Contagious Learning: How Drama and Experience Enhance Learning


It's a concept first brought to light decades ago, but still very relevant in education today: lived experience. Specifically, how can educators create significant experiences to engage students and enhance learning? 

Renowned education researcher Lev Vygotsky developed this idea that meaningful experience during learning improves outcomes, and he labeled this concept perezhivanie. Although this word has no direct translation in English, it is explained as "a significant, transforming experience, and also a theoretical concept.”

Just how does this significant lived experience impact a child's education? With the understanding that student engagement and learning must reach beyond theory, researchers looked at how arts in the classroom can bring about perezhivanie for students, and teachers, and enhance learning. 

The Role of Teachers

Teachers have a leading and crucial role in constructing significant experiences for their students and researchers emphasize including arts, especially visual and dramatic, can be impactful. The idea that art enhances students’ experiences and learning isn’t new: John Dewey’s Art As Experience written nearly a century ago explains that with “expressive forms of art” students can come to understand new concepts through a method that allows the understanding to be “externalized, shaped, transformed, and…shared with others.”

Drama In The Classroom 

The addition of dramatic experience through play-acting added immensely to one researcher's young students’ learning, processing and development. In her classroom, Kathryn Dolan, established a designated theatrical area where students could play during planned and free time. Often, during the structured time, the drama-related activities were built from premises set up by stories the class had already heard.

Students’ comprehension was enhanced as they went beyond the stories’ endings and further processed how characters might be feeling and what events might come next if the story were to be continued. These activities brought about metaxis, where the children experienced two worlds at the same time.  

Enhanced Learning and Development

Dolan found that the perezhivanie brought out from the dramatic experience both enhanced students’ learning and bolstered their development. For example, Dolan cited a generally solitary autistic student who began to make connections with classmates through play-acting. She explained that this student used the dramatic roles, storytelling and puppet shows to build relationships with his peers and branch out to connect in a safe way. Similarly positive results were seen across the class. 

It wasn’t just the students who benefited: Dolan revealed that through this process, her confidence as a leader and curator of dramatic experiences and perezhivanie grew. She, too, learned many skills, including how to “extend a story” instead of just using it for straightforward literacy purposes.

The relationship between experience, emotions, cognition, and learning is increasingly being recognized to promote student engagement and learning. The significance of experience is crucial to understanding child development. 

StepUp Summary

StepUp to Learn helps children develop fluency in reading decoding, handwriting, and math-fact retrieval. When these basic skills are not fluent, the greater demands on a child’s working memory may lead to poor academic performance or behavior problems. StepUp's cloud-based programs enrich any PreK - Grade 2 curriculum and can be used as an intervention for struggling learners. Try it free for 30 days!


Original article published in International Research in Early Childhood Education.