Project Based Learning in Drama

I’ve been a high school drama teacher for going on five years and in that time alone our profession has changed immeasurably. Even as a relatively inexperienced teacher I was still being caught off guard by the introduction of new initiatives, new ways of measuring progress and new ways of denoting success in arts education. Its easy to get weighed down by it all and at times I completely understand why some grow disillusioned so quickly. Amongst the coming and going of fads every now and then however, there are brilliant nuggets of inspiration that completely shift the way I think, approach and reflect on my teaching.

The idea of Project Based Learning in the Arts is something I’ve been introduced to quite recently, having attended a screening hosted by some of our colleagues of Greg Whiteley’s documentary ‘Most Likely To Succeed’. The concept — that every piece of work created in classrooms is done so with the intention of being shared with the greater public. That the work done in the confines of school is always intended to be something bigger, something important, something real. The idea is deceptively simple — if pupils know that what they create will be exhibited to the outside world; their families, their friends, strangers, then they start to become accountable for it. They begin to care about it on a deeper level than if they were creating something disposable to share at the end of the lesson before tossing it into a proverbial bin and starting afresh the following week. The film explores the ground-breaking work carried out by the teachers and students at High Tech High School in San Diego where learning is centred entirely around pupils partaking in learning ‘projects’ that embody a number of different disciplines. All while educating its learners on all manner of associated subjects; The birth of democracy, the evolution of technology, the dawn of culture are all explored via an ‘Ancient Greece’ themed project that builds towards a public exhibition featuring architecture, dramatic performance and art installations. The buck for everything stops with the students themselves. The teachers facilitating learning rather than driving it.

Inspired, we began thinking of ways we could explore similar approaches within our own practice. As arts teachers we are given a somewhat unique opportunity in the collaborative and creative nature of our subjects that could potentially lend itself well to the methods on display at High Tech High School. The Head of our Music Department approached me with the idea of formulating a project that would involve both of our subjects, with the onus firmly on the students as to whether or not it prevailed.

The results of this shift in our teaching are explored in the remainder of this blog.

PART ONE — MAKING THE SALE

I have an often quite brilliant, often distracted, consistently enthusaiastic Year 9 class of mixed ability pupils. Any drama teacher (or in fact any teacher of a non-core subject) will understand the perils of a Year 9 class as they realise that our subject isn’t part of their long term plans. Sometimes its difficult for us to comprehend — after all we care deeply about our subjects, why shouldn’t they? — and in past years that post-options malaise was often a steady decline toward summer where they, bar the few who are in it for the long run, are in the room in body if not in mind. This class is no different. Sure, there are talented students in this class and plenty of them, but there is also a healthy number of those getting off the bus at the next available opportunity.

When they came back after the February half term, said options decided and the forms submitted, we decided to take a completely different tact with them. We’re going to create a piece of musical drama — so far so what — and this piece of theatre will be feature length — cue groans from the more vocal of the group — and when its ready, only when its ready, this piece of work will be performed for a paying audience, filmed, shared online and publicised properly the way any self respecting piece of theatre should. And the responsibility for all of this, right down to the publicity, stage management and rehearsal scheduling, will fall firmly at the feet of the students. This is your project, not ours, and it lives or dies by your commitment to the cause and sheer force of will to see it succeed.

PART TWO — ACCOUNTABILITY

What followed was something of a revelation for the department and I. We’d seen the impact that the looming reality of public performance could have on later years students, but here we were asking a Key Stage 3 class in its entirety to not just perform in front of people, but to get those people into the room and be entirely responsible for the content on show. The atmosphere in that classroom changed immediately. The sense of importance in what they were creating was palpable, and the collaboration between all of them, regardless of their level of talent or interest in the subject, was inspirational. Watching one group in particular I was struck by their work ethic and absolute focus on getting the job done on the best possible terms. Pupils that had coasted their way through previous schemes of work were learning lines in their spare time, completing dramaturgical research in advance of rehearsals and arriving to lessons with fully formed ideas. They had set up a Facebook group where they shared their ideas on everything from music choices, to costume, to lighting. In short, the project had taken on a life of its own.

PART THREE — THE PAY OFF

The pupils divided themselves into two distinct teams; the front of house staff who would be responsible for anything from crowd control to ticketing, and a back stage team who carried out final checks to the staging, set and props. A welcoming committee, who had written a speech detailing the experience until this point, were putting final touches to their presentation. As the audience filtered through I was alarmed at how I, a self-confessed control freak who has been known to obsess over every minute detail of a performance, was able to feel completely relaxed. In effect, myself and Mrs Robinson, our Head of Music, became members of the audience; completely surrendering any and all control to the Year 9 class scurrying into position behind the scenes. The most striking aspect of the performance that followed was the supreme confidence of the performers involved. Throughout the process we had looked on as previously disengaged pupils became leaders, became a unit, became performers and beneath the theatre lights it was incredible to see how little the same students shrank when placed so far out of their comfort zone. Utterly hilarious, slick and dynamic, the performance was a triumph. Mistakes were quickly overcome and briefly forgotten lines negotiated with professionalism and team work. There was no way these pupils would allow their show to be compromised.

PART FOUR — THE REFLECTION

In ‘Most Likely To Succeed’, one part in particular stuck with me long after viewing. Sure, the scale and execution of the ‘Ancient Greece’ themed project that the film followed was both inspiring and impressive, but it was the reflection that pupils were encouraged to partake in afterward that struck a chord with me by way of its depth and honesty. The pupils in the film, as in real life, were asked to brutally dissect the shortcomings of the project as much as they celebrated its successes. Everyone was accountable. Everyone was responsible. Everyone had to show they understood how and why the project played out the way it did. The result, as was conveyed brilliantly by one pupil’s obsession with correcting an earlier mistake, is that the students at High Tech High would do everything within their power to ensure the successes were built upon, and the errors were never repeated. Why did it not go how you thought it would? How could it have been avoided? What did you learn about yourself as a result of it? Simple questions, but the answers could prove as valuable a learning experience as any, both in and outside of education.

My Year 9’s returned to the classroom the following week abuzz at what they’d achieved. Congratulating each other, and rightly so, on a project that had gone better than any of them had seemingly hoped. Then we started to pick it apart; from inception to process to performance. I started with one overriding question “How were you able to do what you did?”, here are some of their answers.

“We were working hard for each other and not just ourselves.”

“We wanted to be proud of what we’d made. People were going to see it.”

… and a personal favourite of mine,

“I wanted my family to see I’m quite good at Drama.”

Simple answers that cut to the core of why this vehicle for teaching can be so effective. Collaborative involvement, pride in work and recognition of success; coincidentally three aspects I consider to be fundamental elements of an effective, enjoyable and rewarding place of work.

PART FIVE — THE FUTURE

The central message conveyed in ‘Most Likely To Succeed’ is this — the current model of education is failing to prepare our students for a changing world. That the jobs many of them will go on to inhabit don’t even exist yet. That the traditional measures of retaining knowledge and being able to regurgitate it at will are redundant in an age where having a mobile phone attached to the internet makes you as smart as anybody.

I’ve long thought that the so-called ‘soft-skills’ of Drama go someway to future-proofing the students that pursue it. Our subject is built on critical and creative thought, on the ability to adapt with constant change, on the ability to innovate responsively, and on the ability to collaborate with others toward a common goal. Essentially I believe the work done in Drama can provide a microcosm of the demands of the modern world in much the same way as Project Based Learning can. It is the leaders, the motivators, the quick thinkers and the decisive actors that will inherit the earth and it is our job to prepare our students for that earth as best we can.

First Published May 18th 2017 – Dave Maloney (Head of Drama in Greater Manchester)

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