Drama as Alternative Pedagogy


by John Somers*

What is Drama?

The concept that links a range of Drama’s forms is the use of the dramatic language as a medium to represent human behaviour.  I am a specialist in Applied Drama, the shaping of dramatic experience for specific societal contexts.  Such work might result, for example, in interactive theatre programmes on drug and alcohol education, or workshops in a prison.  Programmes may contain distinct theatrical elements or be composed of mainly experiential drama activity – workshops or school drama lessons.  In each case, the drama activity is a customised intervention in understood contexts with the expectation of participant change and learning.

Applied Drama

Applied Drama is based on four main principles:

  • That drama involves using the dramatic language to model reality.  Like the engineer builds a model of a bridge to test its capabilities when built, so in drama we model life and examine its complexities.  Like the engineer who can change aspects of the model and its context – thicker steel, stronger side winds, heavier lorries – so variables of the drama model can be changed – the parent is angrier or the amount of money stolen is greater, for example;
  • That our identity can be seen as a personal narrative which is constantly extended and modified by the many other narratives which we experience;
  • That by entering the fictional world created in the drama, we may gain greater understanding of our personal narrative, and attitudes and behaviours can be changed;
  • By knowing that the dramatic experience is not real we can enter it safely.  We are ‘in’ it enough to care about it, but ‘out’ enough not to fear it.

Drama operates at a real social level – participants must develop co-operation skills, for example – and at the symbolic level.  These two functions operate dynamically in all drama work.  Drama workshops can be seen as a kind of social laboratory in which we examine the attitudes, values and relationships of chosen people in particular situations.  It adds to our understanding of what it is to be human and, as such, is an essential ingredient in any society and its education systems.

If we believe that drama is more than mere recreation, how do we know that change occurs?

What evidence is there to support claims of change?

In addition to the countless anecdotal accounts of drama and its ability to transform, formal research [i] shows dramatic experience to be one of the most effective interventions in attitude change; more than didactic approaches, and critical incident discussion [ii].  Surprisingly, this research discovered that teachers are the least effective agent for changing students’ attitudes.  My own research shows that dramatic experience altered significantly the attitudes of fourteen-year-old students to disability [iii].

Psychologists say that we remember best that which we find significant.  If one takes retention in the memory as a key factor for the learning process, the research of Malgorzata Tarasiewicz is evidence of the value of Theatre in Education.  In her research, she checks the efficiency of different methods of delivering knowledge and how they influence retention. The percentages indicate how much material remains in the memory of participants after applications of the different methods of presentation:

  • Lecture 5%
  • Reading 10%
  • Audio-visual methods 20%
  • Demonstration 30%
  • Discussion 50%
  • Testing material in practical exercises 75%
  • Using material in practice 90%

(Machulska et al, 1997, p.88)

Why does drama transform?

Here we begin to see the principles that identify drama as alternative pedagogy.  One of drama’s defining characteristics is its use of a narrative framework to examine the human condition.

The creation of narratives is an indispensable aspect of human existence.  As Barbara Hardy comments, story ‘… must be seen as a fundamental act of mind transferred to art from life’ (Hardy, 1975, p. 4).  Story acts as a placenta that connects our inner world to the world outside, the medium through which our thoughts, feelings and knowledge of the outer and the inner pass.

The struggle to make a story, to clarify the issues, our feelings and those of other people involved in events, allows us to come to terms with the complex and potentially chaotic signals that bombard our psyches.  In fact, story permeates our whole consciousness for, without its organising frameworks, we would be unaware of our existence except in the moment of experience.  Storying allows us to engage in:

  • Organising momentary experience into a series of memories;
  • Predicting a future;
  • Experiencing, vicariously through the stories of others, aspects of the world we ourselves do not experience.

The first gives rise to notions of who we are – identity rooted in memory.  The second allows us to have hope, expectation and to organise our actions.  The third forms the basis of much of our learning and is the root of most formal education.

Personal narrative

If we see, as David Novitz posits [iv], our personal narrative as like a film we edit from the many life experiences we undergo (with most of them discarded like the film-maker’s excess material on the editing-room floor) we are allowing participants in drama to contemplate ‘the other’, that which may be different from us, to consider ‘what might be’ and to compare it to ‘what is’.

Personal narratives are in a constant state of flux.  When a significant ‘other story’ connects with our own, a state of intertextuality is achieved, the productive interpenetration of one story by another.

The paramount aim of education is that the ‘education’ story connects with the student’s own narrative.  Figure 1 represents how, in much education such intertextuality can be a rare occurrence:



Figure 1


The students ‘visit’ the education scene, but what they experience often does not achieve enough significance to penetrate their reality.

The topic of the dramatic experience is chosen to suit the needs of the participants.  Work on that topic is modified as it progresses and is in a constant state of renegotiation with the participants. I believe this process has a greater chance of achieving intertextuality – see figure 2:

Much secondary education takes place in physically static contexts.  Conversely, drama requires physical, emotional, social, intellectual and moral engagement from the participants.  The physical is crucial, leading to an embodiment of learning and meaning-making;



Figure 2


Drama uses metaphor and allegory.  This allows a distancing from reality whilst retaining a strong relationship to it – metaphor cannot be constructed or understood without recourse to the reality, for example.

Children and story

Each child learns the frameworks and expectations of its culture through story.  Historically, these stories were told, but also enacted.  The telling of stories is a major means by which adults represent the world to children, passing on the seminal stories that encourage knowledge, understanding, appropriate action and the situated tenets of moral behaviour.  For many in the developed world, technological advance now brings a huge range of stories and ways in which they may be experienced, and children are surrounded by commercially generated stories.  It is important to encourage children and adults to become makers and tellers of their own stories – cultural producers, not just receivers.

Participants in drama understand the dramatic experience through reference to their memory/personal story but, more importantly and crucially, they may edit their personal stories as a result of taking part in drama that connects fundamentally with them.  Thus, DIE provides experience that leads to personal growth through meaning-making in a complex, reflexive relationship between dramatic experience and personal identity.

Some stories that contribute to our personal, family, community and national identity are close to the surface of ‘knowing’ and may be open to rational discussion, examination and modification.  These represent the values and attitudes that are most easily changed.  However, the fundamental stories that form the foundation of self, are so deeply embedded in our consciousness that they are not easily told or explicitly understood.  Stephen Crites suggests that the deepest stories of our identity– those that form the strongly held basis for a criminal’s behaviour, for example – may only be accessible through artistic and spiritual experience[v].  What artists may be doing, and I include child artists, is constantly attempting to articulate those deep personal stories and those that give collective identity to their culture.

The potential for change

For many people, the prospect of change is too painful or threatening to contemplate.  The violent criminal’s identity, for instance, is often a strongly held narrative not open to easy modification.  By involving him in a fictional experience that does not focus on his own attitudes, feelings and behaviour (but which has relevance to them) the immersive, distancing effects of drama experience can create conditions for reappraisal and change.  This may be represented as shown in figure 3



Figure 3



Drama activity requires a sense of playfulness which creates the necessary atmosphere of experimentation required for the contemplation of things as different from how they are.  We remove the layers of defensiveness, hardened opinion and predictability in an agreement to play with ideas, thoughts, feelings and our bodies.  Nor is this playfulness inconsequential:

Play involves the taking of a conscious role.  Vygotsky points out that a sister will not be aware of the concept of sisterhood whilst engaging in real behaviour with a sister, but will be when entering role of sister in a game (p 95)[vi].  The dynamic between reality and fiction provides the space for attitude and behaviour change. 


‘Metaxis’ describes the necessary energy created between the ‘dramatic’ and ‘real’ worlds.  We expect drama participants to be engaged enough to be ‘hooked’ by the experience, but detached enough not to become completely absorbed.  They have one foot in the fiction and the other in reality.  Many people claim that the location of the drama learning is to be found in this dialogic relationship.  UK Theatre in Education practitioners of the 1970s discovered that persuading children that the drama was real proved counterproductive.  Knowing you are in a ‘dramatic world’ allows you to confidently release yourself into it.

Drama as a form of research

Drama is a research process in that it:

  • Has a defined topic of ‘study’ – homelessness, relationships in the family etc:
  • Generates hypotheses – ‘What would happen if …?’
  • Tests those hypotheses through experimentation (dramatic improvisation);
  • Gathers the data that flows from this experimentation – critically analyses what comes from the improvisation and reflective discussion;
  • Selects and orders significant material into a report – a presentation/sharing with others;
  • Communicates outcomes to fellow researchers in the community – shares the representation with classmates or wider group.

There is a dynamic relationship between the dramatic-medium research approach, what is already known, and emerging knowledge.

The role of the teacher of drama

The fragmentation of most school curricula subverts ‘joined-up’ learning.  Teacher colleagues should confer on how topics within different curriculum areas could relate to each other.  In particular, drama teachers should discover how these topics might form the focus of work in drama. 

Drama’s main claim for being an alternative pedagogy

One reason Drama in Education has a greater chance of achieving intertextuality is linked to its basic pedagogic model.  In the traditional education model, the teacher was the source of all knowledge; the gatekeeper to understanding (see figure 4).  The teacher employed the transmission model which implied teacher wisdom and power and student ignorance and impotence.  The emphasis is on homogeneity and the process is teacher-focussed.  Student individuality is minimised, and the teacher makes the decisions about how the student will meet, experience and respond to the educational encounter.  The architecture of the classroom reflects this relationship, with students often arranged in rows facing the chief source of information – the teacher.  This format disappeared widely from English schools in the 1960s when ‘student-centred learning’ became very popular.  Under the current British Government, ‘teacher dominance’ has returned as has the tightly defined curriculum content.  Thus, most student knowledge is acquired from the teacher, and as already stated, this is the most inefficient learning mode.



Figure 4


Drama differs greatly from this kind of learning and the role of the drama teacher differs significantly from that of the traditional pedagogue.  It involves a more dynamic and democratic relationship between students, the teacher and knowledge – see figure 5.  It is dynamic in that the relationships change according to student need, and democratic in that students are partners in the learning experience possessing valued knowledge and opinions.  The teacher’s role will be important at certain stages but diminish considerably when the student communes directly with knowledge through drama exploration and the making of personal meanings.



Figure 5


Drama teachers therefore need to be aware of their various functions, all of which require resourcefulness, flexibility and knowledge of the intricacies of pedagogy, plus a sound understanding and feeling for the artform.  There should be no mystery about drama making.  The more that students understand it, the more autonomous and empowered they become. 

Implications of seeing drama as an alternative pedagogy.


Although much drama can be practised in any clear space, a specialist space is necessary for the complete experience; a room capable of blackout, with simple theatrical lighting and sound equipment, and containing a range of other aids –  rostra and equipment for projecting images.

Teacher Education

There is a need to educate serving teachers about what Drama is and how to teach it.  Tremendous things have been achieved in Greece through conferences, regional meetings and workshops [vii].  Long-term drama stability cannot be achieved without its inclusion in initial teacher education programmes; primary teachers should all experience drama during training.  Specialist drama teachers will be needed for the secondary curriculum.  It is only by systematic drama training that school managements will understand that drama is not simply recreation and the staging of plays.


One of the major purposes of drama is to challenge the dominant culture, the accepted stories, the status quo.  Drama that develops critical attitudes and an examination of profound questions often generates a necessary ‘uncomfortable’ atmosphere.  This dissonance particularly occurs when, within the drama, students consider models of life in which the values differ radically from that of the school and society generally.  Such work can produce ethical dilemmas for the teacher.  Debarring such topics neutralises the drama but use and acknowledgement of drama as a ‘subversive’ force within the school can lead to its alienation.  Most teachers I know reach a compromise in which the drama keeps one foot within the school’s value system whilst allowing the other to stray outside when exploration of ‘other’ is necessary.  Generally, the material explored in most drama lessons, whilst challenging to all involved, does not directly challenge the dominant culture.

In summary, what makes drama an alternative pedagogy?

  • The drama medium, in unique ways, allows us to examine issues through action;
  • Participant’ involvement through physical, emotional, social, intellectual and moral engagement;
  • Meaning is socially negotiated;
  • Recognition of existing knowledge and experience of the learner is fundamental to the drama learning and making process;
  • A democratic pedagogic model;
  • Recognition of drama as a form of research;
  • The open declaration of findings.


*Dr John Somers
  Honorary Fellow
  University of Exeter

[i] Taskforce on Underage Alcohol Misuse, Kate Fox London: The Portman Group, p.27, (1997).
[ii] For more on this see the works of Lawrence Kohlberg
[iii] For more on this see ‘The Nature of Learning in Drama in Education’ in Somers, J (Ed) Drama and Theatre in Education: Contemporary Research’, North York (Canada), Captus Press, (1996).
[iv] See Novitz, D, in Hinchman and Hinchman, ‘Memory, Community, Identity’, New York, University of New York Press, (1999).
[v] For more on this see Crites, S. ‘The Narrative Quality of Experience’ in Memory, Identity, Community’, Hinchman, LP & Hinchman SK (Eds), SUNY Press, NY, (1999)
[vi] Vygotsky, L.S., ‘Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes’, Cole, M., John-Sreirer, V., Scribner, S., Souberman, E. (Eds) Harvard University Press, Mass. (1978).
[vii]  Awareness has been raised by the excellent work of Nikos Govas and the courses, seminars and workshop of the Hellenic Theatre/Drama & Education Network (see: http://www.theatroedu.gr/en-gb/home.aspx)