History of Drama in Education Part 1: Splitting definitions of Drama.

It is safe to assume that the vast majority of schools have a tradition of putting on school plays. From the primary school nativity to the secondary school musical performance. Whether it is long past or short past. Whether it is going strong or making a comeback. It would be pretty hard to find a school that has never put on a show. Putting on a show has been long recognised as a staple part of a school’s cultural life.

In history, this has been the case. We can go back to 1910’s to see records of theatre making in schools. The Board of Education reported on the benefits of dramatic activity. Indeed, they recommended the increase in provision for dramatic activity. That dramatic activity was of course the act of putting on plays and performances. Which, in the early the 1900’s and 1910’s, putting on plays was an important part of the curriculum. Indeed, by the 1940’s, dramatic activity was a well-established practice in all schools.

Within a wider framework of a curriculum, this dramatic activity was part of English. Which had a much broader definition to it than the study of English we know today. The putting on of plays was a small and obvious extension to the study of plays.

As momentum for Drama to become a subject in its own right gathered, it was also drawn another argument. An argument which focused on the definitions between the term’s “drama” and “theatre”.

Up until the 1950’s, dramatic activity was theatre. Making theatre and performing theatre. Focused on its ability to help students to understand the play they were studying. But also valued for its ability to help students develop their voice, confidence and social skills. In this context, the term “drama” referred to the content of the theatre, the subject of the text. As it does when we talk about Drama on TV or in film today.

But as the subject developed, drama teachers were keen to distinguish themselves from what had come before. They were keen to distance themselves from Theatre. Instead focusing on how the Drama developed students understanding of the world.

Thus, in the early 1960’s where Drama was struggling to get a foothold in the school curriculum. Theatre did not emerge as a subject in its own right based on a definition of studying theatre. Instead it emerged with a different definition of drama. In a report written in 1963 described drama as not being a significant a subject enough to gain a place on the curriculum. This “drama” was not what the “dramatic activities” that the Board of Education had established it to be in the 1910’s. This “drama” was a teaching tool. A pedagogy. A way of working to help young people learn.

This new “drama” of the 1960’s was of course not new. Not then anyway. It was a movement that in itself was gaining momentum. Henry Caldwell-Cook wrote in The Playway (1919), of how he saw dramatic activity as a method of teaching. Considered somewhat of a maverick at the time, he saw drama as a way of teaching the whole curriculum. His stance was that play was the natural mode of children. As such, he saw that education should be embracing that rather than suppressing it. And, by tapping into that natural excitement and engagement, teachers could use it as a method of teaching.

This was not something confined to here in the UK. In America, education reformer John Dewey had similar views. As did Russian education writer Anton Makarenko. All agreed that the passion that children have for play should be a driver for education, learning and vocation.

Of course, without a centralised curriculum within the UK, schools were able to shape their own. Many schools in post war Britain were looking for progressive change in their method. Feeling that the traditional subject-based education had failed Britain in the run up to World War II. The argument at the time was not only based on the way to teach and deliver education but what the fundamental purpose of education was. Post war Britain faced a lot of fundamental questions about its society. One of which was how to pre-war education system had created such an unequal society.

Schools looked for a progressive, informal, and balanced form of education. Forms that would redress the traditionalism of pre-war education. And in some cases, work against it. The work of Caldwell-Cook, considered too progressive for inclusion at the time of writing, now fitted. But it was in the figures of Brian Way and Peter Slade who came to the influential foreground. Their books, Child Drama (1965) and Development Through Drama (1967), were to become key texts of the future.

So, by 1960 there were already two different and competing definitions of Drama. But with Peter Slade and Brian Way in the 1960’s came a third definition of drama. One which we will explore in my next blog.