I have been a drama teacher for an awfully long time.
My love for theatre developed almost organically, in fact. Growing up in rural Nova Scotia, there were few opportunities for me to attend plays or workshops or drama festivals. I certainly don’t recall ever having the opportunity to take drama as a class in school.
However, since that time, my professional training in university (and a series of as-luck-would-have-it moments) has allowed me to teach hundreds of students in my drama class over the course of my career. These experiences have also allowed me to become quite set in my views on the value of the arts, particularly the dramatic arts, in schools. I have seen first hand the power that theatre has to transform, and could call on dozens of examples over the years where the program has, quite simply, changed lives.
This is not unique, of course. Ask any drama teacher who has been around for a bit, and they will echo the same sentiment. Each of them would be able to provide direct, anecdotal evidence of how their subject has helped kids grow in a variety of social, emotional and often very personal ways.
Yet despite this overwhelming body of evidence, drama education continues to be viewed as an “inferior” educational offering by many. Indeed, as arts education has become less valued in schools in general, drama classes have, in my observations at least, been some of the hardest hit.
Courage, drama teachers. Some help may be on the way.
A few months back, a paper entitled ILSA in Arts Education: The Effect of Drama on Competences appeared in The International Handbook of Comparative Large-Scale Studies in Education. Written by Rikke Gurgens Gjærum, Adam Cziboly, and Stig A. Eriksson, the article sought to explore why so little international research has been done in the field of drama education since the release of the ground-breaking Drama Improves Lisbon Key Competences in Education (DICE) study over a decade ago.
That study was carried out across 12 countries and looked at data from 111 different drama programs involving 4475 students. The researchers hypothesized that educational drama would have a positive impact on five of the Lisbon Key Competences, a series of eight key skills developed for students by the European Union in the early 2000’s. These included a) the ability to communicate in the mother tongue, b) learning to learn, c) interpersonal, intercultural, and social and civic competences, d) entrepreneurship and e) cultural expression.
The DICE study looked at three groups of students; those who had drama class on a regular basis, those who had drama as a one-time, special event, and those who had no drama exposure at all. The students were between 13 and 16 years old, and there were as many similarities as possible between the various groups studied.
The results were conclusive. Students who regularly participated in educational drama activities showed higher results on a wide variety of factors including confidence in reading and communication, ability to problem solve and to be entrepreneurial, and acceptance of minority groups and immigrant populations.
Perhaps more validating for those of us in the field, improvement in many of the competences was noted during the months the students were studied. Essentially, kids got better at these fundamental skills as they were taking the class.
Considering those impressive results, there does indeed seem to be a puzzling lack of international research following DICE. The authors of this latest article propose a few reasons for this. In particular, they note that the world of large scale international assessment is dominated by the measuring of only three areas; communication in the mother tongue, math and science ability and digital competency. They also note a rather healthy distrust of large scale assessment among those of us in the educational drama realm as a potential inhibiting factor.
Still, one would think that the findings of the DICE study would have resulted in more attention (and hopefully, respect) being paid to the craft of teaching theatre in schools. Certainly, had a study of this magnitude shown that taking calculus, for example, improves entrepreneurial skills or problem solving, I think it’s safe to conclude that a battle cry of “More calculus for everyone!” would have rang out across the land.
I proudly count myself among those who are leery of large scale data. That has much more to do with the misinterpretation of that data by those who would undermine public education than it does with the data itself, but that’s another story.
Despite those reservations, I have to admit to agreeing with Gjærum et al. As much as I know what I do in my drama classroom is important and valuable, sometimes it’s nice to have the research to back it up.
Considering the number of universities we have, perhaps Nova Scotia is as good a place to start as any.
PhD project, anyone?