Making Sense of Drama

Making Sense of Drama, Jonothan Neelands, 1984.

Making Sense of Drama was Jonothan Neelands was one of the first books I read at university. This was the first book I read on the subject of teaching drama, or using drama in the classroom. My thoughts on Drama in the classroom at this point were really dominated by my own experiences as a student. First at secondary school, where we put on several plays, all of which were written by my Drama Teacher, and then in my sixth form college, where that tradition of performance continued. Making Sense of Drama was totally different to my own experiences!

Written in 1984 it doesn’t have the paranoia of not having a place on the top table of the national curriculum because it hadn’t been established yet. In the blurb on the back it states that “the book is based on the belief that drama has an important part to play in helping teachers move towards a unified curriculum”. It is about making a case of Drama on the National Curriculum, which was still in the developing stages and wouldn’t yet be introduced until 1988.

The focus of the book is to unpick the different strands of drama that dominated the debate in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s into a clearer vision for drama in for the next twenty plus years. Our starting point within the book is what Neelands defined Drama as being in 1984.

“Drama (in the education context) is not as concerned with transmission of theatre-skills as it is with the construction of imagined experienced.

Neelands defines the imagined experience as being particularly efficient context for children and young people to experiment and try out new ideas, concepts and roles. He goes on to state that,

“Drama is to do with the child experiencing rather than the child performing”

I wonder how many of us would feel comfortable today with these two definitions of Drama written into our curriculum policies?

Having revisited this book for the first time in a long time, is the distance we’ve traveled since is was written. The ‘we’ I refer to are both teachers and students.

His aims and models of practice are well founded, based on years of work by Drama Teachers Dorothy Heathcote and Gavin Bolton and psychologist Vygotsky. All based on the Vygotsky concept that play is central to the development of the brain and mental wellbeing.

The practical examples Neelands provides, of working in role, exploring and experimenting in imagined worlds co-created, co-directed and co-defined by the teacher and students. They are all examples of an old phrase, but perhaps one that shouldn’t totally forgotten, of process drama. As Neelands explains;

“Drama is both a way of learning and a method of teaching”

We should be mindful that in this statement he defines drama not as preparing and creating a performance but as a pedagogy, a method of teaching and learning.

In reality, and in part, I’m not uncomfortable with that. What work I have done in Key Stage 1 and 2, it has been very successful projects with the focus on experiencing and learning through drama rather than creating and performing a drama piece.

However, what happens in Key Stage 3?

Over 20 years ago now, whilst at university, I did a teaching practice in a school in north London. We used this book to plan and deliver a series of workshops to an older year group. I struggle to remember more details of what we did and how, but I have vivid memories of working alongside those students creating little communities with everyone in role exploring an event that would no doubt test the foundations of that community.

I doubt that I would get the buy-in from my students today to do that. When I look at the students I teach today, I think only Year 7 in the first few months of their time in Secondary School would they enter into that world with me without having some known product, gradable or otherwise, which they could work towards.

What Neelands does in this book is to find a way of using Drama as a lens for children to look through and experience life, challenges and conflicts in a safe, encouraging and familiar environment.

Read more about the history of drama as a subject since the invention of the National Curriculum in 1988.

Purchase a copy of Making Sense of Drama by Jonothan Neelands.