Secret Teacher: Issue 90

Debating the status of drama as an academic subject

Is Drama an academic subject? I would think that most Drama teachers would vehemently answer ‘YES’. For many years, drama teachers have grappled with acceptance alongside other subjects for status and power. As Drama teachers, we often find ourselves justifying the role our subject plays in student development processes such as decision making, problem solving and perseverance as well as exposing our cohorts to real-life issues usually taught through the realms of role-play and textual study. The new Ofsted framework which seeks to include character education lends itself to a strong dramatic approach to learning.

So is Drama academic? In answering this question, we need to define the two terms. An online search for the word ‘Drama’ produces responses such as ‘a play for theatre, radio or television’ and ‘the activity of acting’. The term ‘academic’ by Collins Dictionary states ‘…[an] emphasis on studying and reasoning rather than on practical or technical skills.’ This is problematic because our subject is driven both by practical and technical skills. The question, therefore, is how do we measure or judge (indeed, one might say ‘assess’) Drama education in schools for the subject to be classified as academic?

A recent Twitter poll of 130 drama teachers asked how much assessment at KS3 was built upon practical versus written work: 58% of teachers said that they prioritised ‘practical over written’ with 30% of assessment being ‘purely practical.’ Only 11% of teachers said they had an ‘equal balance.’

These are worrying statistics, especially if we want our subject to be classified as ‘academic.’ To present credible, well-balanced understanding of drama education in schools, we need to have an equal share of written assessment. Written assessment serves to be more reliable for expressing complexity and understanding of a topic. Throughout history, novels and play texts have served as written forms of creativity, as have famous practitioner works such as An Actor Prepares or The Empty Space. Reliable theories that we teach practically in our classrooms stem from written theory. Moreover, current Drama programmes are driven by exam specifications. These specifications are produced to deliver holistic approaches to drama education, that allow students to have a well-balanced understanding of theatre. The key term here is ‘well-balanced understanding’ – considering how certain specifications, for example, have a 60/40% weighting towards theoretical understanding, as teachers we cannot ignore aspects of theory. Critically, this cannot be ignored at KS3 when students transition to KS4.

Written assessment should be embraced and celebrated, not neglected, for Drama in schools to be classified as ‘academic’. Our students deserve it!

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