There's a concept first brought to light decades ago, but still very relevant in education today: How do students' past experiences impact their current understanding? How can educators create experiences to engage students and enhance learning? One teacher found answers in dramatic play.
First, we take a step back in time to renowned education researcher Lev Vygotsky who developed this idea that meaningful experience during learning bolsters outcomes. Vygotsky labeled this concept perezhivanie. This word has no direct translation in English. It has been described as a re-lived experience, a way of relating to what is in front of you based on your memories of something you have already experienced. It is simultaneously cognitive (thinking) and emotional (feeling).
In a recent article, education researchers Susan Davis and Kathryn Dolan explore how perezhivanie impacts education, with the premise that increasing student engagement and learning must look "beyond the purely cognitive and instrumental.” In particular, the authors examined how arts in the classroom brought about perezhivanie for students, as well as the teacher, enhancing student engagement, knowledge, and skills.
The Role of Arts
The authors emphasize that teachers have a leading and crucial role in creating space for perezhivanie, or a lived experience. They suggest that involving arts, especially visual and dramatic arts, can be helpful.
The idea that art enhances students’ experiences and learning isn’t new. The authors cite John Dewey’s writing from nearly a century ago on this very topic and explain 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.”
Dolan, an early childhood teacher, found that dramatic play experiences added immensely to her young students' learning. After receiving training in arts-based inquiry methods through the Open Story Box project, the author established a designated theatrical area in her classroom where students could interact and play during planned activities, as well as, free time.
Often during the structured time, the dramatic play activities were built from premises set up by stories the class had already heard.
Dramatic play enhanced the students’ comprehension as they engaged beyond the stories’ endings. They further processed how characters might be feeling, as well as, what events might come next if the story continued.
These activities brought about metaxis, meaning the children experienced two worlds at the same time. For example, a child may have felt joy from the fun of acting out being a rabbit in a cage, but may have also simultaneously been in a state of despair while connecting with what it feels like to be a captured animal. The authors describe this state as one of “double subjectivity.”
Impacts on Student Learning
In Dolan's class, she found that the perezhivanie brought about from the metaxis and dramatic experience were able to not only enhance students’ learning, but also their development. Specifically, she cited an autistic, generally solitary student who began to make connections with classmates through play-acting. She explained that this student used the storytelling and puppet shows to build relationships with peers and branch out in a safe way.
Similarly positive results were seen across the class. Students felt safe while feeling, learning, and sharing things that were outside of their typical everyday experiences. The author asserts that her students developed into “confident and competent storytellers.”
Impacts on Teacher Confidence
It wasn’t just the students who benefited either. Dolan stated that through this process, her confidence as a leader and curator of dramatic experiences grew and gained momentum. She learned many skills, including how to “extend a story” instead of just using it for straightforward literacy purposes.
As with free play, dramatic play changes the connections of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex, that is, the front of the brain. It's role is regulating emotions, making plans, and solving problems. The brain makes the most neural connections when it is actively involved in learning. Learning is enhanced when it is multi-sensory and engaging.
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