Taking Stock and Looking Ahead: Drama Pedagogy as a Gateway to a Performative Teaching and Learning Culture

Manfred Schewe

Volume VII, Issue 1, 2013, doi:10.33178/scenario.7.1.2
© 2013, The Author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


This overview article initially focuses on early connections between dramatic art, teaching, learning, and living, followed by a brief account of how Great Britain took on a pioneering role with regard to the establishment of drama as a school subject, method and educational sub-discipline. It then focuses on how drama pedagogy in foreign language teaching and learning has developed as a specific field of research and practice since the 1970s, acknowledging the important contributions to the field made by scholars and practitioners from outside Great Britain. An overview of current practice in the field is given by presenting different (small-scale and large-scale) forms of staging language, literature and culture. The article concludes by proposing a model for a „Performative Fremdsprachendidaktik“ (Performative Foreign Languages Didactics) and by arguing that in the future “performative” be used as an umbrella term to describe forms of foreign language teaching and learning that derive from the performing arts.


  1. Early connections between dramatic art and teaching, learning, and living
  2. Drama as a school subject, method and educational sub-discipline: the pioneering role of Great Britain
  3. Drama Pedagogy in foreign language teaching and learning as a field of research and practice (1970s to the present)
  4. Different forms of staging language, literature and culture
  5. Towards a P erformative Foreign L anguage Didactics

1. Early connections between dramatic art and teaching, learning, and living

The metaphor of the world as a stage (theatrum mundi), tends to be associated in particular with the Spanish Baroque poet, Calderón de la Barca. In the first part of his famous ‘sacramental play’, El gran teatro del mundo (1636) God, as ‘The Author’, speaks of the world as a wonderful but in the end short-lived theatre, in which the drama of human life is acted out.1 The ‘World’ actually becomes a character in the play ‘The Master’ wishes to see performed – the play of human life.

The idea of life as a play as well as the idea of understanding life better through play, has existed for quite some time in the history of European culture. Since ancient times, dramatic art has raised fundamental questions about both the limits and the possibilities of human existence. In addition, there are also early indications of the roles dramatic art can play in the field of education, in order to help individuals to come to a better understanding of what life is about and to develop abilities and skills which might be of value in the course of their education and personal development.

Philip Coggin (1956) illustrates this in his historical survey which ranges from Ancient Greece to the present day. The use of drama in educating children, for example, goes back to Plato (427-347 BC) who believed that children should learn in a playful way and be allowed to blossom by having as few constraints as possible on them (Coggin 1956:7ff). Coggin also refers to Quintilian (35-97 approx.) who regarded actors as exemplars of the art of delivering speech (ibid: 23f.). In the early Middle Ages, Benedictine monks began to accompany their singing of sacred hymns with gestures and movements, the first steps towards the emergence of liturgical plays. From that time onwards forms of drama-based education became increasingly popular (ibid: 45f.). Coggin emphasises the vital importance of mystery and morality plays in educating people at a time when access to books and learning was reserved for the privileged classes of medieval society (ibid: 52).

According to Coggin the increasing use of drama-related activities in European schools towards the second half of the 16th century, can be explained by the influence of humanist ideals of education (ibid: 58). From 1560 onwards, for instance, the performance of a play in Latin and English had become an annual event at the Westminster school; it was felt to provide a good training in appropriate behaviour (“proper action”) and to help to polish the students’ pronunciation skills.2 While he mainly focuses on England, Coggin also occasionally refers to developments outside his home country when, for example, he mentions Goethe’s father and how he overcame his sceptical attitude towards theatre by eventually coming to the conclusion that participation in school plays does, in fact, have a beneficial effect:

We know that his father disapproved very strongly of the theatre, until he found that it was teaching young Goethe to speak French faster than any tutor. (Coggin 1956:171)

It seems that this attitude was also shared by committed language teachers at English schools from the mid-19th century onwards:

As in the Renaissance, the mid-century schoolmasters first adopted drama as an aid to language study. French and German were beginning to enter the curriculum, and though they were often taught as dead languages, the more enlightened masters treated them as living, and promoted the oral aspect of their teaching by stage performance. (196)

2. Drama as a school subject, method and educational sub-discipline: the pioneering role of Great Britain

In his survey, Coggin shows how, in the climate of pedagogical reform in the early 20th century, the growth in theatre-orientated projects in schools had been complemented by attempts to incorporate drama-related learning activities into the school curriculum.3 Teachers became more aware of how the potential of drama for stimulating learning could be exploited in teaching different subjects, including English. In 1911, for example, Dr. Rouse, a teacher in the Perse Grammar School in Cambridge, wrote:

Acting is one of the most potent means of learning. Thought, word and act linked together make an impression such as nothing else can make. In this direction lies the salvation of our schools. We all know how dull a text-book is; a history of English, a manual of grammar, even chemistry books are sometimes dull. But if the teacher uses his book as a suggestion, makes his history a story, sets his pupils to act it, in make-believe, before they know what they are doing, they are practising English composition and English grammar and learning English history. (Coggin 1956:232)

Gavin Bolton’s surveys of the history of British drama pedagogy are widely respected within the scholarly community. In various publications (1993 and 1998 among others), he paid homage to the pioneering spirit of teachers in the 20th century who helped to pave the way for drama as a teaching and learning method across the curriculum, and for the establishment of drama as an independent school subject. He refers, in particular, to the theoretical writings and drama teaching practice of Harriet Finlay-Johnson (1911), Caldwell Henry Cook (1917), Peter Slade (1954), Brian Way (1967) and Dorothy Heathcote (Wagner 1979). However, through his own writings (e.g. 1979 and 1984) Bolton himself contributed enormously to drama gradually becoming established as a school subject, a teaching method for various school subjects as well as a sub-discipline within the field of education at many universities.

Over the course of the last three decades, further contributions have been made and new directions have been outlined by representatives of the next generation(s), including Fleming (1997), O’Neill (1995) and Neelands/Goode (2000).

The web pages of the leading British professional association National Drama (http://www.nationaldrama.org.uk), which also publishes the Drama Magazine (http://www.nationaldrama.org.uk/nd/index.cfm/drama-magazine/), provide a vivid insight into current initiatives and activities in various drama pedagogical fields of practice and into the related subject debate. The International Drama in Education Association (IDEA – http:www.idea-org.net), founded in 1992, hosts international conferences at regular intervals and also has a very informative website.4 In order to access general information about the developments in the area of research, the journal Research in Drama Education (RiDE) with a special focus on Applied Theatre and Performance is highly recommended. In this context, the activities of the IDIERI, the International Drama in Education Research Institute (http://idieri2012.org/), should also be of interest, including those which led to Ackroyd’s (2006) overview of research methodologies in drama pedagogy. For a first systematic evaluation of research projects in the area of ‘Educational Drama and Language Arts’, see Wagner (1998), although her survey focuses primarily on first-language acquisition.

Over the next few years, inter-disciplinary comparative research projects with a focus on developments in the area of ‘Drama, Theatre and Pedagogy’ in different cultures could yield important new insights. An initial step in this direction was made by DICE, an international Comenius Project, which aimed at evaluating the impact of drama-based teaching and learning in a range of different institutional contexts in the 12 participating countries. The acronym DICE stands for Drama Improves Lisbon Key Competences in Education and emphasises the overall very positive results of this study. An insightful summary can be found under http://www.dramanetwork.eu/key_results.html.5

3. Drama Pedagogy in foreign language teaching and learning as a field of research and practice (1970s to the present)

The aforementioned magazine, Research in Drama Education (RiDE), focused on the special topic of Drama Education and Second Language Learning for the first time in issue 4/2011. In the foreword, the editors, Stinson and Winston, take stock of developments in this field since the late 1970s. However, this stock-taking turns out to be rather insular and unfortunately completely ignores the dynamic developments in non-English speaking countries.

In the 1980s and 90s, communicative concepts of foreign and second language teaching and learning were thriving in Europe and worldwide. Taking heed of this development, advocates of drama in education, practitioners and foreign language teaching specialists become increasingly committed to the building of bridges between their respective disciplines. Important first initiatives came from Britain, and the publication by Kao/O’Neill (1998), highlighted in the aforementioned periodical, makes an important contribution in this respect. Nevertheless, a more systematic classification and conceptualisation of the new practice- and research area in the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century was developed largely outside Great Britain, mainly in German-speaking countries. It is also pursued by those who are teaching and researching outside these countries but nevertheless actively contributing to the subject debate in German-speaking countries and helping to promote international exchange and dialogue in the area of drama pedagogy. The relevant disciplines in this regard are general pedagogy, British drama and German theatre pedagogy as well as the ‘didactic disciplines’ associated with the relevant school or university subject. Furthermore, research perspectives from a wider spectrum of other professional disciplines, including educational psychology, neuropsychology, social and individual psychology, psycholinguistics, sociology, anthropology, intelligence and creativity research are also being considered.

Manfred Schewe has produced a study (Fremdsprache inszenieren 1993)6 in which, for the first time, a foreign language teacher systematically conducts research into his own teaching over a number of years and makes the academic community aware of the innovative role British drama pedagogy can play within foreign language disciplines.7 Schewe’s concept of drama-based teaching and learning, which has been developed through a process of ‘research in action’, and conducted and tested with a variety of target groups (e.g. university students in the foreign language classroom as well as teachers in teacher training and further education courses), is informed by the idea of ‘Unterricht als sinnliche Gestaltung’ (implying the idea of teaching and learning as a multisensory experience, Chapter II) and of ‘Drama als Pädagogische Kunstform’ (drama as a pedagogical art form, Chapter III). He differentiates between different phases of the foreign language learning experience (sensitisation, contextualisation and intensification) and, on the basis of both longer teaching units as well as short exercises, shows that drama-based foreign language teaching can, in principle, be applied to the three core areas of a foreign language discipline (i.e. language, literature and culture). He supplies a range of examples, including drama-based exercises which can be used to teach vocabulary, pronunciation and to practise listening and reading comprehension. The volume of collected essays Towards Drama as a Method in the Foreign Language Classroom, edited by Schewe/Shaw and published in the same year represents a first attempt to take stock, from an international perspective, of different forms of process and product-oriented drama-based foreign language teaching. Subsequent years have seen further diversification in this new field of practice and research, initiated by research projects that concentrate on specific sub-areas of the foreign language discipline and include the development of specific theoretical frameworks for drama-based teaching and learning in these areas. This is briefly outlined in the following examples.

In the area of language, Susanne Even (2003) presents her Drama Grammatik (drama grammar) approach, based on British drama pedagogy and particularly on Schewe’s concept of drama-based teaching and learning. Her studies strive to generate principles and parameters for teaching grammar in the context of German as a Foreign Language, with special emphasis on bridging the gap between theoretical linguistic knowledge and the concrete realization of language. She presents detailed lesson plans, e.g. about word classes (ch. VI) or the subjunctive (ch. VIII), based on four teaching phases (awareness-raising, context-finding, linguistic phase, dramatic play) and illustrates how German as a Foreign Language students can approach foreign language grammar in physical, aesthetic, social, emotional, and cognitive ways.8

In the area of culture, Angelika Mayrose-Parovsky (1997) uses techniques (for example duplicating, mirroring, role-play) originating in social and theatre pedagogy, in particular Moreno’s psychodrama, to back up her concept of Transkulturelles Sprechhandeln. Bild und Spiel in Deutsch als Fremdsprache in order to encourage ‘transcultural action’ in the multicultural German as a Foreign Language classroom. This can be regarded as preparation for and sensitisation to real life situations which transcends national, cultural and linguistic boundaries. In keeping with the core tenet of psychodramatic role-play, foreign language sessions are divided into three stages (preparation, enactment and post-enactment reflection) and focus on ‘transcultural situations’ such as family, profession, gifts, acknowledgements and congratulations. The post-enactment reflections aim at ‘transcultural depictions of real-life situations’.

In relation to the area of culture, the collected volume, Body and Language. Intercultural Learning through Drama, edited by Gerd Bräuer (2002), should be mentioned along with the concept of ‘an intercultural drama pedagogy for the teaching and learning of English as a foreign language (Kessler 2008; Kessler/Küppers 2009). Central to this is the use of specific teaching methods, or rather of ‘dramatic conventions’, which are applied to the respective ‘dimensions of intercultural competence’. The general objective of classes which are structured in this way is the creation of a ‘third space’ which mediates between ‘One’s Own’ and the ‘Other’, a space where, through oscillation between the two poles of ‘Other’ and ‘One’s Own’ or ‘Unknown’ and ‘Known’, something new, something shared is born (Kessler 2008:90). In these aforementioned methodologies literary texts also used as a starting and reference point for language and culture learning.

As far as the area of literature is concerned, it should be remembered that many centuries ago plays – mainly canonical texts – were staged in the non-native language(s) and that there has been a long tradition of school theatre groups and school play performances. In the course of mostly extra-curricular rehearsals and productions, the participants gain lasting learning experiences in relation to language, literature and culture together with enhanced personal development and significant self awareness as has already been documented. (e.g. Bourke, 1993). There has been increasing documentation over the past two decades of the ways in which the dramatization of literary texts through the application of drama teaching methods can enhance the language acquisition experience in the foreign language classroom in a longer teaching unit’. An example of this is Schewe/Wilms’ (1995) adaptation of Alfred Andersch’s novel, Sansibar oder der letzte Grund, where the sculpture, ‘Der Lesende Klosterschüler’ (the reading convent student), by Ernst Barlach serves both as a linking element within the tense plot as well as a focus point for classroom activity. The pupils or university students ‘translate’ the novel’s characters into colours and shapes and position them in relation to each other, transform key scenes into pantomime-like freeze frame, imitate the postures of the novel’s characters or craft masks in order to use them in a spontaneous scene improvisation. Meanwhile, there is a wealth of studies on the drama-based method of teaching and learning literature. Worth mentioning here is Brigitte Hahn-Michaelis’ publication (2011) on the scene-by-scene interpretation of Lessing’s ‘Nathan der Weise’ (Nathan the Prophet) by a multicultural and multilingual group of students at an Israeli university, or Steffi Retzlaff’s (2010) drama pedagogical approach to Reiner Kunze’s short story ‘Schieβbefehl’ (Order to Shoot). However, the systematisation of such approaches and their classification in order to form a coherent concept of the drama-based teaching and learning of literature is still to come. Generally speaking, in what applies to all three sub-disciplines is that there is a compelling need for relevant research projects that will procure and produce convincing evidence for the effectiveness of drama-based teaching and learning methods in the next few years.

The increasingly lively subject debate about drama-based teaching and learning led to the founding of the (German-English) online specialist journal, Scenario (http://scenario.ucc.ie), in 2007. This journal is geared towards linguists, language teachers, drama and theatre teachers, professional theatre specialists as well as second and third level educationalists. With its emphasis on the role of drama and theatre in teaching and learning foreign and second languages, as well as their corresponding literature(s) and culture(s), it has opened up a platform for a systematic and continuous discourse and exchange about drama- and theatre pedagogy in the teaching and learning of foreign and second languages (as well as in the areas of Drama and Theatre Studies, Psychodrama, Drama Therapy, Playback, Theatre, and Film). Although, in a certain way, drama and theatre pedagogy contradicts the present trend in the teaching and learning of foreign languages towards language for special purposes, measurable outcomes and cognitive learning, it has in the meantime become a respectable and widely used methodology for the most diverse pedagogical contexts (compare Esselborn 2010:249f). This online journal, which has been accompanied by a printed Scenario book edition since 2012 (Schibri Verlag, Berlin) for the promotion of intercultural dialogue in drama and theatre pedagogy, has been the driving force in the building of bridges between the arts and the field of foreign language teaching and learning over the past six years.

Meanwhile, inspired by developments in the area of first language teaching and learning (Scheller 2004, Kunz 2010), various foreign language disciplines are participating in the discussion and exchange of ideas about forms of drama- and theatre-based methods for the teaching and learning of language, literature and culture. The spectrum ranges from theoretically based methodologies such as referred to above, to hands-on tips and suggestions, e.g Dockalova’s (2011) description of Loops’: A multi-purpose drama technique for the language classroom, or Even’s (2011) Multiple Hotseating.9

4. Different forms of staging language, literature and culture

In order to stake out the by now quite impressively wide-ranging field of practice, it might be helpful to differentiate between small-scale and large-scale forms of drama-based teaching and learning. Performative activities which can be realised within the framework of a single class or a shorter teaching unit (approx. 3 – 5 classes) may be defined as small-scale forms.

‘Process drama’ (Bowell/Heap, 2001), for example, falls into the small-scale category. Students and teachers are involved in challenging performative activities during which both the teachers conducting the class and the students take on and impersonate various roles, i.e. that of actor/protagonist, director and dramatist, as well as spectator. Over the course of the classes or teaching units, there is a continuous output in the shape of tangible creations (e.g. pantomimes, freeze-frame depictions and acoustic collages). This requires the learner to act verbally and non-verbally in the respective preparation, re-enactment and reflection phases, which in turn allow the learner to make use of their linguistic and cultural abilities and knowledge in a variety of ways and also to systematically improve on them.

Figure image

Figure 1: Small-scale forms

One talks about large-scale forms when the framework of the everyday classroom activity is expanded. Thus, for example, the staging of a production in a foreign language is a large form in the sense of a product-oriented project which is very time consuming and often stretches out over several weeks or months. It demands high motivation and enormous dedication from the participants and can only be realised as an extra-curricular activity. The fact that during the rehearsals and the staging of a play, the participants gain long lasting learning experiences in relation to language, literature and culture along with significant insights contributing to their personal development, has often been documented, more recently for example by Marini/Ryan-Scheutz (2010).

Figure image

Figure 2: Large-scale forms

Another large-scale form is the Theatre-in-Education-Project, which is mainly associated with the staging of a play especially created by semi-professional teacher-actors. Ideally, it is based on topics that come up in the foreign language classroom over the course of a school year. Before the staging takes place in the school, teachers normally receive specially adapted materials which they can use in order to prepare the students for the special event. The performance in the school, although primarily orientated towards learning, is nevertheless of a quite high aesthetic standard and often constitutes a highly motivating learning experience for the pupils. In addition, meeting with native speakers, dialoguing with the actors after the play and re-enacting some aspects of it under the actors’ instructions helps pupils delve deeper into selected dramatic scenes, leaving an indelible impression on them. In 2009, Aita demonstrated, using the example of Austria, the enormous contribution made by Theatre in Education groups over the past decade to the development of the teaching and learning of foreign languages in schools. In the meantime, a great number of theatres in Germany have established drama/theatre pedagogy departments which are responsible for the building of bridges between theatre and school and, together with both teachers and students, are developing and implementing the ‘TUSCH Projects’ (Theatre and School Projects) (http://www.tusch-berlin.de). In this context, we may note a project for foreign students at Hamburg University. They were introduced to German culture by watching a contemporary German play in the Gorki Theatre in Berlin, and through performative activities set up and led by the ‘theatre pedagogues’ at the Gorki Theatre (Jogschies/Krohn 2009).

Language camps are a further example of the large-scale form, where, over the course of a two week holiday, language learning activities, theatre-based performative activities and hobby related activities mingle, and where the multilingualism of the children is explicitly taken into consideration (compare, for example, the description of the Hamburg theatre and language camp model by Sting (2012) and Kinze (2012)).

Also noteworthy are ‘PASCH Projects’, where collaborating partner schools from different countries cooperate and, for example, under the instructions of theatre pedagogues, work together on a product-oriented theatre project (compare, for example Oelschläger’s (2010) description of a student theatre project carried out in cooperation with partner schools of the Goethe Institute in Central Eastern Europe).

‘Culture Transfer Projects’ work on the basic assumption that foreign language departments commit themselves to function as ‘bridge builders’ between different cultures by translating and adapting dramatic texts for performance in a specific location and cultural setting. An example of this is the project recently undertaken by Boyd and Schewe (2012) at University College Cork in Ireland. The experience of trying out performative approaches to Thomas Hürlimann’s play, Das Einsiedler Welttheater (2007), with BA students of Language and Literature and also MA students of Drama and Theatre Studies gave birth to the idea of creating an English language adaptation of the original (German/Swiss German language), entitled Cork’s World Theatre. Through the project, Irish audiences were given an insight into German contemporary drama and a specific Swiss model of ‘Community Theatre’ (For an account of the genesis of the project, see the YouTube film at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEBX1-lB6Ak).

Even though there have been many practice reports in relation to the aforementioned small- and large-scale forms, there is still a lack of more systematic research into the specific teaching and learning processes linked to these forms, including how performative classroom activities match Common European Framework (CEP) criteria.10 What is still needed, following the study mentioned above by Wagner (1998), is a systematic stock-take of research endeavours up to now in the area of ‘Drama pedagogy and the teaching and learning of foreign or second languages’. In doing so, special consideration should be given to the contributions of the working group 11 Theatermethoden und Fremdsprachenforschung (Theatre Methods and Foreign Languages Research) within the framework of the 24th Conference of the German Association for foreign language research (see Scenario VI,2,2012).

5. Towards a Performative Foreign Language Didactics

The paradigm shift in the aesthetic field from work to process; from the art or literary object to the act, event, happening, action - in a word, to performance, has continued to influence and feed the theoretical discourse in various disciplines, including the foreign language disciplines. In the past, Fremdsprachendidaktik (‘Foreign Language Didactics’) was almost exclusively considered a scientific discipline. This emerges, for example, in Article 2 of the Statute of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Fremdsprachenforschung (German Society for Foreign (and Second) Language Research), where, in the description of the purpose of Foreign Language Didactics, the word ‘science’ or ‘scientific’ is used thirteen times but the word ‘art’ or ‘artistic’ is not even mentioned once. It should be noted, however, that Foreign Language Didactics is increasingly opening itself up to include the aesthetic field, or rather the various arts (theatre, music, visual art, dance, film, performance art). Evidence of this can be found, for example, when looking at pertinent core discussions at conferences in different parts of the world; the Goethe Institute, for example, organised a conference for teachers of German in Bangalore, India, entitled Kunst des Unterrichtens Unterrichten mit Kunst (The Art of Teaching − Teaching Through Art) in February 2012. Another conference organised by the Centre of Research at the University of Nantes, and took place in September 2012, was called Langues en mouvement: didactique de langues et pratiques artistiques (Languages in Motion). In March 2013, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Goethe Institute, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) as well as the Austrian Exchange Service (OEAD), organised a conference in Mexico entitled Ästhetisches Lernen im DaF-Unterricht. Musik Kunst Film Theater − Literatur (Aesthetic learning in the German as a foreign language classroom. Music − Art − Film −Theatre − Literature).

Over the course of the past two to three decades drama pedagogy has advanced to become an important reference discipline in Foreign Language Didactics, one which has laid the foundations for the further development of a Performative Fremdsprachendidaktik (Performative Foreign Languages Didactics).11 It recognises drama-based teaching and learning not only as a science but also as an art and shares Eisner’s (2008) notion that, by taking an artistic approach, unique insights and learning opportunities can be created. Let’s take the example of a German as a Foreign Language class, where a text about the situation of an East German border control guard is being discussed; it makes a huge difference whether the text is discussed merely in class or whether a pupil playing the soldier is moving through two rows of pupils who act as his inner voice and whisper, encouraging him to either risk escaping to the West, or discouraging him and telling him to stay where he is. The student adopting the role of the soldier will, no doubt, experience a high degree of inner turmoil as he reacts to the various contradictory voices while he takes a step forward, then perhaps suddenly hesitates, turns back, advances again, etc. This ‘embodied experience’ will create a deeper understanding of the huge personal dilemma the soldier finds himself in. Here, dramatic art provides a platform for an intensive learning experience for the student and his classmates alike.

It is the intention of a Performative Foreign Language Didactics to avail of the wealth of forms found in the arts for teaching and learning purposes. It is, above and beyond the disciplines usually associated with foreign language teaching and learning (e.g. general pedagogy, first language didactics, psychology, linguistics and literature), actively seeking dialogue and exchange with the arts, in particular with theatre arts and also school/university subjects related to the aesthetic field (including music, visual art, dance, literature, film). In this context, there are no clear-cut lines between science and art, theory and practice.