Drama Invigorates Primary Science Education

McGregor, D. (2012). Dramatising science learning: Findings from a pilot study to re-invigorate elementary science pedagogy for five-to seven-year olds. International Journal Of Science Education, 34, 1145 - 1165.

As in the United States and many countries around the world, students in Britain are increasingly being “taught to the test,” with heavy emphasis on content and vocabulary, and less time for creativity, questioning, and investigating in science instruction. This article reports on a pilot study to explore the use of dramatic techniques for promoting engagement and understanding of science among five-to seven-year olds. In addition, the study investigated whether using drama promoted the development of teachers' understanding of primary science.

The study focused on a group of 20 teachers of five- to seven-year-olds from 10 schools in the UK. Six workshop days were held between September 2009 and September 2010 (two workshop days per term). The workshops were organized and led by a team of three educators. In addition, the project had a steering group, which included the director of a local science center and a local drama advisor.

For each workshop day, the teachers were instructed in various dramatic teaching strategies and participated in interactive activities. As the project progressed, the teachers became more autonomous in devising the teaching strategies that they brought back to their classrooms.

Eight basic teaching strategies were developed through the project, each one allowing students to think about science in different ways. On the table, for example, developed observation and questioning skills as the students explored images of magnified objects and speculated about the objects' nature and possible uses. Another strategy, called modeling, provided a physical way for students to engage with learning by allowing students to use their bodies to mimic how something works. The strategies were applied in various contexts. One example was toys, where students were encouraged to discover what made toys move and work in different ways.

To evaluate the project, researchers collected quantitative and qualitative data to measure the teachers' and students' experiences. The qualitative data included reflective journals that the teachers kept throughout the process, video and audio recordings of the workshops and teachers in the schools, and field notes. The quantitative measures included questionnaires for the 20 teachers, asking them to reflect on how the project influenced their own teaching. A questionnaire for the 200 participating students examined their feelings and views about learning science through drama.

The qualitative data were used to compose “the teacher's learning story,” which outlined the teachers' development over the course of the six workshops. Each workshop day was understood as a different phase in the teachers' development. The six phases were described as: (1) Becoming conversant and familiar; (2) Recognizing and realizing opportunities; (3) Drama can provide revelations!; (4) Succeeding despite challenges; (5) Becoming more confident and creative; and (6) The finale. One of the key findings from the learning story narrative was the teachers' realizing that inviting children to demonstrate their understanding of the subject through drama often illustrated an incomplete conceptual grasp, of which the teachers were otherwise unaware.

Another finding was that some of the strategies were much easier to apply than others. Particularly straightforward strategies were miming movement (“indicating what it might be like to be a 'something' or have something happening to them”), freeze frame (pausing-in-action), and modeling. Over the course of the project, the teachers became more comfortable and familiar with all of the strategies presented and found ways of implementing them despite initial hesitation. That said, some strategies continued to be used more frequently than others.

The teacher questionnaires also revealed that the dramatic techniques were effective for most of the science subjects covered in their classroom. Exceptions to these were teaching students how to plan an experiment and how to obtain and present evidence, where the teachers reported little improvement in both students' learning and enthusiasm for the material.

Overall, the teachers reported a great deal of enthusiasm from the students regarding the learning strategies. In fact, some of the students were so enthusiastic that they began acting things out when taught something new, not only in science class but in other classes as well. The student questionnaires echoed this positive response, with the vast majority of students reporting that using drama to learn science “is more enjoyable and fun,” “helps me understand more difficult ideas,” “helps because we act things out more,” and “helps because we talk about things more.”

The Bottom Line

<p>This study demonstrated that dramatic techniques can be effective tools for teaching science to five- to seven-year-olds. Drama increases student engagement and enjoyment with science learning and also can help them understand difficult concepts. Having students act out scientific concepts also can help teachers better understand where students' conceptual gaps exist.</p>