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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Perspectives from drama in science education
  5. Perspectives from drama in theatre: Brook's ‘empty space
  6. A theoretical model for drama in science education
  7. Operationalising the theoretical model
  8. Conclusions: an agenda for research
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

Constructivist teaching methods such as using drama have been promoted as productive ways of learning, especially in science. Specifically, role plays, using given roles or simulated and improvised enactments, are claimed to improve learning of concepts, understanding the nature of science and appreciation of science's relationship with society (Ødegaard 2001, Unpublished Dr. scient., Dissertation, University of Oslo). So far, theorisation of drama in learning, at least in science, has been lacking and no attempt has been made to integrate drama theory in science education with that of theatre. This article draws on Peter Brook's notion of the theatre as the ‘empty space’ (Brook 1968, The empty space, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books) to provide a new theoretical model acting as a lens through which drama activities used to teach science can be better understood and researched. An example of a physical role play is used to ground the theory. The paper concludes by suggesting areas for further research.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Perspectives from drama in science education
  5. Perspectives from drama in theatre: Brook's ‘empty space
  6. A theoretical model for drama in science education
  7. Operationalising the theoretical model
  8. Conclusions: an agenda for research
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

It has been claimed that engaging in arts subjects such as music, dance and drama contributes to general cognition and can enhance learning in other subjects (Deasey, 2002; Dana Foundation, 2008). There is emerging evidence from neuroscience that these claims have some backing. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to establish differential cognitive activity in the brain, for individuals carrying out tasks on creative thinking and problem-solving, show advantages for those who have been involved in arts training such as, in music (Moreno, 2009), in dance (Cross & Ticini, 2012) and in drama/theatre (Hough & Hough, 2012). One specific area of arts activity, drama, has a long tradition of being used to help people with dysfunction or suffering from trauma. For example drama has been used therapeutically to help recovery from addictive behaviours (Brooke, 2009), with victims of abuse (Silverman, 2009) and school pupils with learning disabilities (Crimmens, 2006). In schools, drama has been advocated as a way of advancing learning in other areas of the curriculum, most notably for learning languages (Heathcote & Bolton, 1994) and in humanities subjects to stimulate debate and to empathise with individuals in another place or time (Jackson, 2002; McNaughton, 2006). In science subjects drama has been said to help pupils learn concepts, appreciate the nature of science and learn more about science's interactions with society (Ødegaard, 2001). In spite of a great deal of curricular activity and these claims for drama as an effective learning strategy, there has been little research into drama education in the area of science to uncover what specific aspects of teaching lead to learning successes for pupils (Henry, 2000; Ødegaard, 2003). Coupled with this there has been little attempt to theorise drama to stimulate research that might illuminate the planning and execution of drama tasks that assist learning in science and other subjects (Ross, 1996; Henry, 2000; Ødegaard, 2003; Boujaoude et al., 2005; Peleg & Baram-Tsabari, 2011). It has been claimed that the relatively low level of research effort in drama may be partly due to the lower status attributed to the arts in both the curriculum and research compared with other subjects such as language, mathematics and science (Anderson, 2004).

In science education there have been efforts to promote classroom activities relying on high degrees of pupil interaction. However, the actual frequency of methods in which the teacher promotes or uses methods through which pupils' share meanings through group work, including uses of drama, compared with more traditional direct methods of instruction, using board and book work, has been questioned (Tytler, 2007; Braund, 2010). As drama may be a powerful method available to teachers in the constructivist paradigm, it is alarming to note how little attention it often receives. For example, at one of the world's largest international science education research conferences in 2011 (of the European Science Education Research Association [ESERA] in Lyon, France), of 700 papers presented only two were in the field of ‘drama’, whereas there were over 100 papers in the field of ‘discussion and argumentation’.

In the face of this lack of theorisation in education, it is helpful and appropriate to draw on richer fields from drama and theatre, mainly the ideas of Peter Brook. Brook's series of essays, collected in his work The empty space (1968), part of the title of this article, drew on ideas of the most significant theorists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries including, Grotowski, Artaud, Brecht, Beckett and Ibsen. As a coherent set of ideas on how drama connects with and engages theatre audiences they have potential to shed light on how drama might function to engage and improve learning for a different audience, pupils in schools. As Fels and Meyer put it, ‘drama in theatre and science share some common ground… both seek explanations of the world through real, imagined or vicarious experience' (Fels & Meyer, 1997, p.75). The new theorisation for drama education presented here is not an empty intellectual exercise nor to proselytise or promote a personal view of how drama should be used in science. In the tradition of Skemp (1979), who maintained there was ‘nothing so practical as theory’, theory formation is a prelude to action; in this case a call for more and specific research. Skemp saw three advantages for developing and using theories. They tell us what is going on beyond those things that are immediately observable, they reduce ‘noise’, allowing us to concentrate on what is relevant, and they enable us to make new paths outwards from our thinking (Skemp, 1979, p. 182).

Bearing in mind Skemp's uses for theory, I propose a theoretical model drawing on Brook's notions in The empty space to clarify what is needed to better understand how drama benefits learning science. The theoretical model is then used to set an agenda for research. Insights are at an epistemological level dealing with efficacy of drama for knowledge acquisition, seeing science as a broad enterprise based on contention and debate, and, at a pedagogical level, providing for better task design and teaching technique. Before explaining and exemplifying the theoretical model, two areas of literature, in drama and science education and about Brook's ideas and how they link with possible practices in science classrooms are reviewed. To ground theory in practice, I show how it can be interpreted for one example of a drama-in-science activity. The paper concludes by suggesting an agenda for research activity. Although discussion is seated in science education, ideas about drama use, particularly for simulated role plays, are relevant in other subjects.

Perspectives from drama in science education

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Perspectives from drama in science education
  5. Perspectives from drama in theatre: Brook's ‘empty space
  6. A theoretical model for drama in science education
  7. Operationalising the theoretical model
  8. Conclusions: an agenda for research
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

In science education, a dominant view of teaching and learning is that the science world of knowing conflicts with the learner's world of knowing. Some ‘construction’ or re-construction of what is in the learner's head, rather than mere transmission of knowledge, is required to deal with these conflicts. Aikenhead and Jegede (1999) argue that, for many school pupils, learning science is like navigating between two sub-cultures. In contrast to everyday experiences and language, the sub-culture of science is characterised by abstract ideas relying on conceptualising invisible components (energy, molecules, electrons, biological cells and so on) and is communicated through a symbolic and semiotic language using, for example, equations, chemical symbols and graphs (Braund & Leigh, 2013). This makes learning for pupils, already having a number of alternative views of how the world works, even more problematic. Rationalising between these two worlds, the science and the everyday, requires differentiation between and integration of two ways of explaining and seeing (Scott et al., 2011). Differentiation requires recognition of the differences in meaning and explanation, for example between the everyday idea that energy is a consumable entity and a scientific concept of energy as transformation and degradation (to heat) in various systems. Integration of ideas, on the other hand, requires accommodation of new ideas with those already held that provide more workable, rational and generalisable explanations of the world. To achieve integration means making abstract ideas and theories of science more plausible often by the use of analogy and metaphor (Lawson, 1993; Duit & Treagust, 2003; Aubusson et al., 2006). For example analogues, supposedly from real world experience such as the hot water system of a house or a ski lift, have been used to explain concepts of current, voltage and resistance in electrical circuits. The problem here is that the analogues themselves may not be fully understood by pupils, confer even more alterative ideas on them or are not fully negotiated or explained as being merely part-models of reality (Harrison & Treagust, 2006). It is here that drama, especially in the form of acted out simulations, for example where pupils play the parts of particles or components of food webs, may offer more plausible and accessible alternatives for understanding abstract ideas.

Drama is most often included in lists of what educators refer to as ‘active approaches’ to learning (O'Loughlin, 1992). By ‘active’ what is often meant is that the learner plays an integral part in the construction or re-construction of knowledge, often by interaction with other learners and the teacher. In this way drama contributes to what prominent science educators in the constructivist tradition had in mind as ‘discourse communities’ in classrooms aimed at establishing shared meanings rather than assimilation through independent learning or by merely being told science content (Duveen & Solomon, 1994; Watts et al., 1997; Driver et al., 1994). From a Vygotskyan perspective, activity is part of a sociocultural account of learning whereby internalisation of knowledge by individuals follows co-construction in an external social phase. According to Wertsch (1991), socio-cultural approaches are fundamental to the development of language and culture and even the way we think. Rasmussen (2010) sees the particular sociolinguistic functions of drama as crucial in meaning making. Additionally, Aikenhead takes the view that sociocultural learning, including enactment of ‘science storylines’, helps border crossings from indigenous knowledge systems of thinking to more scientific thought (Aikenhead, 2001, 2006).

The importance of drama as a narrative alternative to the more usual expository text found in science classrooms has been stressed by several scholars (Egan, 1999; Millar & Osborne, 1998; Solomon, 2002; Vacca et al., 2004; Begoray & Stinner, 2005). In a paper analysing a play about debates on evidence for the ages of the sun and Earth that took place in the nineteenth century, Begoray and Stinner argue that the science classroom is dominated by expository text representing the dominance in science lessons of comparison, description, sequencing, listing, cause and effect and problem solution. They claim that, as narrative text is more common in the life experience of learners (from films, novels and oral story telling) and is less abstract than expository text in organising knowledge, its use in drama can lead to better empathy with science and more effective cognitive learning.

In a comprehensive review of the literature on science-specific uses of drama, Ødegaard (2003) sees drama contributing to three areas of learning in science education: about concepts, about the nature of science and about science's interactions with society. There is some evidence that conceptual understanding is advanced through use of drama. Simulations to understand circuit electricity have been used with teacher education students and pupils in primary schools and improved understanding of current, voltage and resistance claimed (Tveita, 1998; Braund, 1999). These are example of alternatives to the analogies referred to earlier. In biology, concepts in photosynthesis (Carlsson, 2002) and about cell division (Ødegaard, 2001) have been advanced using drama activities. Improvement of learners' ecological concepts, such as feeding interrelationships, has been noted from using role plays where learners act components of food chains and webs (Bailey, 1994). It has been suggested that school science presents an overly positivistic and simplistic view of science, particularly where complex systems as in ecology or in debates of social–political interactions with science are concerned (Colucci-Gray et al., 2006). Role plays and simulations such as those used by Carlsson and Bailey and suggested by Grieg et al. (1987) provide interaction with these ideas at the level of complexity and interaction favoured by Colucci-Gray et al. For example, ‘players’ in a food web simulation interconnected by string experience a feeling of force transmitted by others in the web when changes are made to any one member of the web.

As far as educating about the nature of science is concerned, Ødegaard claims ‘stories of science’ such as those used by Aikenhead, mentioned earlier (Aikenhead, 2001, 2006), offer learners new insights into the reality of the processes of scientific practice (Ødegaard, 2003, p. 85). Solomon et al. (1992) see activities, such as plays about the history of science, challenging positivistic–empiricist views of science as they show how science theories have been developed and are open to challenge and re-construction. This was the intention and outcome of a play described by Bentley that successfully challenged student teachers' views on teaching evolution, and addressed pupils' creationist views (Bentley, 2000). In lessons described by Braund et al. (2006), a series of radio interviews of astronomers through the ages was used to teach about the development of ideas towards a solar-centric model of the solar system. Having to devise and teach this lesson seemed to have had a profound impact on student teachers' views on the nature of science.

In teaching the ‘Nature of Science’, textbooks and teachers often present science as a final product, ignoring its development. Drama can help present a more authentic narrative and hence better engage students. By examining the lives of scientists and playing their roles, pupils come to appreciate that scientists fail as much as they succeed, that an algorithmic or prescribed way of doing science is often not appropriate or available, that science is not always totally objective or divorced from human error and that creativity and leaps of faith are important (McComas, 1996). The use of drama to teach about science's interactions with society has been said to improve pupils' empathy and identification in socio-political situations of science and even to have the capacity to challenge or change learners' world views (Aikenhead, 1996; Cobern, 1996; Ødegaard, 2001). In England, the Wellcome Trust has been active in facilitating uses of drama in the public understanding of science. For example, the ‘Y Touring Company’ has been a leader in using short plays to focus debate for learners about uses of biotechnology and in bioethics. Gains included specific and marked shifts in learners' attitudes to science (Evaluation Associates, 1998; Reiss, 2010). Wellcome's ‘Pulse’ initiative provided funding for theatre and education professionals to engage pupils in debates about a variety of topics in biosciences such as genetics, medicinal properties of plants, nanotechnology, treatment of disease, and GM (genetically modified foods) in a variety of informal and formal settings. Key markers for success were careful planning, drawing effectively on the use of scientists, and balancing scientific learning and artistic outcomes (Wellcome Trust, 2006).

The ability to use argument in science lessons (argumentation) has received increasing attention over the last decade and here drama has a key part to play. Argumentation is important to learning science as it equips students with the skills, to critically interrogate public claims and the strength of supporting and refuting evidence, to rationalise between competing explanations of phenomena or concepts, to practise subject specific modes of scientific discourse and see science as the product of a multiplicity of views rather than as a set of unchallenged truths (Lemke, 1997; Duschl & Osbourne, 2002; Zohar & Nemet, 2002; Zohar & Schwartzer, 2005; Von Aufschnaiter et al., 2008). The intention is often to increase responsible engagement with socioeconomic and ethical issues. Drama, where pupils take on specific roles of protagonists in discussion and resolution of issues, has been suggested as a productive way to engage pupils in science argument. Colucci-Gray et al., used role plays in topics focussed on biological sustainability, for example prawn farming in Pacific-Asian coastal environments (Colucci-Gray et al., 2006). They found that promoting discussion as agreement based on consensus, rather than as a win or lose competitive outcome, improved participants' abilities to listen to each other's claims and empathise with a multiplicity of views. In South Africa lessons have been observed where role plays helped raise the content and level of argumentation about the ethics of trade in organs for xenotransplantation (Braund et al., 2007). In a similar vein, analysis of students' discourse following short role plays on who should have rights of access to genetic information have been seen to help in development of group argumentation skills (Dawson et al., 2009). Thus, drama can help in the deployment and development of argumentation in science by anchoring scientific debate and ideas in pupils' real worlds (Duveen & Solomon, 1994; Duschl & Osborne, 2002).

Perspectives from drama in theatre: Brook's ‘empty space

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Perspectives from drama in science education
  5. Perspectives from drama in theatre: Brook's ‘empty space
  6. A theoretical model for drama in science education
  7. Operationalising the theoretical model
  8. Conclusions: an agenda for research
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

Peter Brook was one of the major theorists in theatre of the twentieth century. Drawing on ideas of dramatists and writers such as Artaud, Brecht, Ibsen and Beckett and theorist Jerzy Grotowski, he showed how western theatre could use more dynamic, visual, metaphorical and allegorical approaches from traditions of Asian, African and Far Eastern theatre. Brook never explicitly defined what he meant by the ‘empty space’. He used the phrase metaphorically to address two issues: the ‘emptiness’ of post-war theatre and the stage–space in which theatre is made real by actors, directors, writers and designers. His ideas revolutionised theatre in the UK and beyond. It is my contention that Brook's ideas have great resonance for drama in science education helping develop a perspective on theory illuminating best ways in which drama can be used to teach science and in other subjects.

In The empty space, Brook proposed four ‘theatres’: the deadly, the holy, the rough and the immediate. Brook termed the traditional–realist theatre of the mid 1960s the deadly theatre because he saw negative effects of the dead hand of commercialism in Europe and America, concerned more with audience returns and making money than with artistic adventure and modernism. He saw even the more liberating theatre of Brecht and Beckett, let alone more ‘traditional’ works of Shakespeare, as having been turned into staid and lacklustre events, no longer capable of transmitting the visions, stories and beliefs of the playwrights. For Brook, the director can never be passive, letting the play ‘speak for itself’; rather, he must ‘conjure its sound from it’ (Brook, 1968, p. 43). His concerns can be seen as echoing those of science educators today in many countries who bemoan lack of enthusiasm of pupils (their ‘audiences’) for science and the reducing likelihood that they choose further study or science-related careers (Millar & Osborne, 1998; Sjøberg & Schreiner, 2010). In Brook's terms, then, the trick for science educators is to turn increasingly away from the ‘dead hand’ of traditional, non-interactive methods such as book and board work (and even some practical work) to see what value and gains can be made from employing strategies involving more collaborative learning effort from pupils.

In the deadly theatre, repetition of the old mistakes abound as much in theatre productions as they do in opera, musicals and ballet. Old formulae and methods, old jokes, stock beginnings and endings will no longer do (1968, p. 44). Here Brook's ideas resonate with a key current issue in science education, that constructivism, for all its virtues and even when philosophically accepted by teachers, is still hampered and suffocated by overreliance on exposition and teacher directed discourse that results in transmission learning and behaviourist approaches. Hence, just as visioning The empty space helped Brook critique the practices of theatre in the second half of the twentieth century, applying his ideas to drama in science would help critically appraise and move forward improved methods of reaching a realistic agenda for ‘constructivist’ learning (in science and more broadly) in the twenty-first century.

Brook's second alternative vision, the holy theatre, holds particular promise for closer study. This is theatre making the abstract and the invisible visible. Here, Brook draws on Artaud's notion of the play as an event transcending the text from which it is born. The language is of actions, sounds, images and movements but it is also about words as parody, lies, contradictions and shocks. In Brook's holy theatre the ‘empty space’ (of the stage and, metaphorically, for the audience) is filled by a much richer and enhanced experience, stimulating its audience by use of metaphor. For example, in ‘Brook's dream’ (Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream) performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1972, the stage was a white box opened to the audience, the forest a set of swings suspended from the ceiling. The play's natural magic was added to by ethereal sounds created by plastic tubes, whirled overhead by the actors. None of this detracted from the text which took on new life and meaning. In the holy theatre, Brook clearly draws on Artaud's Theatre of the absurd (Artaud, 1958) but not in a literal or surrealist way. For Brook, the real value of Artaud is that he (Artaud) was using the unreal to expose a reality in the obscured truths of our everyday lives. Thus, for Artaud the theatre becomes a place in which a greater reality could be found. For science educators the promise of Brook's holy theatre is that it allows pupils better access to abstract concepts (for pupils these may represent Artaud's ‘obscured’ truths) such as about molecular interactions, complex genetic processes or interactions in ecosystems, through learners' physical involvement. But, this is achieved without the need for elaborate theatrical devices, scripts, or by having to deploy acting skills. One of the reasons teachers do not make more use of drama in other subjects is that they may equate drama use in lessons with theatrical production requiring finesse and accuracy with respect to script, movement and staging (Fels & Meyer, 1997; Rasmussen, 2010). Drama offers a way of using metaphor to draw pupils into a world more plausible for tackling obscure and abstract ideas. Applying techniques of the holy theatre offer new opportunities that avoid problems of the traditional alternative models and analogies that many find hard to understand and which are often unhelpful. Molecules can be represented by our bodies and chromosomes, DNA base pairs, or electrical charges by carrying simple letters or symbols. Thus the sterile representations of science in textbooks, which overly rely on the semiotic and symbolic language of science, become more comprehensible and accessible in the hands of pupils as actors.

In Brook's third vision of theatre, the rough theatre, performance is informal and ephemeral, often without a conventional stage or theatre (Brook, 1968, pp. 73–109). Here, content and acting take charge but informality does not imply mental sloppiness. Events engage audiences in real thought; the audience must make an intellectual effort. Here, Brook leans heavily on the theories of Berthold Brecht, who used dramatic scenes in his plays to challenge what we might first perceive about a characters' intentions and the social and political situations in which they find themselves (Brecht, 1964). Thus in Brecht's play Galileo, perhaps the greatest benefit for an audience is to help them get away from a simplified understanding of the relationship between science and religion in which the two are always in conflict. The standard, some have argued ‘mythical’, version of the Galileo–

Church interaction is that as an old man Galileo was imprisoned and tortured by the Church for refusing to abandon his scientific conclusion that the Earth goes round the sun rather than vice-versa (see, Numbers, 2009). We shouldn't, of course, see Brecht as presenting a neutral view of the issue but even if one ignores the circumstances in which the play was written (shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War while Brecht was in exile in Denmark), even a cursory attendance to the play serves to undermine the simplistic conflict model and helps an audience appreciate the historical contingencies. For an audience of school science students, Brecht's approach leads to new understandings about the nature of science and its relations to society both in Galileo's time and in our own. Brook's rough theatre therefore has capacity to open up dialogue about different interpretations of science and from different perspectives in the history of science contributing to the last two of Ødegaard's purposes for drama: learning about the nature of science and about science's interactions with society.

Of course, classroom drama in education is not so like theatre. In the classroom there is no distinction between actor and audience; the learner is both participant and observer, playing a role while interacting with others in role (Anderson, 2004, p. 282). In staged dramatisations there is more of a focus on product. Drama in the classroom is facilitated by the teacher who builds on the actions and reactions of pupils-in-role to change or reframe the imagined context. This is done to create an episodic sequence of dramatic action and link it to the objects of learning, which are the ideas under consideration for a given lesson. The high levels of learner involvement in lessons using drama, that includes chances for pupils to take greater responsibility, does not mean teachers can abdicate guiding learning. In the theatre the nature of the plot, the script and setting are structuring devices engaging audiences and making dramatic representations plausible. Coleridge's idea of the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (see Ferri, 2007) is said to help theatre audiences accept human interest and a semblance of truth in tales which, at surface level, seem implausible, fantastical and unbelievable. Brook's rough theatre, based on Brechtian notions of portraying reality, relies on engaging audiences to accept radically different ideas portrayed on stage. In the classroom, without automatic availability and implicit acceptance of these theatrical structures, it is necessary for the teacher to create conditions under which the purposes of the drama and expectations for participants are made clear. Brook's final vision for theatre, the immediate theatre, proposes a powerful role affecting our very consciousness as human beings. Brook closes his final lecture by reminding us that in theatre truth is always on the move. In theatre, rather than any other art form, it is possible to wipe the slate clean. At every performance, new interpretations, emotions and, hence, outcomes for audiences are possible. The parallels with the written word or painting and sculpture are stark – these are interpretations of a moment forever frozen in time (Brook, 1968, pp. 156–157). Thus, for Brook, theatre is an experiment in interpretations of reality where questions of ‘what if?’ are explored rather than being evaded or fictionalised as half-truths and lies as, often, they are in real life. As a paradigm for teaching about the nature of science, where science is seen as contested, validated by assessing the reliability of evidence in the current world, the immediate theatre makes taught science just that – immediate. Rather than stuck in the past tense, based only on old discoveries and delivery of hard facts, the histories through which these ‘facts’ became established can be included. An example in the classroom is the short ‘radio interviews’ with scientists in which each scientist is interviewed on their view of the organisation of the solar system and must relate how their ideas drew on and further developed from preceding ones (Braund et al., 2006).

A theoretical model for drama in science education

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Perspectives from drama in science education
  5. Perspectives from drama in theatre: Brook's ‘empty space
  6. A theoretical model for drama in science education
  7. Operationalising the theoretical model
  8. Conclusions: an agenda for research
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

The construction of a theoretical model for drama in science has two purposes. First, to help draw together two fields of theory, in science education and theatre (from Brook and others) and, second, to provide a means through which the use of drama activities in science teaching can be better understood and researched. Outcomes are at two levels; an epistemological one providing information on learner and teacher efficacy and on the function of drama to provide improved appreciation of the nature of science and its interactions with society and, at the pedagogical level, information about better design and deployment of drama tasks to impact learners' knowledge and understanding.

For the purposes of the model, learning science is seen as a process of rationalising between two worlds of knowing: the learner's world and the scientist's. The learner's world draws on everyday experience, commonly used terms and language and what has been gleaned from science as presented knowledge from media, family, friends and school (Braund & Reiss, 2006). The scientist's world of knowing, which is the eventual target for learning change, has specific rational explanations for the world based on applications of concepts and theories mediated through empiricism. This view can be represented as a general model for learning science shown as Figure 1. In this general model, ‘cognitive dissonance’ is the ‘distance’ between the two worlds of knowing and the ‘experiential space’ is the nature of activity and effort, used by the teacher, to reduce the amount of cognitive dissonance and so close the gap between the two worlds.

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Figure 1. A general model for learning science

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In drawing on Brook's notion of the ‘empty’ space for this model we have to remember that, cognitively, in both theatre and school learning contexts, the ‘space’ is not entirely void, being already partially occupied. So, the theatregoer may have his or her own ideas drawn from life about the topic of the play, past experiences of the theatre or from films and, perhaps even, some pre-knowledge about the play that inform notions about how it might be performed. As pointed out from Brook's critique of deadly theatre, the ‘space’ is also characterised and part occupied by the methods of theatrical interpretation and production. In the case of drama in theatre this includes how effectively drama and its direction, staging and symbolism make plots and storylines plausible. Similarly, for the school pupil learning science, the (empty) space before a science lesson is occupied by his or her preconceptions about the topic to be taught and attitudes and beliefs about science and school learning of science. This is important because, at an epistemological level, attitude (stemming from beliefs about science and science teaching) and motivation are often used to account for and infer patterns of science-related thinking, emotion and action in educational settings (see Koballa & Glynn, 2007, p. 75). Pupils' negative views of science learning and of science as an enterprise often stem from perceptions that science is only about factual learning and rarely or never encompasses creativity (Osborne & Collins 2001; Bennett, 2003; Shanahan & Nieswandt, 2009). In a study of three pairs of primary school pupils being taught science using drama (acted plays), Shanahan and Nieswandt (2009) showed that two of these pairs had significantly shifted from their negative expectations of science learning and had come to see science as an enterprise embracing creativity. Thus an important part of the (empty) space at the pedagogical level is what the teacher does to address cognitive dissonance and how effective methods are at rationalising between the learners' and scientists' worlds.

In the second stage of model construction, the general model is made specific to drama as one way of closing cognitive dissonance (see Figure 2). It could be argued that the model could be used more widely than for drama – perhaps for many approaches in the sociocultural landscape of learning. The word ‘drama’ in the second stage of the model could be substituted with ‘practical work’, ‘group task’ and so on. As already stated, the ‘space’ is not empty in terms of learners' existing ideas (as it is not for theatre audiences). The methods used by the teacher, their confidence and skill at using them and pupils' self-efficacy (beliefs about learning value) and attitudes to drama as a learning method populate the space and must be taken into account to ensure the success of teaching approaches. It is here that content design and teaching methods have much to learn from the ways in which Brook sees theatre filling ‘his’ empty space. In Brook's rough theatre it is methods to make drama plausible that help fill the empty space and in teaching it is similar in that abstract and difficult ideas must also be made plausible to be accessible. A tradition in science teaching is to use practical work to help pupils access ideas and teach concepts, but this has been criticised for being too focussed on practising and performing rehearsed routines and procedures rather than on understanding emerging from individual or group negotiated tasks controlled by pupils (Hodson, 1991; Abrahams & Reiss, 2012). It is possible that drama has a place to play as an addition to practical work, to improve its impact. For example, Warner and Anderson (2004) studied different classes investigating the biology of snails, through observation and experiment, with and without a prelude of role plays involving pupils as expert zoologists. They noticed better accuracy in writing and increased levels of anatomical knowledge for pupils who had taken part in practical inquiry and role plays.

image

Figure 2. A model for learning science through drama

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What makes drama special to consider using this model, and sometimes more demanding for teachers to use than other forms of learning in the ‘active’ tradition, are the particular pedagogical features and decisions that must be taken to get the most from any particular task and that are unique to different forms of drama. As Dorion points out, from classroom studies of physical role plays, these events require complex analogies and continuous combinations of implicit and explicit anthropomorphism (Dorion, 2009, p. 2266). Other types of drama, using dance and movement or performed scripts, might also be improved by drawing on Brook's notions of the holy, rough or immediate theatres. Whatever the type of drama used by teachers, there is inevitably going to be a question of the extent of ‘pedagogical border crossing’ required, that is from the pedagogy of drama to the pedagogy of science, to make the drama useful as a tool for learning (Fels & Meyer, 1997). Part of the problem for science teachers is that they may misconceive the main purposes of drama as a learning tool for science. A drama task in science is not so much associated with aesthetics of performance, interpretation of text and character or of a playwright's philosophical or political intentions. It is more about the potential for explaining concepts or understanding the scientific basis of different positions and views. Rasmussen (2010) coined the phrase ‘good enough drama’ to account for these epistemological functions of drama in constructivist learning:

Good enough drama accounts for the concept and context in hand, previous experiences of the participants and the facilitator in drama use, the pretext and type of chosen drama, space in which it is carried out and materials used. Quality is in terms of ability of the drama to transform participants' experiences to recognise new shapes and forms. (Rasmussen, 2010, p. 534)

For some science teachers the pedagogical border crossings from drama to science are not so great, they feel comfortable with drama and methods used by drama educators. For others (the majority I suspect) the crossing is difficult or never made. There is thus a need for drama and science educators to come together to share ideas and practices and create the epistemological landscape and pedagogical insights through which drama for learning science becomes a reality. Access to this landscape and these insights requires research.

Operationalising the theoretical model

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Perspectives from drama in science education
  5. Perspectives from drama in theatre: Brook's ‘empty space
  6. A theoretical model for drama in science education
  7. Operationalising the theoretical model
  8. Conclusions: an agenda for research
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

Theoretical models are all very well on their own as an exercise to expand horizons or to conceptualise a field as Skemp had in mind and as discussed in the introduction. But to make Skemp's idea, that theory makes practice come alive, a reality the model needs grounding in an example. The example discussed here is an activity designed to be part of a lesson for 11- to 14-year-old pupils on human fertilisation (Abrahams & Braund, 2012). It should be noted that this example does not represent the full range of drama methods used to teach science (including theatre in science, scripted drama, pre-determined role play, mime, dance and movement) nor does it represent drama used to improve understanding of the nature of science or science's interactions with society (Aikenhead, 1996; McComas, 1996; Ødegaard, 2003). The example is chosen on the basis that it is just one case of how the model might be operationalised in practice.

In this example it is assumed pupils would have already studied explanations of fertilisation and chromosomal determination of sex from textbooks or other learning media. They are therefore using drama to embed and deepen learning of ideas and concepts communicated by more conventional means. Pupils are told they must act out the process of fertilisation showing how the sex of ‘the baby’ is determined, the only props being cards bearing the letter X or letter Y to represent the sex chromosomes in ovum and sperm nuclei. A class of 30 pupils is divided into two separate circles of 15 and each group/circle is told to plan their acted out simulation and that no words, script or talk during enactment is necessary, just their movements and positions. After the planning stage (about 10 minutes) each group is asked to perform their ‘play’ while the other group of pupils watches. The photograph shown as Figure 3 shows a moment in the performance of one group of pupils.

image

Figure 3. A group of pupils portraying human fertilisation. The pupils standing in the centre of the photograph are showing that the ovum nucleus has been fertilised and that the resultant zygote will be male. The pupils seated on the floor show the ovum wall through which no more sperm can penetrate. The remaining pupils show sperm that have advanced towards the ovum but cannot enter once the ovum has been fertilised. Source: Abrahams and Braund (2012, p. 13). Copyright: Continuum Books.

Download figure to PowerPoint

As can be seen in Figure 3, the simple props, movements and positions of the pupil-players has helped make a sometimes hard to visualise process ‘come alive’. In terms of the theoretical model for drama, the experiential space has been filled. Of course video or computer simulations could have been used as the ‘filler’, but how much more does pupils' personal and physical involvement in devising drama and acting out biological components and processes add to their understanding? For holy theatre and in Artaud's terms (Artaud, 1958; Brook, 1968), the act of drama has potential to help these pupils reach a possibly truer and more easily comprehended (more plausible) understanding of an obscured or complex set of truths, in this case about a number of biological processes in the apparently simple idea of human fertilisation and sex determination. In movements and tableaux, that take only minutes to perform, a complex set of interacting concepts are portrayed through the performance: the entry of a sperm nucleus across the ovum membrane, the mix of genetic material that defines the moment of fertilisation, the genetic determination of gender by combinations of X and Y or X and X chromosomes and the ovum membrane as a barrier to further entry of sperm once fertilisation has taken place. The drama task helps pupils appreciate the complexity of interacting processes that are often overlooked when using other learning media (Colucci-Gray et al., 2006). Could the same principles be as effectively taught and understood in the same amount of time from a book or by using a video or computer simulation? Of course the question cannot be answered without research.

This is where two elements of the central arrow of the model in Figure 2 are of paramount importance. Of course, one could argue that teacher confidence and skill are a requirement of effective deployment of any teaching task but, as discussed, this may well be a function of the science teacher's epistemological and pedagogical standpoints on drama to promote learning science (Fels & Meyer, 1997; Dorion, 2009; Abrahams & Braund, 2012).

According to the model, at an epistemological level pupil efficacy and attitude have a bearing on the likely successes and outcomes of science drama. Pajares claims that pupils' self-efficacy beliefs determine the amount of effort expended on an activity, how long learners will persevere when confronting obstacles and how resilient they might be when encountering problems (Pajares, 2003). Since, in this case, we are dealing with particular learning tasks (drama tasks) the ‘value’ that pupils place on these tasks may depend, according to ‘expectancy value theory’ (Pintrich & De Groot, 1990), on: a capability component, that includes students' beliefs about their ability to carry out a task; a value component, that includes students' goals and beliefs about the importance and interest of the task and an affective component, that includes students' emotional reactions to the task (Pintrich & De Groot 1990, p. 34). Thus there is a link that might be worth exploring between (task) efficacy, pupils' beliefs and values and their emotional responses to using drama. Some studies have explored drama use in terms of the last two components of expectancy value theory (for example, Solomon et al., 1992; Braund, 1999; Bentley, 2000; Begoray & Stinner, 2005; Dorion, 2009) but not for the first (efficacy) component and very little if anything has been done to consider the interaction of all three components and how this plays out for effective learning in the classroom, as in a fuller application of general expectancy value theory.

As far as pupils' attitudes to the use of drama tasks are concerned, research has shown these may not be so much of a problem. In a study by Christofi and Davies (1991), 70% of pupils were enthusiastic about learning science using drama. In the same study, however, only 50% of teachers said they used drama to teach science and most of this was accounted for by responses from primary teachers. In contrast science teachers in secondary schools rarely appeared to use drama.

Conclusions: an agenda for research

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Perspectives from drama in science education
  5. Perspectives from drama in theatre: Brook's ‘empty space
  6. A theoretical model for drama in science education
  7. Operationalising the theoretical model
  8. Conclusions: an agenda for research
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

As Ødegaard and others working in drama education point out, there is a dearth of research in science education to help persuade science teachers, particularly in secondary schools, to start using or to improve the quality of drama tasks (O'Hara, 1996; Fels & Meyer, 1997; Henry, 2000; Ødegaard, 2003). To help science teachers make the sorts of ‘pedagogical border crossings’ envisaged by Fels and Meyer (1997), four aspects occupying the ‘drama space’ in the model in Figure 2 require research.

  • A teacher efficacy aspect. To uncover perceptions and dispositions of science teachers to ways of using drama to teach science.
  • A learner efficacy aspect. To explore the perceptions and dispositions of learners to uses of drama to help them learn science.
  • A pedagogical aspect. To identify critical moments in teachers' practices in using drama (of planning, task selection and design, teaching and evaluation) contributing to successful learning in science.
  • An attainment aspect. To assess the impact of using drama to teach science on learners' knowledge and understanding of taught concepts.

A starting point for research might be to find out how the type of drama (role play, dance, mime, scripted drama/plays), task design and teachers' confidence and skill at using tasks impact outcomes of learning for pupils. Such research would have capacity to show to what extent drama is effective in closing cognitive dissonance between the idea or issue in the science world and pupils' understanding. In the example shown in Figure 3, what aspects of the task, the ways the teacher instructed pupils and the ways that pupils engaged with and acted their roles, helped (or hindered) the formation of individual concepts and holistic understanding of biological processes?

A key aspect of teachers' skill in using drama tasks in science, commented on by a number of researchers (Henry, 2000; Fels, 2004; Dawson et al., 2009; Rasmussen, 2010), is the ability of the teacher to allow space for pupil reflection on the extent to which their acted roles, movements or talk are realistic representations of the science represented. Video recordings and analysis of drama tasks used in science lessons could reveal the critical episodes of teacher and pupil actions and elements of their discourse that lead to successful representation and understanding of science content or issues. This level of analysis might also reveal to what extent pupils may have over-anthropomorphised their roles or adopted new misconceptions unintentionally promoted by engaging in a drama event.

There is some evidence that drama in science classrooms might be more effective when structured as a two-tier event. Other activity such as practical work, group discussion or book research could be preceded or followed by drama activities (Jones 1988; Braund, 1999). Some exploration of whether lessons designed like this work better than with other structures would be worthwhile. As mentioned earlier, there has been an increasing research effort on argumentation in science classrooms and the benefits this can bring linguistically and for helping understand ideas and issues. Drama, particularly role plays used prior to debate about science in relation to societal issues, seems to provide an opportunity for pupils to sort out the meaning of terms and identify the different roles and perspectives of individuals and organisations. In the cases of role plays about zoos and organ transplantation it has been argued that this two-tier structure allows for better constructed arguments and more valid use of terminology (Simon et al., 2006; Braund et al., 2007). In all these endeavours, to research and evaluate the efficacy, impact and outcomes of drama to learn science, the age, gender and previous learning experiences of pupils must be taken into account. It may also be the case that certain pupils may have pre-dispositions to engaging in drama, even fears that stem from their shyness or reticence to take part in such events. Finding out how such proclivities affect engagement and pupils' attitudes and cognitive outcomes merits consideration.

The example used to ground the theoretical model is an unscripted, physical role play in which pupils simulate actions of biological components and processes. In these types of drama the teacher takes a relatively ‘stand-off’ position allowing pupils creative space to improvise actions to interpret and portray science. As Dorion (2009) recognises, this type of drama requires a great deal of teacher empathy with pupils and implicit trust between the teacher and the class. This opens up the question as to whether it is these types of tasks that frighten many teachers away from using drama in science lessons. They might see drama teachers using these methods successfully but in the tighter control required in a science classroom or laboratory (as science teachers might perceive it) these tasks represent physical and pedagogical risks. Uncovering teachers' perceptions of how and why they think drama activities provide effective learning in science is important here. The messages and lessons from Brook's holy and rough theatres are helpful in setting out different purposes for drama to help learning in other subjects such as science. McSharry and Jones (2000) offer some reasons why role plays are a ‘valuable educational tool’. In their view they provide pupils with:

  1. A narrative method to communicate science content, discoveries and controversies.
  2. A sense of ownership of their learning especially when they are engaged in creation and performance of science drama.
  3. Frameworks for and ways in to debates and discussion about moral and ethical issues that might otherwise be too sensitive for pupils to discuss (McSharry and Jones provide examples in sex education).
  4. A physical experience (often using analogies) through which abstract content is made more comprehensible than through conventional learning methods (see also Lawson, 1993). (Based on McSharry & Jones, 2000, p. 74.)

These attributes for successful drama could be used as a set of a priori items against which responses from teachers about their opinions on the pedagogical functionality of science drama could be compared.

A way to persuade teachers into using drama activities, particularly of the physical role play type, might be to follow McSharry and Jones' suggestion to progress pupils from structured games and scripted plays through role plays defined by the teacher to the more improvised role plays where pupils are left to devise and perform their own simulations of scientific phenomena, events or processes. Researching how such a progression maps out in terms of teachers' professional learning to use drama is a further important area for research.

Using drama is a powerful tool for the science teacher mainly as it provides the sorts of mental spaces and physical interactions and opportunities for pupils to engage with narratives that are lacking in some other methods that constitute the rather impoverished diet for science learning provided by many schools. Ultimately drama works because it helps provide relief from the tedium of much science teaching with the bonus of improved engagement and interest for pupils who experience it. The new theorisation and the research called for in this article should help drama in science make a better contribution to the core intentions of a so-called ‘constructivist approach’ to learning.

Acknowledgement

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Perspectives from drama in science education
  5. Perspectives from drama in theatre: Brook's ‘empty space
  6. A theoretical model for drama in science education
  7. Operationalising the theoretical model
  8. Conclusions: an agenda for research
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References

The author would like to acknowledge the support of Michael Reiss at the Institute of Education, University of London and Marianne Ødegaard, at the University of Oslo who kindly commented on early drafts of this paper.

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Perspectives from drama in science education
  5. Perspectives from drama in theatre: Brook's ‘empty space
  6. A theoretical model for drama in science education
  7. Operationalising the theoretical model
  8. Conclusions: an agenda for research
  9. Acknowledgement
  10. References
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