Review of the research on classroom talk and dramatic pedagogies
‘Teacher talk’, the language of the classroom, has been explored by researchers such as Christie (2002, 2005) and Coulthard (1985). The features of classroom discourse have been identified as explanation, frequent directives and closed questions in the model of ‘interrogation–response– evaluation’ (IRE) (Coulthard, 1985, Coulthard & Montgomery, 1981). In fact the IRE has been described as the ‘default position’ (Cazden, 1988). Teachers ask questions to understand what their students already know. They can then connect with student knowledge and expand cognition (Rose, 2016). This is labelled the ‘magistral’ style of teaching by Cheyne and Terulli (1999), with direction from the front and passive acquiescence from the student body. Yet this approach does not engage young children, who may be rather affronted at questioning, or simply unfamiliar with the mode, as Pippi Longstocking was from her years of freedom as a pirate’s daughter!
The mode of early childhood discourse is very different from this IRE style as Christie (2005) found, when she compared an early childhood ‘show and tell’ session with a science lesson in a high school context. The early childhood teacher gave few direct instructional cues to the students, rather she extended and reworded their statements and praised appropriate behaviours and comments. Christie claimed that early childhood teachers ‘weakly frame learning’ because they do not provide students with clear instruction models. She identified, in the ‘show and tell’ transcription, and more broadly in other contexts, implicit, oblique forms of speech, with little explanation, and the use of the inclusive ‘we’ to soften directions and to position children as participants with the teacher’s purposes. She did find one similarity with the mode of formal schooling: the dominance of the adult’s themes in dialogue, and the passive, submissive responses of students.
The mode of discourse in a dramatic improvisation is different from both the magistral approach of direct, explicit instruction, and the early childhood one of oblique, implicit forms, that Christie observed. Dramatic situations employ what Cheyne and Terulli (1999) call ‘Socratic’ forms of dialogue, in which a more active and empowered voice for the student is possible. Certainly open-ended questioning, wondering and speculating are features of such talk from the participating teacher and students. This active and purposeful interaction is what Alexander (2010) advocates — a dialogic style of talk, characterised by reciprocity, collective and supportive activity, cumulative discovery and open-ended exploratory questioning. Within dramatic situations crafted by the teacher, students may become comfortable enough to speak, to respond and initiate ideas, to argue or be tentative and reflective. They may become empowered to attempt social tasks that involve writing, with confidence bestowed upon them through the ‘mantle of the expert’ (Heathcote, 1980, Heathcote & Bolton, 1995).
The mantle of the expert is a technique devised by Heathcote to encourage children participating in her dramas to believe that, in role, they were capable citizens with knowledge and skills to achieve the solution of contrived dramatic dilemmas. Her technique has been extensively used in drama education, and is as effective with young children as it is with older students, though their community may be no broader than their own classroom or family.
Within dramatic discourse children’s emotions are aroused, assisting their learning (Dunn & Stinson, 2012). The findings from research in my own Preparatory classroom during 2007, (Harden, 2010, 2013) substantiated by practice in early childhood classrooms in the years since, were that dramatic pedagogies, including guided drama, song, movement, and puppetry, thoroughly engaged children across a broad span of age, ability, culture and interest. Once engaged, children were ready to learn.