacher after she watched the shyest student in her class shine onstage as the lead in the school play, reflects what many teachers and parents have discovered when they watch children take part in dramatic activities at school. Everyone can think of a child who was transformed in a positive way by the experience, exhibiting greater confidence, passion, or even a completely different personality when onstage. I saw this first-hand in my years of experience with children's drama, both in and out of school. However, the question that I was led to ask was not about the child's identity, but about the nature of the experience that I had seen. What was it in that experience that made the child see things differently, that allowed him or her to achieve things that previously felt impossible?

More importantly for education as a whole, is it possible to take the passion and transformation engendered by drama and infuse it into daily classroom life in a way that improves learning offstage? In seeking the answer to this question, I was led to leave my role as a school principal and pursue doctoral studies at the University of Toronto, while at the same time working with many thousands of students and teachers in the Greater Toronto Area over the course of three years. The results of my research and practice have led to the development of a new theory of learning, one which leverages many of the natural abilities that each one of us has for learning in a variety of modalities. This approach (which I call KEEN Learning) is designed to help students develop a "body of knowledge" that gives them an intuitive understanding of the curriculum that is taught every day in class. But it all began with drama...

Exploring the Nature of Student Motivation

Over my teaching career, I was always fascinated by the way some students could show a great deal of accomplishment in certain areas (i.e. skateboarding, computer skills, music, etc.) but could not do the same with daily classroom learning. It was not because they were lazy, as they often spent grueling hours in the mastery in their chosen areas of interest. It had more to do with passion. As a teacher, I struggled without success to help all students achieve this passion in class, but after school at play practice, it would appear unbidden. Why, I wondered? Could it have something to do with what was happening in the brain during certain activities? Why did some students develop passion for classroom learning and others not? What role did learning styles play? 

When I became a school principal, I was astounded at the number of disengaged students in the schools where I served. Nearly 30 percent of all the students I encountered were disengaged and some of them were clearly destined to become dropouts. Over the years of non-success at school, they became convinced that they could not learn. As one student put it to me in a moment of his own frustration: “Mr. Dixon, I’m stupid – you know it, I know it, and my parents know it…” But that was clearly not the case; he had many areas of accomplishment outside class. And yet, he profoundly believed that he was stupid inside class. Of course, each successive teacher who worked with that student had a progressively harder time changing his mind and engaging him in classroom learning. Frustrated with this problem, I decided to try to answer my questions in my Ph.D. research. 

At their core, dramatic activities, even when they have nothing to do with performance, have a tremendous ability to foster these connections.

What I discovered was that the goal of all teaching should be to help students make neural connections – the basis for all learning in the brain. To do that, however, the student has to have engagement and cognition around the material to be learned. At their core, dramatic activities, even when they have nothing to do with performance, have a tremendous ability to foster these connections. This happens because drama uses four modalities that, if used within a classroom context for non-performance purposes, can have a profound effect on student engagement and cognition – especially for boys. Let's look at each one in turn:

Kinesthetics (Moving for meaning). Students who struggle in class often have a hard time sitting still. When they are allowed to move, their natural learning style can be used to foster deeper understanding. Recent brain research reveals that the same parts of the brain are often used for both movement and memory. Cognition and retention of classroom material is aided by the “knowing” that kinesthetic learners get by using their bodies to represent that material. They now have a cognitive peg on which to hang their learning. This is naturally leveraged in drama and can be integrated into the classroom if the teacher knows how.

Endorphinal Release (Playing for mastery). Play allows for individual to have greater control over their environment and take non-threatening risks in exchange for the excitement and stimulation that comes from the play. The enjoyment of play can cause chemical emotional reactions in the brain that affect the learner and cause greater attachment while at the same time causing the brain to work harder in an attempt to gain mastery of the game being played. Brain research indicates that we retain material more efficiently when we have an emotional attachment to it. Drama inspires this passion onstage, but it can also be used to emotionally attach students to science vocabulary!

Experiential Perspective–taking (Imagining while doing). Those students who learn experientially long to understand by using their whole being. The imagination can be used effectively to allow participants to pretend to be someone else. It is obvious that when a child takes on a role in drama, that young person gains a different perspective and deeper understanding of another person by portraying that character. But why could you not do the same in Math? When a child imaginatively “becomes” the hypotenuse of a right triangle, is that child not given a unique perspective that uses imagination to experience what it means to be such a thing? Even more importantly, the brain now has another set of connections that support the neural circuitry related to triangles. 

Narrative (Creating a story). We know that learning is most effective when it has meaning for the learner, but we have discovered how difficult it is for the teacher to create meaning for every child from the front of the classroom. In all cultures and at all times in history, human beings have told stories to help them understand. They have taken the form of prose, poetry, music, and, of course, drama. The movie business would be nothing without dramatic stories. Yet, in the classroom, we often forget that. The power of narrative is such that when a teacher allows children – in concert with classmates – to create a story about the curriculum material that makes sense to them, this story has far more resonance with students and is more likely to be retained than anything the teacher could create.

When these four elements of drama are used in a teaching strategy, not only do students get excited about learning, they gain deeper insights into curriculum material and have the ability to better recall and manipulate the information, concepts, and skills being taught.

Dramatic Benefits for the Classroom

So how does one bring drama into the classroom so that it leverages the neurological power of movement, play, experience, and story in a way that leaves the teacher sane and the curriculum both taught and learned? Aye, there’s the rub, as Shakespeare would say. First of all, the teacher has to see these activities through a different lens. In our society, the word drama conjures up talented “artsy” people delivering performances. But drama’s benefits are too great to be left on the stage. Drama as Praxis means using drama for other purposes that have nothing to do with performing. When approached this way, exercises and activities that were developed for dramatic purposes can be used in any subject area.

So how does one bring drama into the classroom so that it leverages the neurological power of movement, play, experience, and story in a way that leaves the teacher sane and the curriculum both taught and learned? Aye, there’s the rub.

That has been the goal in the development of KEEN Learning, where we have tried to take the power of drama off of the stage and refine it down to five simple strategies called KEEN 5X that can be used at any point in a lesson for a variety of purposes:

  • to determine students’ knowledge prior to teaching
  • to process text or written information
  • to retain information taught by the teacher
  • to make connections and inferences
  • to review before a test
  • to consolidate and synthesize learning

These exercises are also excellent for the authentic assessment and evaluation of students beyond pencil/paper assessments. This approach has proved very effective in engaging those students who most often fail in school: interpersonal, kinesthetic, and visual-spatial learners. Teachers in our KEEN Learning Community find it allows them to accomplish their learning goals in less time and with a greater number of students – and it makes them more effective and happier teachers.

Even without using KEEN, any teacher can add one or more of the four modalities of Kinesthetics, Endorphinal Release, Experiential Perspective-taking, and Narrative into daily teaching (in any way you can come up with!) to enhance learning and joy in the classroom. Why not give it a try? It’s a great way to help more students to take their place on the stage of educational success, ready to give many repeat performances as lifelong learners.

If you would like to see video of how these strategies work and download some free examples, you can join our KEEN Learning Community by emailing info@keenforlearning.org

EN BREF - Le but de tout enseignement doit être d’aider les élèves à établir des connexions neuronales – la base même de l’apprentissage. Pour ce faire, il doit exister un lien et une cognition entre les élèves et la matière à apprendre. Fondamentalement, les activités dramatiques, même si elles n’ont rien à voir avec la prestation, peuvent favoriser ces connexions. En effet, les activités dramatiques mettent en œuvre quatre modalités qui, dans un contexte de classe et sans se rapporter à la prestation, peuvent se répercuter profondément sur l’engagement et la cognition des élèves : bouger avec un sens, jouer pour maîtriser, imaginer tout en faisant et créer une histoire. Le personnel enseignant doit d’abord voir ces activités selon une autre perspective. Dans notre société, l’expression « arts dramatiques » évoque des « artistes » talentueux qui livrent des prestations. Mais les avantages des activités dramatiques sont trop importants pour être laissés sur la scène.