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Learning vocabulary with movement and fantasy

Manfred Schewe, the father of drama in education, was a guest at the University of Potsdam

The students are listening to a text that is difficult to commit to memory. The sentences simply don’t make sense, like “I’m drinking a cup of bread,” for example. They need mnemonic devices to remember them. And fantasy to represent it on stage. The participants in the ‘Performative teaching and learning’ workshop are concentrating on achieving both tasks. Dr. Manfred Schewe, one of the leading lights in drama in education, who has worked at the University College Cork for several years, gently leads them through the exercises. He is a guest of Prof. Dr. Christoph Schröder, whose chair in ‘German as a Foreign and Second Language’ started a visiting professor exchange with the German department at the Irish university.

The workshop participants form a large circle. Lined up like a string of pearls, each member of the group translates one sentence after the other into motions. The person opposite the actor has to take note of their gestures and accurately repeat the associated sentence in a second round in which the actors repeat their gestures. This exercise combines cognitive and artistic elements and conveys an impression of what drama in education can do in the modern foreign language classroom. It has long become one of the important disciplines related to didactics. Proponents of this method aim to increase educational achievement by means of an action-oriented, creative form of teaching and learning that incorporates play and representation. As Schewe once said, pupils learn with their heads, hearts, hands and feet.
There are about 20 participants today who have come to a workshop at the Am Neuen Palais campus. Almost all of them are students at the University of Potsdam, but there are also a few guests from Berlin’s universities. And there is even one young student who has come all the way from Poznán (Poland). “I have been working with drama in education for over one year,” says Anna Marko. “I see a great deal of potential in this approach.” Elisabeth Saal from the University of Potsdam agrees with Marko. “It’s a good way to challenge learners to speak,” she says. “It can also have major effects on the social component of the classroom.”
The fact that drama in education leads to better learning performance and yields great personality-building effects has been confirmed by several studies, including the DICE project carried out in 2009/10. Twelve countries participated in the EU-sponsored project entitled, “Drama Improves Lisbon Key Competences in Education.” The results proved that the approach is right, and important. The study showed that learners not only break down their language barriers faster and acquire stronger knowledge in the other language; they also develop more empathy, confidence, and social skills whenever the dramatic arts serve as a source of inspiration for acquiring the foreign language.  Prof. Dr. Michaela Sambanis, English educator at the Free University of Berlin, also arrived at the same conclusion in 2013 in her book, “Foreign Language Instruction and the Neurosciences.” She tested a broad array of learning techniques in control groups that received English instruction with and without drama in education. The findings are clear: The drama in education students retain vocabulary at a deeper level, and their memory performance increases more powerfully.
These are results that encourage both Schewe and others to continue blazing the trail forward. Schewe’s 1993 dissertation, “Staging foreign language,” marked the first instance in which the research field of drama in education, especially in foreign and second-language learning and teaching, and shaped the idea for implementation in Germany. “The merit of my study is taking the twentieth-century tradition of the drama-in-education movement in England and applying the ideas behind it to foreign language instruction,” says Schewe.
Manfred Schewe has lived in Ireland with his family since 1994. Erasmus exchanges such as this are part of his everyday life as a scholar. Schewe, who is back in Cork now, where he heads up the German department, wants to continue the teacher exchange with Potsdam. “We have to see whether we can extend the program to the student level,” he says. “The education curricula may be different, but they can definitely complement one another in a very positive way.”

Text: Petra Görlich, Online-Editing: Julia Schwaibold, Translation: Dr. Lee Holt