Drama-based Pedagogy Theory and Background

The term “drama-based” describes this practice because the collection and codification of strategies presented in this work are primarily adapted from the field of drama. The term “pedagogy” in this work focuses on the “theoretical or philosophical understanding of teaching and learning (Watkins & Mortimore, 1999)” (Dawson & Lee, 2016). DBP offers educators tools and a structure to activate their pedagogical beliefs that align with sociocultural (Vygotsky, 1978) and critical theories of learning (Freire, 2007; Hooks, 1994) in the classroom, where participants co-construct their understanding and personal identities as part of the classroom culture (Dawson & Lee, 2016). The theories behind the three foundational concepts named in DBP definition include: 

  • Active and dramatic approaches
  • Academic, affective, and aesthetic outcomes
  • Dialogic meaning making 

Active and dramatic approaches

Through DBP, students can engage in ensemble, imagination, embodiment, and narrative/story as a central aspect of its active and dramatic approach to learning (Dawson & Lee, 2016). 

Ensemble: DBP offers ways of student engagement as a community of learners or an ensemble. United States theater scholar and practitioner Michael Rohd suggests that ensemble is “at its simplest, a group of people that work together regularly. At its best, a group of people who work well together, trust one another, and depend upon each other” (2002, p. 28). Drama in education practitioner and researcher Jonathon Neelands furthers this argument when he writes that students in an ensemble “have the opportunity to struggle with the demands of becoming a self-managing, self-governing, self-regulating social group who co-create artistically and socially” (2009, p. 10). Building trust, finding the way through struggle, and learning how to co-create as a community of learners are key artistic skills in DBP that enable students to comfortably use their imagination and body within narrative/story (Dawson & Lee, 2016). DBP also offers a way to build upon and incorporate a sense of belonging or ensemble among teachers and learners in the classroom that is vital to student success.

Imagination: During DBP, students are often invited to make new meaning based on what they know about and see within a situation (Dawson & Lee, 2016). When people imagine, they fill in the gap between what they know and what they think is possible. Rather than just working in the “as is” world within the classroom, in DBP, participants have the opportunity to bring the “as is” world into the “as if” (Heathcote & Bolton, 1995) creating and recreating and imagining and reimagining the world of the classroom and the world of the story (Edmiston, 2014).

Embodiment: In DBP, students often demonstrate their real or imagined viewpoints through their body (Dawson & Lee, 2016). Drama is inherently an embodied practice, a production of cultural experiences and social interactions (Nicholson, 2005) that are placed and enacted in and by the body whereas people perform their own cultural and social identity as means to express who they are becoming. Additionally, embodiment in drama is also a way of showing what is known about concepts or ideas that may be better described through a physical representation (Dawson & Lee, 2016). As drama and educational scholars Perry and Medina suggest, “The experiential body is both a representation of self (a ‘text’) as well as a mode of creation in progress (a ‘tool’)” (2011, p. 63).

Narrative/Story: In DBP, the teacher supports students to work together, using their imagination and bodies to take action within a story (Dawson & Lee, 2016). The skill for creating narratives has been assumed to be a natural act and to come with ease for students, but in actuality, “it requires work on our part—reading it, making it, analyzing it, understanding its craft, sensing its uses, discussing it” (Bruner, 1996, p. 41). Therefore, part of what DBP offers students is a way to learn how to consider, build, analyze, pull apart, and synthesize narrative and story. Through DBP, students and teachers have the opportunity to embody, explore, investigate, and rewrite narratives through their collective imagination (Dawson & Lee, 2016). 

Academic, affective, and aesthetic outcomes

When describing the work of education, many people first think of the academic curriculum or what is taught and tested. However, this may be overlooking the full picture of what is actually happening in classrooms (Dawson & Lee, 2016). DBP consciousness is composed of two dimensions: intellect and affect (Vygotsky, 1978). 

Intellect can be thought of as the rational, logical, “academic” curriculum in the classroom. For example, students engage in cognitive, critical thinking tasks of making visual observations, transferring between symbol systems, and analyze or make semiotic meaning when asked to “describe one thing you see” in class discussion (Dawson & Lee, 2016). Through this process, students are encouraged to “make multiple interpretations and to synthesize how their differing meaning relates to individual or shared experience” (Dawson & Lee, 2016). 

Affective Learning

Affective learning is often referred to as the “hidden curriculum”, whereas social, cultural, or affective curriculum is brought into the learning experience through DBP (Dawson & Lee, 2016). For example, a moment of shared discovery or surprise between a teacher and the students demonstrates this cohesive and natural inclusion of these practices. Teachers are astutely aware of how cultural/social/emotional learning impacts every aspect of their daily teaching. Yet, most US public schools pay limited attention to affective learning—positioning it as a separate, brief “SEL” time, if it is even addressed at all (Dawson & Lee, 2016). 

Academic Learning

Vygotsky argues that affect and intellect/academic are mutually dependent; moreover, he suggests that aesthetic experiences are necessary for students to encompass and engage both the intellect (the mind) and affect (the emotions) (Dawson & Lee, 2016). DBP presents opportunities for students to embody ideas, themes, or characters, encouraging them to make an aesthetic choice based observation and interpretation, leading to individual or collective imaginative exploration (Dawson & Lee, 2016). Within aesthetic experiences, Vygotsky incorporates three pedagogical purposes: (1) the technical understanding of how to “do” the art form, (2) the cultural understanding to make meaning and interpret the art, and (3) the ability to create that which does not exist. In other words, aesthetics incorporates the skills of art-making, meaning making, and creating.

Artistic/Aesthetic Learning

DBP teaching and learning facilitates rigorous aesthetic experiences, moments when intellect and affect come together to support the skills of creating, interpreting, and transferring between symbol systems of meaning It is important to note that although we have broken apart academic, affective, and aesthetic learning as a way to understand the types of individual skills and tasks that the US educational curriculum often defines through specific standards or proficiencies, we agree with Vygotsky and his contemporaries that working in and through aesthetics (the arts) offers a way to bring together the academic and the affect (the mind and the body/ emotion). The unique power of DBP lies in its capacity to weave together all three aspects of learning throughout a sequential learning experience. The chief way this occurs is through DBP’s focus on individual and collective meaning-making. (Dawson & Lee, 2016).

Dialogic meaning making

A key characteristic of Drama-Based Pedagogy is its use of dialogic meaning-making (Edmiston, 2014), or the process by which ideas or concepts feel more finalized and steady (Aukerman, 2013). In DBP, the facilitator strives to make dialogic meaning making an intentional, explicit, and shared process where there is not one right path to the one right answer; the focus is on the process to arrive at the answer (Dawson & Lee, 2016). This has been described as “sense-making,” or the ideas or concepts in process that people struggle to understand or are unable to use words to describe (Aukerman, 2013).

DBP works to move beyond a single question-answer verbal exchange between teacher and student, toward an interactive exchange that includes all members of the learning community listening, responding, and building upon each other’s offers and ideas.” (Dawson & Lee, 2016). “Multimodal meaning-making acknowledges that individuals communicate through the spoken and written word as well as through the interactions with the environment, including drawings or visual images, gestures, facial expressions, and bodies”, and increases the opportunities for students to engage as a community through the curriculum (Dawson & Lee, 2016). “Through DBP, educators (who may or may not have more expertise with a concept than their participants) facilitate dialogue meaning-making in response to students’ authentic questions, to deepen everyone’s understanding and to support students' individual and collective struggle for meaning through dialogue (Edmiston, 2014). In this way, educators share information or offer their expertise as a way to facilitate further discovery, rather than as a way to assert authority of knowing over their students. In DBP, multimodal, sensemaking and meaning-making dialogue enables participants to co-construct a more solid, nuanced, and complex understanding of a concept or idea” (Dawson & Lee, 2016).

Dialogic meaning-making through DAR 

Vygotsky (1978) offers the terms zone of actual development (ZAD), what a student can already do on his/her own, and zone of proximal development (ZPD), what a student can do with the assistance of or in collaboration with a teacher or a more capable peer, as a way to explain how students grow and mature. To support participants working in their ZPD, we use the Describe, Analyze, Relate (DAR) meaning-making routine within each strategy and/or throughout a unit of inquiry. This supports critical thinking and reflection. Drama scholars Morgan and Saxton (2006) argue that “better questions” and reflection time must be embedded in and throughout each discussion for improved learning. Research suggests that teachers often ask many questions, but the questions themselves can lack depth and can be haphazard (Walsh & Sattes, 2005). Through DAR, the facilitator pays attention to how each question they offer scaffolds, or builds upon, prior ideas to support individual and collective meaning-making and understanding. (Dawson & Lee, 2016, p.25).

D—Describe—make observations

A—Analyze—make interpretations

R—Relate—make connections

In DAR, participants are first invited to fully perceive and D—Describe what they see. Students then A—Analyze and infer based on prior knowledge or observation. Students are then encouraged to link their observations into interpretations. In this stage of DAR, it is important to explore multiple interpretations and their understanding of them. The facilitator should ask questions like “What is another interpretation?” rather than posing statements Like “Yes, that’s it.” Finally, participants are invited to “synthesize through collective meaning-making, to move from making “sense” to making “meaning” or understanding, as they R—Relate and connect their sense-making and textual/ visual evidence to a larger concept, another text, and/or the human experience. (Dawson & Lee, 2016, pp. 25-27)

As students become more comfortable with DAR, may educators find it productive to toggle fluidly through D—Describe and A—Analyze during a “specific line of inquiry ending with questions to R—Relate back to the larger goal” (Dawson & Lee, 2016, p. 27). “In DAR, the facilitator scaffolds critical thinking skills, particularly for younger participants, to support more complex and nuanced meaning making (Kuhn, 1999). The questions in DAR are sequenced to support a process of “data-driven decision-making” (Beasley-Rodgers-Combs, 2014). This also scaffolds learning for participants who may have varying levels of prior knowledge or understanding of a concept or skill and provides a way to make meaning together. When DAR is internalized by the participants as the way they reflect in order to make meaning together, it can be a rigorous and thoughtful questioning and reflection routine used across all areas of the curriculum” (Dawson & Lee, 2016, p. 27)

Read even more about Drama-based pedagogy in our book! Drama-based Pedagogy: Activating Learning Across the Curriculum