Published on 2012/08/06

Using Drama to Enhance Adult Learning

Drama is an effective tool when teaching adults in that it is a non-traditional way to exemplify new principles and illuminate particular points of practice. Photo by Matusciac.

The use of drama to teach concepts and practices as a pedagogical approach is gaining greater acceptance among educators. When orchestrated carefully, the use of drama can provide a powerful, transformative experience for the adult student. Viewing a film becomes a common shared experience which is used by the instructor for further case study work.

According to the playwright David Mamet, “It is in our nature to dramatize.” The use of storytelling—dramatic storytelling—has its roots deep in human history. The Greeks used it to transmit cultural traditions and to teach character development to their youth through such works as Homer’s Odyssey. The same is true in all cultures. The need to dramatize goes beyond cultural purpose and permeates all aspects of our lives.  Drama fulfills a basic human need.  Mamet tells us: “The dramatic urge [is] our impulse to structure cause and effect in order to increase our store of practical knowledge about the universe…. It is enjoyable, like music, like politics, and like theater, because it exercises, it flatters, and it informs our capacity for rational synthesis — our ability to learn a lesson, which is our survival mechanism.”

Educators can take advantage of this deep need and overarching human drive to create order by harnessing drama to teach basic principles. Rather than become dramatists ourselves (although we occasionally lapse into this role to make a point), we make use of good drama to educate, to exemplify a principle, and to illumine a point of practice. Key to this process is to (a) select good drama (b) envision the application of the story and its characters to the management point being illustrated; and finally (c) orchestrate the educational experience for best effect. The educator uses a common shared experience (the film) which can be used for further case discussion and to build upon for future assignments. Adults react positively to such an experiential approach to their education.

Arthur Chickering advocates the use of technology as good practice in teaching adult students with diverse learning styles. A “good practice” he advocates in his work is respect for students’ diverse talents and ways of learning, always paramount when working with eth adult learner. All students need opportunities to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Technology (film in this case) can be harnessed, as Chickering tell us, as a “different method(s) of learning through powerful visuals and well-organized print; through direct, vicarious, and virtual experiences; and through tasks requiring analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, with applications to real-life situations. They can encourage self-reflection and self-evaluation. They can drive collaboration and group problem solving. Technologies can help students learn in ways they find most effective and broaden their repertoires for learning.”

Film viewing as a group activity, with follow up case questions based on the film, capitalizes on the diversity of student talent and points of view. It ultimately results in the effect Chickering advocates: students will find the mastery of principles easier and assimilate knowledge more quickly. The experience of viewing a film with subsequent assignments and application to further learning produce a deeper transformation as urged by Chickering.

In selecting good drama for teaching it is not important to find out what the artist intended, or what point the artist was trying to make in the film. The drama itself depicts a slice of life, a commentary on historical or current events. Good drama must have an emotional impact and it must grip the student for maximum transformation. Since dramatists strive for emotional engagement, rather than to craft a message, we should rely upon the work of fiction to accomplish two things: help us make our point, and be good drama in order to maximize its transformative power.

Some films, as well as some assignments, lend themselves to the use of the entire film. In such cases it takes the majority if not the entire film to see the principles played out and demonstrated. Such is the case for example with the use of Jurassic Park [Spielberg, 1993] to teach principles of software system design.  The film shows the disastrous consequences of developing a software system by a single developer of dubious loyalty; one who is the sole owner of passwords, source code and system details; and when he dies takes with him the necessary information that can restore order to Jurassic Park after disaster strikes.  There are many best practice system design rules broken throughout the film. The drama that unfolds is punctuated with these “should have” lessons in system design.

Assigning the students to view the entire Jurassic Park film as a team allows for sufficient discussion and discovery of all these best practices. The assignment could be to create the most exhaustive list of best practices (or poor practices) as possible, with elements of team competition thrown in to enhance the transformation that takes place.  This film makes a good assignment in Management Information Systems courses, for example.

The same is true with the film Executive Suite [Wise, 1954], where a major drama unfolds in corporate governance. It has maximum impact when viewed in its entirety.  Although the film was created in the 1950’s, the drama as played out on film, the issues presented, and the character types depicted, are timeless.  The film affords the educator the opportunity to teach organizational leadership at top corporate levels, including a healthy dose of corporate ethics, so important in today’s curriculum.

Film viewing assignments engage all types of learners in all their intelligences. Interpersonal learners get an opportunity to discuss the meaning of the film with fellow classmates in the context of the questions. The visual learners, of course, get a high-content visual and aural experience; and the musical learners have a high-value musical score of the film to accompany the learning experience. The intrapersonal learners will have a reflective experience to go with this assignment (see below). Compiling answers and writing the report on behalf of the group satisfies those who learn best via the written word; and due to the informal nature of the experience, the kinesthetic learner is free to move about during the viewing (something not possible in the three hours of class time). In this way, the principles of active learning are satisfied and a major transformational experience is accomplished without using a minute of class time watching a film.

Orchestrating learning experiences in a specific subject using drama, especially when using full-length motion pictures, can be a powerful transformative experience. Orchestration of the experience must be carefully planned and carried out. Knowledge of how drama is created by modern storytellers assists the faculty to properly select the film and match it to the subject to be taught and the type of experience being designed.

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Excerpted from J. Billsberry, (2012), Moving Images: Effective Teaching with Film and Television in Management, Chapter 15 by A. Fortino, IAP.

Chickering, A. and Ehrmann, S.C. (1996), Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever, AAHE Bulletin, October, pp. 3-6.

Gardner, H. (1993) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Basic Books.

Mamet, D. (2000). Three Uses of the Knife. Vintage Books.

Spielberg, S. (Director). (1993).  Jurassic Park [Film], Universal/MCA

Wise, R. (Director). (1954).  Executive Suite [Film]. Warner Studios

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Readers Comments

Frank Palatnick 2012/08/08 at 9:59 pm

Using drama is an excellent approach. However, I feel that using real life ‘ What if… ‘ situations would be a more active approach. To create a real live environment in the classroom would create a more participatory learning and understanding experience. For instance, a Model UN would cause students to want to improve our current world problems by actually writing letters to ambassadors, heads of state and ministers to see a different point of view.

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