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Positive Effects of Drama Programs in Education

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Arts in Education

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

-Albert Einstein          

Over the past decade or so, an increasing emphasis has been placed on the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) related classes in primary, middle and high-school education in the U.S. The reason for this direction is well-founded: research and test scores from the 1980s and 1990s showed that our students had fallen behind their international peers in all of these subject areas. Students from Europe and Asia were outperforming our kids, which triggered alarm bells throughout the country. Education officials, teachers and parents at the federal, state and local levels felt that the situation needed to be rectified, and quickly. It’s easy to see why: the technological age is here, and the nation that best prepares its youth to meet the needs of the 21st century economy is clearly going to be among the nations that are the most successful. However, in the rush to play catch-up in STEM-related areas, there’s one critical aspect of our children’s education that’s being neglected: the Fine and Performing Arts, particularly drama.

Traditional Views on the Benefits of Drama in Education

It’s long been understood that a study of drama at the elementary, middle and high school level helps students improve in a wide range of areas, such as self-confidence, self-esteem, self-expression, communication, collaboration, interpersonal skills, aesthetic awareness and, last but not least, imagination.[1] Most educators and parents agree that all of these characteristics are important for students to develop at any age, but it’s difficult for the same parents and teachers to prioritize study time or classroom time to a subject like drama over subjects like Math, Physics or Computer Science. It’s even more difficult for policy makers and school officials to channel funding toward classes like drama, when the skills developed arts subjects are considered “soft skills.” When the modern world is calling out for “hard” skills, like those needed to succeed in the tech-driven 21st century, how could they possibly justify spending their dwindling funds on anything but STEM subjects?

The Big Picture: Communication Is Essential

The short answer to the question “why spend time and money on drama?” is that drama education in elementary, middle and high school has been scientifically proven to improve academic achievement in all other subject areas.[2] Before discussing that evidence, however, it’s important to understand how the “soft” skills learned in drama education can support and even augment the “hard” skills learned in STEM subject areas.

The importance of all of the benefits of drama education (i.e., the soft skills) mentioned above can be summed up in one word: communication. The importance of communication cannot be overstated, and there are three areas in which the communication skills developed in drama are essential to a STEM education:

  • Teaching: As we develop students with highly refined skills in STEM subjects, it’s equally important that we train the teachers that will support sustained growth in these areas. A dynamic, communicative teacher is the best way to get students on board in the study of STEM subjects, which can be notoriously dry. The best way to develop dynamic communication skills? Drama.
  • Publication and Conference Presentations: When a student in a STEM related area of study reaches the highest levels of achievement—a private research or a university environment—the operational adage is “publish or perish.” Education in drama has been shown not only to improve the public speaking skills necessary to effectively present papers in an academic conference setting, but also improve the fundamental writing skills necessary to publish papers in peer reviewed academic journals.[3] [4]
  • Collaboration: In addition to the necessity of creating individuals who are able to teach STEM subjects, write about STEM subjects and speak about STEM subjects, it’s also critical for students to be able to work well with one another. In the real STEM world, which includes both the public, private and academic sectors, almost all scientific work occurs in teams: principal investigators collaborate and communicate with peers, students and potential funders in order to complete their projects. Without the “soft” people skills necessary to navigate all of these interactions, no matter how technologically skilled the individual becomes, he or she will be at a disadvantage without the ability to communicateand collaborate.

The Bigger Picture: Overall Effects of Drama in Education

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education, in collaboration with the Arts Education Partnership, commissioned an enormous, comprehensive meta-analysis on the role of arts in education. The study, authored by Richard J. Deasy, entitled “Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development” unequivocally demonstrated the importance of the study of arts in education, and the importance of drama in particular. In addition to the various skills in written and verbal education mentioned above, participation in drama programs even had a positive effect on dropout prevention and overall academic achievement. One paper reviewed in Deasy’s study found that:

“High arts students … earned better grades and scores, were less likely to drop out of school, watched fewer hours of television, were less likely to report boredom in school, had a more positive self-concept, and were more involved in community service.”[5]

While the nationwide trend to focus on playing catch-up in STEM education is rational, practical, and absolutely necessary, it’s important not to forget the enormous impact arts have on the overall education of our children. With the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence showing the positive effects of arts education—and specifically drama education—the question parents, educators, and policy makers should be asking themselves is not “can we afford to support arts education in schools?” but rather “can we afford not to?”

[1] “The Benefits of Drama Education.” Drama Education Network. http://www.dramaed.net/benefits.pdf

[2] Deasy, Richard J. “Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development” Collective Works, Arts Education Partnership, Department of Education. Washington, D.C. 2002. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/ERIC-ED466413/pdf/ERIC-ED466413.pdf

[3] Deasy, Richard J. “Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development” Collective Works, Arts Education Partnership, Department of Education. Washington, D.C. 2002. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/ERIC-ED466413/pdf/ERIC-ED466413.pdf

[4] Podlozny, Ann. Strenghtening Verbal Skills Through the use of Classroom Drama: A Clear Link” Journal of Aesthetic Education. Winter, 2000. (34;3/4).

[5] Catterall, James S. “Involvement in the Arts and Success in Secondary School” Americans for the Arts Monographs. Washington, D.C. 1998. (1;9). http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED354168.pdf

 

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