Using drama for learning

8th September 2019

By Tim Taylor

This article was originally written for Story Makers Company


The kind of drama we’re talking about in this booklet is not the kind of drama where children ‘act out’ a story or pretend to be a snowflake falling from the sky. Still less is it the kind of drama you see at the Christmas nativity play or a class assembly. It doesn’t involve acting, at least not in the sense of performance, there is no audience, and no script. The drama we’re talking about is drama for learning, that is drama as a medium for exploring the curriculum, for digging deep, and developing understanding. It involves discussion, collaboration, and the co-construction of ideas. It involves ‘stepping in’ and ‘stepping out’ of a fiction, a fiction planned by the teacher to meet the needs of the curriculum, but expanded and developed in partnership with the students. With this kind of drama the class often spend more time outside the fiction than in, discussing events, refining ideas, and reflecting on meaning. Making meaning is at the centre of this process, it is generative, creative, and builds on the children’s developing knowledge and understanding.

If you are new to this kind of drama then don’t worry. A whole new way of working might sound daunting, but there is much you already know. Drama for learning, essentially, is very much like play. For example, imagine you’re on the playground watching two children reenacting a scene from the original Star Wars. They start by discussing roles, “I’ll be Luke and you can be Darth”. They then agree on a context and a situation, “I’ll be running across the bridge and you can jump in my way.” Moving apart they enter the fiction, the first child runs forward, looking over his shoulder, the second (taking her cue) leaps into his path. Breathing heavily, she says, “there is no escape for you Luke Skywalker, come over to the Dark Side.” Screaming, “Never!” Luke rushes at Darth and they begin to fight, each one moving their imaginary lightsabers in response to the other. This carries on for a few moments, then the child representing Darth speaks outside the fiction, “I should grab you by the throat and throw you across the bridge.” The child representing Luke nods in response and the girl grabs him and pushes him backwards, the boy lands on the floor but immediately jumps up to rejoin the battle.

In this short playground scenario these children are using and combining the six elements of drama – point of view, location, narrative, tension, sign, and action – they know how to do this because drama is essentially a form of play and play is something all human beings can do innately and universally from a young age. Using drama then (at least in this form) is not something children have to learn how to do – they already know how – it is rather something for teachers to learn how to use and apply.

If you want to use drama for learning the first aspect to understand is that this method is about the creation of imaginary worlds. Imaginary worlds that can be shaped and adapted to generate meaningful and potentially exciting situations for learning. As an example let’s return to the two children playing Star Wars in the playground and analyse their game in a bit more depth.

Notice how they start outside the fiction – discussing roles, context, and situation – before stepping inside the fiction to play the game. Briefly they come back outside to agree a
new development – when the girl suggests Darth grabs Luke’s throat and throws him backwards – but go back inside to create the action. This movement, backwards and forwards, in and out of the fiction, can be represented using this diagram:

When agreeing to play their game the children are deciding to enter an imaginary world. A world that only exists inside their imagination and only lasts as long as they make it last. They have complete control over it, they can decide how and when things happen, and can make changes whenever they agree. Even to the extent of going back and changing time if they want events to play out in a different way.

When agreeing to play their game the children are deciding to enter an imaginary world. A world that only exists inside their imagination and only lasts as long as they make it last. They have complete control over it, they can decide how and when things happen, and can make changes whenever they agree. Even to the extent of going back and changing time if they want events to play out in a different way.

For teachers this capacity to create and control imaginary worlds has enormous potential for learning.

Imagine now a different context, this time in the classroom. The teacher has planned a unit on the Romans in Britain, she wants her students to learn about the Roman invasions, about opposition to Roman rule from indigenous people, about how the Romans were made up of people from wide areas of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, about Roman customs, beliefs, and about how the Romans eventually settled in Britain. She’s has spent some time introducing her class to this period of history, they’ve read books, looked at artists’ impressions, and watched a documentary made by the BBC. Now she wants to challenge their understanding and to ask them to think more deeply about what they know.

Regurgitating facts is all well and good, but she wants to know how much they can apply their knowledge and how much they can use what they’ve learnt in unfamiliar situations. To do this she plans a piece of drama.

The lesson starts when the children come in from play, the teacher greets them and asks them to sit on the carpet. Beside her is an empty chair. She tells the children when she sits on the chair she is going to represent a Roman soldier, a Roman soldier far from home, sitting in the barracks of a fort close to Hadrian’s Wall. As the children watch the teacher moves onto the chair. She sits quietly for a moment staring at something in her hands. Then she moves, turning the object over and looking at it intently. After a moment or two she makes an action, as if she is carving a tiny line into the object with a tool. She then blows off the dust and looks closely at it again, a small smile forming on her lips.

This done, she stands up. “What did you notice?” she asks. There follows a short conversation where the teacher supports the class to use descriptive language. She encourages them to be precise.

She then asks them, “What would you like to know?” The children form questions – What is he doing? Why is he there? What has he got in his hands? – she listens, but doesn’t answer. The teacher then invites one of the students to take on the role. She asks them only to repeat what they saw, not inventing anything new.

As the student repeats the action of the soldier the teacher begins to speak in the voice of a narrator:
“He sat there all alone. Around him where the beds of his comrades in arms, empty now, but soon to be full. He stared at the object in his hands, made from stone, grey like the skin of the animal it would soon represent. He was good at this, he had practiced. First taught by his father, long ago, now he was the master. He hoped he would one day have children of his own and teach them in the same way. He turned the stone over in his hands, the strong body and stocky legs of the creature were now in place, the ears either side of the long oval face were well formed, and he started to pay attention to the trunk. Using his carving tool he began to make marks in the stone, carefully scraping and then blowing off the dust. Pleased with the result, he smiled.”

The teacher then stops her narration and asks the students to discuss what they have heard, she reminds them of their questions. She is now outside the fiction, becoming part of the investigation – “I wonder why he is alone and not with the other soldiers?” In this way she encourages them to speculate – maybe he’s injured, maybe he’s just arrived, maybe they don’t want him with them. Drawing on their ideas the teacher makes implications – If he’s injured, will he be allowed to go home? I wonder what is going through his mind if he has just arrived? Why wouldn’t the other soldiers want him with them, what could he have possibly done? – in this way, rather than answering the students’ questions, the teacher extends their thinking and encouraging them to inquire more deeply.

Previously the teacher has spent time developing the children’s knowledge of the context, they know about the Roman invasions, they’ve seen pictures of Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall, and has learnt about the forts along it’s length. They’ve read about the Roman empire and they have some knowledge about the indigenous people of Britain. With these foundations in place she can plan the session.
Her planning comes in five stages:
1. The learning she wants the students to develop.
2. The inquiry she wants them to investigate.
3. The elements of drama she is going to incorporate.
4. The drama strategies she is going to use.
5. The teaching steps that will create the drama and encourage inquiry.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Learning Soldiers in the Roman army came from all over the empire, including Africa – and Black Presence
Roman soldiers were not married, but often thought of home
Life in the Roman army was hard
Life as a Legionnaire
Hadrian’s Wall was on the edge of the Roman Empire 
Inquiry question What might life be like for a Roman soldier stationed in northern Britain?
Elements of drama

Point of view: A Roman soldier
Location: In a fort on Hadrian’s wall
Narrative: The soldier is alone, he is carving an animal from Africa, his father taught him how to do this.
Tension: He is a long way from home and misses his family, he thinks about a possible future where he has children of his own.
Sign: The elephant is a symbol of his past life and possible future.
Action: Carefully carving the elephant out of stone.

Drama strategies 1. Teacher in role as the soldier.
2. Student in role as the soldier.
3. Teacher using the voice of a narrator.
Teaching Steps 1. Using an empty chair, explain to the students what is about to happen.
2. Sit in the chair in role as the soldier, slowly carve the statue of the animal.
3. Out of role question the students, “what did you notice?”
4. Discussion, encourage the students to use precise language of description.
5. Ask, “what would you like to know?”
6. Invite a student to take on the role of the soldier, ask them to repeat the actions
but not to invent.
7. Narrate the story of the soldier.
8. Stop the narrative and ask the students to discuss what they have heard, aim to
deepen the discussion, encourage speculation and look for implications.

In this way the teacher introduces the students to the context and gives them the chance to investigate what is happening. Her aim is to catch their imagination and through collaborative thinking to discuss what the soldier’s actions might mean. The students’ learning is happening through inquiry, they are asked to look, to observe, to describe what they can see, to ask questions, to speculate, to use evidence (provided by the role and by the narrator), and to look for implications.

The teaching is done through mediation, the teacher operates inside the fiction (first as the role of the soldier, then as the role of the narrator) and outside the fiction (as a questioner, a co-investigator, and as mediator – asking questions, posing ideas, and looking for implications).

To facilitate the investigation the students are provided with content to study, first through the use of the role and his actions, then through the story told by the narrator. At all times the teacher is aiming to extend their thinking, to make connections, and to challenge their assumptions, building on the knowledge and understanding they already have.

The teacher is aware drama for learning is a collaborative inquiry based approach and is looking to use a range of strategies to draw her students into the fiction. The first she uses is teacher-in-role, a method that involves the teacher stepping into the imaginary world and taking on an alternative point of view. To make this process clear she tells her students when she sits on the chair she is going to represent a Roman soldier, one who is far from home, sitting in the barracks of a fort close to Hadrian’s Wall.

She has planned this description carefully, it is short, easy to remember and involves all the information the students need at this point to understand what is happening:
1. A Roman soldier – point of view
2. Far from home – tension
3. Sitting in the barracks – location
4. A fort close to Hadrian’s Wall – context

Her next step is to decide on what sign she is going to use that will stimulate the students’ thinking, provoke discussion, and link to the learning she wants them to develop. After some thought she settles on the carving of an elephant and then imagines what it would might be like. She visualises herself as the soldier, sitting alone in the barracks, turning the stone over in her hands. She feels the weight of the object, sees the shape of the trunk and then watches as her hands carefully carve into the stone. Finally, she blows off the dust, because that’s what the soldier would do.

This visualisation is important because the students will be relying on her to signal to them the value of what is happening. If she takes it seriously (‘plays’ it authentically) then they are more likely to take it seriously too. She is not messing about and she won’t tolerate them messing about either. This is not a playground where anything goes. The work comes first and the work demands discipline, both their’s and her’s.

The next strategy she uses is student-in-role. There are two reasons for this, the first is to signal to the children that roles are not fixed and that anyone can play them. The second is to free the teacher up to become the narrator. She can’t be both the role and the narrator, that would be incoherent. It is important when using a student (or an adult) in role that the person representing the role is clear about the function and purpose of the role. The teacher makes this clear, first by modelling the action and then by instructing the student not to deviate from the soldier’s actions. The function of this role is to represent the soldier carving the elephant, nothing more. The purpose is to provide the class with a physical representation to go along with the words they are about to hear. The words will provide them with further information about the soldier’s life, his situation, his hopes, and the things he cares about. These elements are the content of the inquiry the teacher is aiming to initiate – What might life be like for a Roman soldier stationed in northern Britain? – and follow a model developed by Dorothy Heathcote, a model that adds depth and meaning to drama for learning.

Heathcote’s model has five aspects: Action – Motivation – Investment – Model – Values. Each aspect takes an action and then provides a framework for investigating how people make meaning in the world. For example:

  1. The soldier is alone carving an elephant out of stone – Action
  2. The elephant reminds him of home – Motivation
  3. Carving the elephant takes time and care – Investment
  4. He learnt how to do this from his father – Model
  5. It is important to remember where we came from – Values

In this way a simple action, set within a context and given dramatic form, can stimulate thinking and develop understanding.

This model by Heathcote can be used to investigate any action. Think of the two children playing Star Wars, first Luke:

  1. Luke leaps to his feet after being thrown to the floor by Darth – Action
  2. To continue the fight – Motivation
  3. In doing so he risks his life – Investment
  4. He is following the example of his surrogate father, Obi Wan – Model
  5. Evil must be overcome – Values

Now Darth:

  1. Darth attempts to prevent Luke from leaving the Death Star – Action
  2. He wants to bring him over to the Dark Side, Luke is powerful – Motivation
  3. It means fighting, but not killing him, Luke is his son – Investment
  4. He is remembering how he himself was converted – Model
  5. Power and order are more important than individual expression – Values

Now an example from ordinary life:

  1. A parent says goodbye to her child – Action
  2. She wants him to go with his teacher – Motivation
  3. Seeing him cry hurts, but this is for the best – Investment
  4. This happened to her and she has seen other parents doing the same – Models
  5. Education is important and it sometimes requires putting aside our feelings – Values

Returning to the teacher and her planning, let’s look at her next step. Currently the drama is only presenting one point of view and the children are still outside the imaginary world looking in. They can see what’s happening, like an audience in the theatre, but do not currently have permission to interact. To do so they need to come into the fiction and take on a new role. The teacher thinks of the possibilities and decides the colleagues of the soldier returning to barracks is the one that has the most potential. It will allow her students to use the model she’s already given them, while challenging them to work beyond what they’ve seen and heard.

A heuristic by the American psychologist, Jerome Bruner will be helpful at this point. Bruner suggests there are three fundamental forms for representing meaning – symbolic (meaning the use of language), iconic (the use of images), and enactive (the use of physical movement). Used separately or in combination these forms can be used to create sequences of tasks and activities that extend and deepen students investigation of a context.

Using the three forms of representation the teacher plans the following planning sequence to follow the one discussed above:

Step 1. SYMBOLIC – “I wonder what the other soldiers have with them that reminds them of home?” Discussion.

Step 2. ICONIC – “Please take one of these small bits of paper and spend a little time drawing something you think a soldier might have with them, something personal, something they wouldn’t want to lose. I suppose it might be valuable in the sense of being made of a valuable material, like silver, but its true value will be in what it means to them.” Students draw an image, the teacher suggests looking in the topic books or online if they are short of ideas. She walks round supporting those who need help.

Step 3. SYMBOLIC – “When you’re ready could you make a note on the back about your soldier, how old he is, what part of the empire he come from, how long has he been in the army. Then, why is this object important to him, who gave it to him, perhaps it was a gift, and where he keeps it safe.”

Step 4. ICONIC – Using a large sheet of paper the students start drawing out how the barracks are arranged. The teacher shows them images from the internet:
– https://
– 463237511656015008/?lp=true
– barracks.html
– https://

Step 5. SYMBOLIC/ENACTIVE – “What do the soldiers look like when they are on duty?” There is a discussion, followed by examples provided by the students and guided by the teacher. She is looking to develop an understanding about discipline and personal control. Working with the students’ ideas and providing them with further information, there follows an investigation about how Roman soldiers trained and worked together. The teacher stresses the importance of working in formation (she uses a guide from the internet) She contrasts this with the individualism of the Celtic tribes and their reliance on personal bravery. She looks for opportunities to use Heathcote’s model to deepen the inquiry. For example:

1. The soldiers practice moving in formation – Action
2. To become a more effective fighting body – Motivation
3. This takes time and endurance – Investment
4. They are drilled by their centurion – Model
5. Above all else power and order are important in battle – Values

At this point the teacher stops. From experience she has learnt not to plan too many steps in advance, but to create a short sequence, which she will apply in class and then review before moving onto plan the next series of steps. A lot can happen in an opening session and she wants to remain flexible to the ideas of the students and the possible lines of narrative and inquiry that might develop.

Her final planning, as a consequence, takes on the form of general notes and ideas.
– Investigate the marks and scars carried by the soldiers. What do they mean, where were they picked up, what was happening at the time? Discussion, possibly enactive, opportunity for writing (battle report, mentioning acts of heroism?).
– Explore the rest of the barracks, the different buildings and their purpose, the chores of the soldiers (repairing walls, guard duty, cooking and cleaning). Rules, regulations, punishments. Organisation, hierarchy, orders, reputation of the senior officers (are they draconian, do they take unnecessary risks, can they be trusted to make the right decisions), what do the soldiers say about them?
– Letters home. Life on the Wall, battles with the enemy, information about the land, the people and the weather, experiences, feelings, questions about home, news, descriptions of events and colleagues, complaints, hopes and wishes.

During this process she is always looking to use and apply the students developing knowledge, skills, and understanding across the curriculum, bringing in maths, geography, art and design, IT, DT, RE, music, PSHE, even PE where appropriate. She won’t teacher everything through this context (that wouldn’t work), but once the students are invested she will do as much as she can.

Throughout her planning the teacher is referring to a set of planning and teaching resources that support her writing of the teaching sequence. These tools have been developed over many years and are used in many classrooms using this approach. Let’s look at each in turn.

Strategies for Dramatic Inquiry
This list of strategies can be used individually or in any combination, they are often applied in conjunction with Bruner’s Three Forms of Representation. You will notice, in the example above, the teacher used Strategy 4: Teaching in Role; Strategy 7: Student in Role; and a form of Strategy 2: Sharing a Partials Narrative.
Later on in the sequence she will also use Strategy 6: Students creating images and resources to create the barracks; and Strategy 7: Interacting with the students representing one (or more) points-of-view to represent the other soldiers in the Legion.
There are two further strategies on this list – Strategy 1: Staring a Complete Story and Strategy 3: Adult in role.

List of Tensions
As the teacher plans she is always mindful of adding tension to the drama. Without tension the work would be dull and uninteresting, however, she’s not trying to create a melodrama. Unlike the two children in the playground who are recreating a favourite moment from a film for their own enjoyment, the teacher is using drama to generate thoughtful inquiry and applied learning. The tension, therefore, is more subtle and more refined. Here is the list with some further examples from the Roman soldiers context:

List of Inquiry Questions
The third resource is a list of possible inquiry questions, which are used by the teacher to shape and guide the inquiry. Each level of questioning opens up new lines of inquiry and adds depth to the work.

For the planning and resources visit our planning page.

This article is available as a pdf.


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