Drama-based training: can playful learning achieve serious outcomes? October 30, 2015 January 25, 2017 Gill Brabner

Drama-based learning programmes are sometimes pigeoned holed as ‘edutainment’, a term I prefer to resist. Whilst we certainly want delegates to enjoy our workshops, and we encourage a playful approach, we are very focused on achieving serious outcomes for our delegates and client organisations.

And, as this quote, from an email I received this week, demonstrates, serious outcomes are achievable:

This was hands down the most enjoyable training session I have ever attended. The training hit home and I can already see a change in the way we are talking to customers.

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To analyse how using a playful approach can achieve serious outcomes for individuals and organisations I have turned to the current academic literature on play and games based learning and applied 3 key findings to the learning methodology known widely as drama-based learning, forum theatre or theatre based learning.

  1.  Drama-based learning is collaborative

Nicola Whitton writing in her 2009 book Learning and Digital Games has this to say about collaborative learning:

 I would strongly argue that the most effective educational games are those which involve some aspect of collaboration with others, allowing students to work together, learn from others and test their understandings

Learning in groups, and especially diverse groups, is effective.  Multidisciplinary groups for example tend to generate more ideas (Bateson and Martin 2013) and this is important as the group is required to solve the problems presented to them in the drama.  This might be done through group discussion, by interviewing the characters and giving advice or by re-directing the scene.  Delegates gain by hearing the views of colleagues and by experimenting or ‘playing’ with different ideas in action.  The actors are often asked to try out different approaches before the group reach a consensus about what works best.

         2.  The briefing is key

The way in which any drama-based learning activity is introduced to the delegate group has a huge impact on their experience. Personally, I like to explain right at the top that we do not expect our learners to role-play.  We immediately see our groups relax after I make this statement.  We are happy for learners to come out and role-play and many do but we make it very clear that this is not an expectation for us – in fact our briefing encourages delegates to think about the appropriate level of participation for them in relation to how they learn best.

As well as being clear about why a drama-based learning method is being used and their role in the workshop we find that learners also like some background on how we have developed the scenes, which are based on research within the organisation. Crucially the briefing helps delegates to engage with the process.  As Whitton (2009) says: Without adequate briefing, students may not understand the purpose of the game, what they are supposed to do, or what the point is, and therefore may not be appropriately engaged.

           3.  Reflection supports the transfer of knowledge and skills

Too often games based learning does not include an opportunity to reflect, and this is crucial for the transfer of learning. All of our drama-based learning programmes include discussion groups where delegates are asked to reflect on the key themes from the drama and consider them in the context of their own work role.  This supports learners to make the link from the playful activity in which they have just engaged and applying the learning to their own situation.

Can playful learning achieve serious outcomes?

It certainly can!  But ‘play’ by itself will not achieve outcomes.  To do that we need to create a protected environment in which learners can be playful, we need to be clear about our purpose and create activities which support learners to reflect on their own work role and how they can apply the learning to their own work situation.


Bateson & Martin (2013) Play, playfulness, creativity and innovation

Whitton (2010) Learning with digital games