Transformative classroom drama practice: What is happening in New Zealand schools?

Tracey-Lynne Cody

To Cite this Article

Cody, T.-L. (2015). Transformative classroom drama practice: What is happening in New Zealand schools?. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 2.


This article identifies four key aspects of the work of experienced drama teachers in New Zealand schools that contribute to “transformative” classroom practice: co-artistry, fostering criticality, building ensemble, and the use of lived experience and rich contexts. This exploration draws on doctoral research into the practice of six experienced drama teachers. The challenges and tensions for teachers who aspire to transformative drama practice which arise from the educational policy context in New Zealand are also considered.


Classroom drama, ensemble learning, drama teaching.


Over the last fifteen years, New Zealand drama education has been in relatively good health.  Drama has gained a legitimate place in the national curriculum as one of four arts, framed through four interrelated strands: Developing practical knowledge in Drama, Developing ideas in Drama, Communicating and interpreting in Drama, and Understanding Drama in context.  There are now pathways for the study of drama throughout secondary education[1] and many high schools offer both junior and senior level programmes.  Pro-social skills (such as the ability to work collaboratively and constructively with others) feature in the Drama achievement objectives that emphasise collaboration in drama creation and presentation, and are also are found within the “Key Competencies” – which sit outside the subject discipline categorisation in the ‘front end’ of the curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007).

While there have been gains, there are also a number of ongoing tensions for drama teachers in New Zealand.  Researchers have reported a sense of overwhelm for drama teachers working at senior levels due to the workload generated by the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), a standards-based assessment system (Brooks, 2010; Cody, 2013; Greenwood, 2009).  Other commentators have expressed concern over the outcomes-based curriculum in New Zealand and the risk that drama programmes will be reduced to a technicist focus (O’Connor, 2009). There is frustration at the lack of time and funding provided for pre-service and in-service drama education by the New Zealand Ministry of Education and within our tertiary institutions.  Such resources are seen as vital to develop the professional expertise of drama teachers and to enable the pedagogical potential of drama education to be realised within schools.  Finally, there is still a sense that despite having a place in the mandated curriculum, the arts continue to be marginalised. At primary level, teachers face challenges arising from an overcrowded curriculum and from the government emphasis on children attaining National Standards in literacy and numeracy. Frequently, the result is limited drama is offered.

So what is actually happening in New Zealand drama classrooms? Is there any evidence that transformative classroom practice (as defined by drama education literature) is being realised?  Recent doctoral research (Cody, 2013) has investigated drama teaching practice in New Zealand primary and secondary schools, through a case-based, qualitative inquiry into the practice of six experienced drama teachers. “How do experienced drama teachers facilitate learning in drama in New Zealand schools?” was the central research question.  In-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with these teachers to discover the complexities of their teaching practice, their philosophy of drama education, and the decisions they made in curriculum content and pedagogy. Observations of classroom practice were undertaken, along with an analysis of planning documents and an interview with their students.

The current paper uses ‘transformative drama practice’ as a new lens on this data.  It seeks to identify and illustrate the dimensions of classroom drama practice that might be considered ‘transformative’ and to explore the tensions and barriers for teachers in achieving these ends in their classroom.

What might be considered to be transformative about classroom drama practice?

At its heart, drama education is essentially focused on aesthetic, dialogic and critical investigations of human experience (Abbs, 1989; Boal, 1996; Bolton, 1986; O’Neill, 1995; O’Toole, 1992). Some of the potentially-transformative elements of classroom drama identified within the discourses of drama education include finding one’s voice, exploring the ‘other’, and developing an ability to collaborate and participate in the creation and exploration of artistic acts – particularly where those ‘acts’ enable dialogic engagement with matters of social and political relevance. Drama educators argue that transformations occur for students as they adopt new and different roles within imagined dramatic worlds. Dorothy Heathcote writes that drama, “does not freeze a moment in time, it freezes a problem in time, and you examine the problem as the people go through a process of change…” (Heathcote, 1984, p. 114).  That is, “acts of knowledge become conjured through embodied interactional relationships” (McCammon & McLauchlan, 2007, p. 947). Jonathan Neelands (2004) explains:

Students will in someway be asked to imagine themselves ‘differently’ and to behave ‘differently’—to take on roles and characters, which take them ‘beyond’ themselves. (p. 50)

Drama education uses the art form of drama to dialogue with human experience and to assist students to explore their worlds through mythic, archetypal and metaphorical lenses. The artistry of the drama teacher involves making space for questions of power, identity, society and other versions of Heathcote’s “man in a mess”. Neelands (2004) argues that drama educators can expect transformation in their drama students, when transformation is an intended outcome. This may include changes in personal, emotional and social understandings – something Heathcote refers to as “innerstanding”. Greenwood (2012) identifies six aspects of drama that can enable the development of the “attitudes and skills of citizenship”: students are given agency, the opportunity to explore and manage various roles, conflict can be framed and explored as students engage in analysis and deconstruction, and students participate in group work and in performance. And while there is this focus on coming to know ‘the other’, for young people there is also the dimension of coming to know themselves, indeed developing a ‘sense of self’ – something Bruner (2002) refers to as the “construction of selfhood”.  So theorists suggest that work in drama also develops self-awareness, a sense of identity and the ability to realise personal agency.

What are the challenges/limits to transformative drama education?

This description of classroom drama practice is an idealised view of what might be achieved through drama education. Not all drama work is transformative. In fact some drama education scholars find the notion of transformation highly problematic due to the political, social and cultural contexts drama occurs in (Nicholson, 2005, p. 12).  Barriers identified in the literature centre on the prescriptive and technocratic delivery of drama curriculum (O’Connor, 2009; Taylor, 1998, 2006a). This includes programmes of learning in drama that focus on acquiring and applying technical knowledge, learning factual knowledge of theatre histories, or where teachers utilise an autocratic approach to theatre-making, reducing the opportunity for rich student participation.  Dewey (1897) described education as “the only sure method of social reconstruction”, a mechanism for social change through the development of social consciousness.  He was strongly critical of the traditional approach to education which saw the transmission of factual knowledge as the goal (Dewey, 1934).  Paulo Friere (2004) also criticised traditional education, which he saw as an attempt to control thinking and action; an approach to education that inhibited creative power.

While technical and factual knowledge aspects of learning in drama provide outcomes that are readily measured, this focus neglects the contribution drama can make pedagogically to learning across and beyond the discipline-based curriculum. Of course, transformation is more difficult to measure, as is critical, creative and integrated thinking. Such learning happens as a result of diverse (often non-linear) integrative processes (Davis, 1995).  Theorists argue this emphasis on measurable outcomes reduces the extent to which drama teachers engage in process-focused drama work (Bolton, 1998; O’Toole, 1992; Taylor, 2006a). Neelands (2009) argues that categorisation of drama where pro-social learning and development is placed outside the subject area, “unpicks the weave of drama as a living practice beyond schools” (p. 180), undermining drama’s power to serve in authentic democracy.

What learning should be assessed in drama education?

Phillip Taylor has written of the tensions for drama educators arising from assessment practice (Taylor, 1998, 2006a, 2006b) and the challenges of outcomes-based curriculum models. Nagy, Laskey and Allison (1993, p. 117) describe drama objectives as ‘“tender” fruit…more global, harder to define and susceptible to damage in the “harvesting” process’. The literature presents an array of foci for assessing learning in drama. Eisner (2002b) identifies three features of arts education that provide potential for meaningful assessment – where creativity is the focus.  These include the technical quality of work produced, the display of inventive use of an idea or process, and the expressive power of aesthetic quality it displays. Anderson (2012) argues that assessment needs to be authentic and relevant to the art form and to the industries of drama and theatre, and DeLuca (2010) believes that authentic assessment in the arts must measure more than solely technique and aesthetics; it must engage with the complexity of creativity and the collaborative inquiry processes that give rise to it.  Other drama theorists stress the need to assess students’ ability to engage and manage drama processes (Landy, 2006).   Interestingly, it is harder to find examples in the literature of approaches to assessment that might capture specific components of transformation in terms of criticality, social consciousness or even the development of skills and aptitudes that enable participation in ensemble work.

Transformative classroom practice in a New Zealand context

The Cody (2013) study investigated the practice of six experienced drama teachers, identified as Aroha, David, Grace, James, Julia and Phillip. The educational philosophy enacted by these six participants encompassed a broad vision for drama education, arguably, one that is consistent with transformative classroom drama practice. These teachers intend to develop students’ capacities for collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. They believe they are ultimately working to develop students’ agency – in theatre-making and in life. They consciously work to extend learning beyond a technical knowledge of theatre and theatre-making, towards the domains of social and personal meaning-making and emancipatory knowledge (Habermas, 1972).  Four aspects of these teachers’ practice demonstrate the transformative potential of their work in the classroom. These are: co-artistry, fostering criticality, building ensemble and the use of narratives from lived experience and rich contexts.

Co-artistry: students as artists

Relational pedagogy is defined in the literature as pedagogical practices that enable teachers to develop a high level of trust with and between students in their classes, along with practices that increase student agency, reciprocity, and encourage a constructivist view on learning and knowledge (Aitken, Fraser, & Price, 2007; Bergum, 2003; Brownlee, 2004; Fraser, Price, & Aitken, 2007; Wallis, 2010). This pedagogy of relations is reflected in the approach these teachers have to teaching and learning in their drama classrooms (Cody, 2013). Taking up the role of a co-artist, teachers share power with their students in order to develop student agency, as artists and citizens.   Co-artistry means that the teacher does not always take the role of expert, but conceptualises students as ‘knowers’ (Palmer, 1998).  In the arts, we mean this in a holistic sense: the knowing of the body, of the intuition, of the senses and the mind. In line with socio-cultural learning theory (Alexander, 2004), students are positioned as people who know: their observations, reflections, their aesthetic engagement, their inner experience are pathways to understanding – and these teachers provide a space for students to discover and engage with this knowledge (Heathcote & Bolton, 1995).  Aroha believes that drama teachers need to be open to the potential artistry students are capable of.  She says:

You need to develop a spirit of curiosity yourself, that it’s possible that students will find a way to make something work and it may not be the way you would have done it.  Aroha

These teachers utilised three broad strategies in order to increase the agency and participation of their students.  Firstly, units of work were intentionally designed to arouse, or respond to, student interest. Secondly, decisions over the dramatic content and artistic direction of lessons (and projects) were regularly negotiated with students. And thirdly, students were routinely required to view their work from both performer and audience perspectives, utilising structured reflection, questioning and personal response processes (Cody, 2013).

Aroha maintains that increasing students’ ownership of creative work leads to higher levels of engagement where students will invest more and care more about the quality of the work at both process and production stages.  James also works to achieve a shift in ownership of the learning from teacher to students, believing that such shifts result in deeper commitment and the development of a shared purpose. This he holds as an indicator of his success:

An unmistakeable seriousness often unfolds out of this [shared] purpose; the students develop a group identity that is quite distinctive to each project; this allows for devolved, fluid roles for me. This sense of ‘us’ means we are in business.  James

Working as co-artists means that the focus of classroom work is regularly negotiated. Students and teachers negotiate the subject matter and define the questions they wish to explore.  For Julia, this means she provides initial pre-texts for drama work and then allows her students to decide the artistic directions they wish to go in.  Consequently, her teaching plans are regularly abandoned or adapted, and she delights in the novel outcomes that result. James expands on this, explaining that once his students have begun to engage with a context or dramatic provocation, the direction of the learning is determined by their curiosities and by the subsequent learning experiences he creates to enable their inquiries.  Having negotiated this content, the focus for these teachers is on structuring learning experiences within this frame, in order to create dialogic learning opportunities.

James works strongly from this co-artist position, co-constructing learning intentions and their assessment alongside his students.  He explains:

The success criteria for a unit aren’t pre-set and extrinsic and the kids enjoy arriving at them for themselves. The unit is often driven by questions that the children share, and yes, something has to be at stake. My role here is to help them articulate these intentions and questions clearly, and to sometimes provoke new ones.  James

James’ approach aligns with the work of Eisner (Efland, 2004) who began to consider the notion of ‘expressive’ outcomes in his theorising of learning in the arts, in contrast to the focus on instructional outcomes that could be measured in behavioural terms. These ‘expressive’ outcomes could not be known in advance and students and teachers arrived at these through a process of mutual discovery.

Working in the role of co-artist is not a hands-off approach to teaching. Teachers were clear that they see merely initiating experiences for students without providing critical feedback or direction as a less effective form of facilitation. James leads, questions, challenges and even insists that certain ideas or processes be followed. He says sometimes the way to give students ownership is not to let them have their way, but “to lead them to understand by doing it.”  Still, there is always negotiation, reflection and debate.  James’ students expected to be fully involved in all aspects of the work.  When asked how they would advise a new drama teacher to proceed, two of James’ students replied:

Let the children contribute their ideas and combine them together.  Don’t just write a script by yourself because it won’t have any feeling if the children don’t have any input in it. And they won’t act it as well because it’s just like something the teacher wrote and s/he is telling me just to perform it. So I think it’s got to have feeling and the children’s ideas in it…Student A: James

Be nice. Be open to different people’s opinions, ‘cause at first it might not seem right but underneath it, it’s probably got something good and worth listening to.  And if children make mistakes and stuff, don’t get angry at them and say, “You just can’t do this”. You need to work on it with them … just be patient… Student B: James

While James admits it can be challenging to plan and teach in response to the emerging interests of students, he believes there are huge benefits in allowing students to determine the direction of their learning and to develop competence as “inquirers”.  Given their experience of learning elsewhere in the curriculum, this relational pedagogy can have a noticeable impact on students. One of James’ students actually credited him with ‘bringing creativity’ into the school, stating:

When Mr C came to the school he brought creativeness because I think the school was a bit boring and plain and [about] “being neat”. But when Mr C came he brought this whole new attitude thing. Student C: James

Co-artistry demands shared power and its success rests on healthy relationships between teacher and their students.  As one eleven year-old student in James’ class astutely observed, “Mr C doesn’t paint the picture, he gives us the paint”.   There is great trust in handing over the ‘paints’.  Students in these classes appeared to be excited by their place in the business of learning.  Their responses in interviews conveyed a clear sense they felt valued and respected by their teachers, and that their contributions to the learning were also valued.  For instance, Julia’s students reported she was “much happier” than their other teachers; that she seemed to like them more and had more fun with them.  David’s students described their Year 12[2] class as a family – and one senior group had even taken to calling him “Dad” around school, much to his surprise.

Fostering criticality

An area that provides further opportunities for the teacher to work as a co-artist is during the reflection phase of the artistic cycle.  The process of reflection is a significant dimension in the work of these teachers, one that aims to develop students’ capacity for mindfulness and criticality. Having initially provided guidance in the form of structure and base skills/knowledge in order that students to create their own original work, these teachers work to create dialogic learning opportunities throughout the creative process – where meanings are co-constructed and decisions are considered.  This reflection might happen during the exploratory drama work and also in the form of critical (formative) feedback on creative work presented.  James observes that “students become more discerning, especially about the complex ways you create meaning” when working with in-the-moment feedback. He utilises a range of reflection tools, including interviews, discussions, recordings, reflective journals or play books, and art works.  He notes there is real depth in this reflective work:

…these play stories show a transfer of learning which can also be quite moving. These vivid and coherent writing performances show the power of aesthetic learning; in them, children often perform a curriculum level above their performance in text type tasks. If higher order thinking involves non linearity and synthesis, this quality of writing is that. This is quite unlike standard text type or procedural exercises. James

Aroha explains that she is building students’ theoretical and artistic understandings through the reflective processes of personal response and the deconstruction of products and processes:

I would call myself an ‘Outside Eye’. So I’m the one standing outside saying, “That has real potential, that idea, you should probably think about exploring that some more”. So rather than solve the problem for them, present the problem to them and then let them work on it some more.  Aroha

In this reflective phase, Aroha works alongside students to increase their awareness of the artistic-aesthetic dimensions of their drama work and the work of others. The recording and deconstruction of drama work invites students to reflect on decisions, and to practise giving, receiving and processing constructive criticism.  It enables students to become mindful of their own affective and intellectual responses and to articulate their understandings.  While reflection may focus on technical aspects of theatre-making, decisions regarding the treatment of subject matter, the making of meaning and the aesthetic impact on the audience are also part of this dialogue. Asking the right questions is vital to ensure meaning in the created texts is being deconstructed alongside any technical artistic-aesthetic decisions.

Eventually, Aroha’s students take the role of ‘outside eye’ for one another and integrate this practice as part of their process of developing material.  Here again, it is the aesthetic response of the viewer that becomes a vital source of knowledge, providing important guidance and critique. Students are taught to trust their own perceptions and responses when in the viewer role, and to offer these observations as part of formative feedback processes.  Although not all participants used the term ‘outside eye’, other teachers in the study also employed this process of increasing student independence and self-reliance by engaging them in critical reflection.

Building community – working as an ensemble

Building students’ capacity to participate and collaborate in an ensemble environment was identified as an important goal by these drama teachers – and is also a key area of transformative classroom practice as identified in the literature.  Neelands (2009) explains that participating in a dramatic ensemble enables “young people to develop the complex levels of social intelligence” required to face the challenges of the future. He sees this as:

…a way of modelling how – through collective artistry, negotiation, contracting of behaviour and skilful leading, the ensemble in the classroom might become a model of how to live in the world. (p. 175)

Participants consider the drama classroom to be a place where social skills, cooperation, creativity and acceptance of others are taught and valued. These aims are seen as ends in themselves and as the means by which students progress in Senior Drama.  Phillip explains that his goals for junior secondary drama students include the development of a sense of identity and ability to participate and contribute to drama work.  This includes helping students to develop “a sense of self-esteem, confidence, presentation skills”, which he sees as being the “fundamental building blocks” for success in drama.

Furthermore, participants believe that establishing clear values and inclusive ways of working are vital to building successful relationships.  Aroha warns, “you need to really care about the students’ spirit, attitude and wellbeing because they are asked to bring so much more to drama personally than to other subjects”.  In order to build trust, these teachers carefully design lessons and programmes that build confidence and develop social awareness.  Risk is gradual; openness and participation are encouraged.   Fun is had and humour is seen as a powerful tool.  So this is the artistry of drawing a group of young people in, and having the ability to surprise them with spontaneity, playfulness, warmth and the delight of belonging.

As part of developing new groups, Aroha selects purposeful drama games that involve concentration, active listening, physical discipline, making offers (giving creative ideas), accepting and extending on the offers of others (without reservation), and attuning to dynamic social cues.  Such games require full participation, self-discipline, and cooperation and often involve spontaneous, random groupings and physical contact. The skills these games employ are made explicit to students to increase their awareness of what is valued and expected in the ensemble-based drama classroom.

When participants reflected on their relationships, they talked of being mindful of the levels of safety and risk in their classrooms.  Neelands (2010) maintains that the making of relationships in drama, and in the professional ensemble, often requires extraordinary risks for all involved.  The collaborative nature of this approach to learning requires greater social and emotional connection between students, and between students and their teachers.  Accordingly, these drama teachers aimed to develop interpersonal relationships with and between their students (Cody, 2013).  This kind of connected, collaborative and creative way of being together takes time to establish.  David believes the connection with his senior group had happened over time, as they came up through junior and senior drama and as result of establishing values and expectations across his department.

Supporting students’ sense of self is seen as important in the development of trusting teacher-student relationships.   Aroha explains how the public nature of drama makes creating a sense of safety an important part of her drama practice:

You are asking these students to step up every day and put their work on display.  I liken it to walking into Maths and the paper is all over the wall and they have to do all their working on that paper and anyone at any time can come take a look and see how well (or badly) it’s going for you. Isn’t that what we are asking students to do everyday? … so we better take really good care of them.  Aroha

Accordingly, the demand that teachers move in and out of the role of examiner under the NCEA assessment system remains an uncomfortable tension for many secondary drama teachers. Having focused on encouraging students to participate, to take risks and on building positive relationship, it was difficult at times for some of these teachers to deliver a “not achieved” verdict.  They explained that particular students might have actually achieved a great deal in terms of participation in the ensemble. This is not to suggest these teachers offer kindly acceptance of all student work.  Conveying high expectations and challenging students to attain higher levels of achievement were seen as equally important to the development of positive working relationships. Accordingly, teachers worked to establish relationships that could withstand challenges, lest a “culture of niceness” (Alton-Lee, 2003) undermined achievement.

Narratives from lived experience and rich contexts

The fourth aspect of classroom drama practice that can be considered transformative arises from the dramatic contexts utilised in drama. Lazarus (2012, p. 155) explains that “socially responsible” theatre educators select material “to interrupt assumptions and to cause a shift in students’ understandings of themselves, others and our world.” The practice of these teachers reflects their intention to develop artistic-aesthetic understandings through a holistic exploration of human experience, not through a focus on techniques and methods. These participants created opportunities for students to dialogue with their lived experience and to explore the experience of ‘the other’ occur when working with play-texts and when devising theatre.

For example, James devised drama work with his Year 7 and 8 students that explored the limitations of advice adults give to children. This topic arose during improvisation work and originated from a schoolyard experience. Phillip, who works predominantly with students from Māori and Pacific Island communities, provides a further example.  He has developed a drama programme that centres on the dramatic exploration of personal, familial and cultural stories.  Phillip believes in the power of stories to help make sense of “how we fit into this rather weird universe”, acknowledging this as his “main pedagogy”. Phillip invites students to explore their lived experience of their communities through units of work in devised theatre.  Phillip wishes to empower his students to explore and dialogue with their world – including acknowledgment of their unique histories of colonisation, as indigenous and often marginalised groups within New Zealand society.

New Zealand theatre, along with devised theatre, was a large feature in the drama programmes offered.  Participants frequently focus on the work of New Zealand’s playwrights in order to explore the social tensions, histories and cultural events that have shaped and continue to shape New Zealand society.  Working with New Zealand characters and issues also enables students to gain a sense of their own identities. As teachers both working in single-sex girls’ schools, Grace and Julia have developed units of work that investigate feminist political theatre and the role of women in New Zealand society. Julia has developed a unit of work where students build monologues from their research into strong female role models.  Grace explores texts that investigate the place of women in New Zealand society.

Other playwrights from around the world are also explored in these classrooms – including Shakespeare, Artaud, Brecht and Millar.  These learning experiences are carefully framed to allow students to interrogate their personal experience and to approach some of the bigger issues and questions facing our global community.

Negotiating tensions

Outcomes and assessment: What learning is REALLY important in Drama?

Assessment of learning in drama continues to be a contentious issue in New Zealand (Brooks, 2010; Greenwood, 2009) and stands out as the most significant challenge to transformative drama practice.  As a subject within the national curriculum, Drama faces pressure to conform to assessment practices commonly used in other disciplines, where products are commonly emphasised over processes. James, a primary teacher, believes the dominant outcomes-based model has led to “an increasing degree of uniformity in primary teaching”.  He explains:

 Put plainly, the dominant learning intention model enables a narrow pedagogy with a reductive view of students. This is ironical: All the talk about creativity and authentic learning, but routine and didactic learning is everywhere.  James

This is made more problematic for secondary drama teachers because NCEA Drama Achievement Standards and the accompanying assessment activities provided by the Ministry of Education are often used as a default curriculum – a prescribed programme of study, despite the direction from the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) that this is not the intention of the framework. Still the scope and content of these Achievement Standards do understandably form the basis of senior drama programmes. The current Standards emphasise the (technical) ability to: use drama techniques in role, demonstrate knowledge of theatre forms and conventions through performance, perform technical and acting roles, and deconstruct live and published texts, identifying the use of elements, technologies and conventions to convey meaning. Queries and clarifications about these descriptors often feature as a central discourse on professional drama education networks (such as Dramanet[3]). Greenwood (2009, p. 258) asks, “Are we more concerned with interpreting the minutiae of NCEA descriptors than with exploring the role of the aesthetic?”  While participants in the Cody (2013) study acknowledged these tensions, they had also found ways to counter these pressures.

Taming outcomes-driven teaching programmes

Having endured a season in their teaching where the demands of the new NCEA Achievement Standards dominated, the participants teaching senior drama felt they were now “standing up to assessment” or “putting assessment in its place”. They felt more confident to move away from the intense focus on addressing achievement criteria to focus on their own interests and needs of their students.  Avoiding an overly-prescribed approach to course design and delivery is important if programmes are to truly be creative and responsive to the individual groups we work with.  For some participants, this meant offering fewer NCEA credits, thereby making more space in their programmes to take unexpected journeys.  Working with students’ lived experiences through devising and improvising also enabled a level of responsiveness that helped to counter what might otherwise become an overly prescribed programme of study.

In addition to concerns about overly prescribed programmes is the problem of the atomisation of learning.  That is, breaking learning down into small, measurable fragments, often removed from the wider context that gives them meaning. Julia was particularly mindful of this in her teaching. She shared an example around teaching students about the use of pause and silence.  This is a measurable acting skill, relevant to performance and the building of tension, yet can be taught in a way that has the learning split off from any understanding a greater context – such as the world of a play, the experience of characters or where this tension takes us next.  She was very conscious about how she incorporated theory into her lessons, ensuring it served to move the students and their practical creative work forward.

Taylor (2006a) argues that a teacher’s lack of confidence or clarity can impact on the coherence of a teaching programme, and can lead to a tendency to “think in terms of discrete unit or lesson plans, isolated modules and study programmes, with neither internal nor interrelated coherence”.  He adds:

They neglect to recognise that ultimately they are presenting themselves, their loves and passions, their personal aesthetic. You are what you teach, not a series of bulleted points under a discrete attainment target. (Taylor, 2006a, p. 113)

As these participants were experienced teachers, perhaps they have been more able to develop coherent programmes with a clear aesthetic. It is likely they are more attuned to (and repelled by) the feeling of “so what?” that comes at the end of atomised lessons.

Hager, Gonczi and Athanasou (1994) argue that atomisation is not a necessary consequence of standards-based learning and recommend an integrated approach to programme design.  An example of a more integrated approach was seen in Grace’s programme design.  Rather than structuring her programme around a linear implementation of NCEA assessment tasks, Grace has designed an approach in senior drama that allows students to deeply explore a thematic and aesthetically rich context. This context may incorporate improvisation, devising, the exploration of a play text, and investigation of a theatre genre/form or period.  It may cover design and/or research work.  There is no mention of assessment requirements until nearer the end of the learning.  Students then choose which of the NCEA achievement standards they wish to be assessed on and spend their last weeks in the term polishing this work.  Grace feels this approach has encouraged more sustained engagement from students who no longer ask, “Are we doing this for assessment?” before they decide how much they will contribute. She believes it has allowed her to be more responsive to what is happening in the room and to reclaim her teaching from the demands of assessment.

While the policy environment, and assessment matters in particular, clearly provide tangible challenges for these experienced drama teachers, they continue to find ways to make assessment serve the kinds of learning they value most within drama education.


While the current New Zealand curriculum (and its assessment) does not in itself ensure that school-based drama education will be transformative, the work of the participants in the Cody (2013) study gives cause for hope that New Zealand drama education practice can continue to promote critical consciousness and social transformation within the current policy environment. As explored in this paper, it is the pedagogy and the contexts teachers utilise that bring the transformative potential of the subject to life. Affirming the concerns raised by other New Zealand drama education researchers, Cody (2013) argues that the challenges to transformative classroom drama practice for New Zealand teachers arise from an outcomes-based model of curriculum and assessment pressures. However, this paper reveals how through co-artistry, critical reflection, ensemble building and the use of rich contexts, these six experienced teachers are finding ways to provide rich personal, social and political learning opportunities that are at the heart of transformative drama practice.


[1] Secondary school in NZ spans Years 9 -13 (ages 13-18).

[2] Year 12 is the fourth year of Secondary school in NZ. Students are typically aged 15-17yrs.

[3]Dramanet is an email list-serve for NZ drama educators:


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Biography of Tracey-Lynne Cody