Learning history
through drama

Some years ago I taught at a boys' private 5-13 preparatory school in London, UK.  Most boys transferred to senior senior schools via common entrance exams. Those deemed high-achievers took scholarship exams for schools like St Paul's, Westminster, City of London, and Eton. When I joined the school everyone sat in rows facing the teacher. There was little interaction between the pupils themselves. I decided that a more flexible layout was needed, as children learn from each other as well. And some activities require them to work in teams. Well, they do unless the school ethos is for children to work silently at their desks all the time. Therefore I did something revolutionary: I moved the desks into groups and introduced problem-solving and role-play activities for two or more. The children responded and learned more.

Eventually I decided to enrol for a Master's Degree in History in Education at The Institute of Education of the University of London. Under the brilliant guidance of such luminaries as Alaric Dickinson and Peter Lee I learned the power of active learning in developing 'deep learning': real learning, real understanding, as opposed to the shallow learning gained from cramming for tests. And as all children understand human motivation, as long as they understand the task they are being set, and it makes human sense to them, they can work interactively to solve historical problems.

History through drama can develop deep learning. It is not about learning and delivering lines, but working interactively to solve historical challenges. Far from being 'an invitation to make up the past', it develops historical skills, including the ability to assess the accuracy of a historical construction - not 're-construction', as we are making an interpretation of the past.

Each week we shall focus on a different aspect of history through drama.

Photo by Zainul Yasni on Unsplash / Manipulated by Michael Simms

A case for history through drama

Three key features of drama

In 1989, in 'Drama from 5 to 16', in Curriculum Matters 17, (HMSO 1989) Her Majesty's Inspectorate made a convincing case for drama which stressed its cross-curricular links: "It relies on the human ability to pretend to be someone or something else. Through this act of the imagination, pupils can explore how people in particular circumstances might behave now and at different times and in different societies. Though imaginary, the exploration can be experienced and shared as if it were real." And as soon as two people take on different roles in drama "the conflicts" and "human predicaments" at its heart "carry the process forward" as they "face intellectual, physical, social and emotional challenges". This is because, in drama, people must do three things at the same time:

1   "Recreate other people's behaviour from evidence, observation, memory or imagination".

2   "Articulate a personal response based upon real  or imagined experiences" with conviction and meaning.

3   "Distance ourselves from both the recreated behaviour and the personal response".

They warn that third feature is especially challenging, because in real life "our own reactions and feelings may be spontaneous". But it is key to playing in role a character in the past, whose experiences and world view were vastly, perhaps unimaginably, different from our own.

How these features relate to history

Both drama and history are about people. History is concerned with finding out about how people behaved at different times and in different societies; examining people's actions - finding out how they came about and what happened as a result; investigating and explaining people's behaviour and predicaments on the basis of evidence, imagination, and empathetic understanding. And these challenges are ready-made for the skills which learners - children and adults - bring with them to the classroom: keenness to get their teeth into a problem-solving activity; an ability to make sense of the past in their own way; the power of communication; a growing store of human experiences; and strong powers of imagination. We can utilise all these skills to develop historical understanding. The ability to breathe life into the dead bones of the past is at the core of history.  It is what professional historians do. Now learners are not professional historians, but they are perfectly able to use historical evidence tailored to their needs to develop sufficient empathetic understanding to explore people's attitudes, values, feelings and personalities through situations of conflict, thereby giving human substance to the skeleton nature of evidence.

The element of conflict which drama introduces can raise questions which take children back to the evidence to search for the answers. What did go on when the judges in Charles I's trial were forced to retire to consider the evidence after one of them voiced his concerns? Such role play, contrasting with the generalised and compressed view of the past seen with hindsight that the textbook offers, can throw up issues and problems which they would not otherwise have considered.  And in the process it may also convey to learners something of the strangeness of the past. 

Dramatic activities do not stand on their own. They are linked to the essential ingredients of good teaching practice. For example, as learners become used to evaluating each others' work, drama becomes a useful tool of formative assessment and brings together skills learned through other activities, including respect for historical evidence.

Drama and historical knowledge

It is likely that many people think that real 'historical knowledge' is found in books written by historians, and that learning history at school means learning a selection of those facts. And that the more facts you know, the more history you know. However, real historical knowledge must involve knowing something about the discipline of history.


Group problem solving in action
History Through Drama at Claremont House An introductory talk