Dr Jonothan Neelands, deputy director of research at the National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth, explains how drama helps both the academically gifted and artistically talented.

Gifted and/or talented?

The G&T strand in the Excellence in Cities initiative made a policy distinction between the terms gifted and talented in which ‘gifted’ referred to the top 5-10% in academic subjects and ‘talented’ referred to pupils with ‘exceptional ability’ in PE and the performing and visual arts. One purpose behind this distinction was to encourage schools to be equally aware of the needs of exceptionally talented pupils in non-academic subjects.  

The English model of G&T education is based on identifying and personalising support for the broadest range of abilities. It recognises the needs of exceptionally talented pupils in a broad and balanced curriculum. In the English model, identification and support for gifted and talented pupils begins in every classroom and is complemented by school, regional and national resources such as those provided by NAGTY and other agencies. This approach is distinctive because it embeds G&T in all schools and classrooms. It is not a model that is based on, for instance, an assisted places scheme in which the brightest pupils would be withdrawn from mainstream schooling and sent to a small number of elite and independent schools. It is a model that instead seeks a socially inclusive generation of G&T pupils whose own development also contributes to that of their peers.

How can the gifted develop their talents?

Drama is usually described as a talent area but creativity is also an essential part of ‘giftedness’ so academic pupils need the opportunities provided by drama to apply their thinking skills and abilities to ‘real world’ situations and problems. They also need to develop their skills in the use of the symbol systems of drama and the other arts, both to extend their cognitive ability and as a means of shaping and expressing their ideas at the level of feelings.

Drama can offer a valuable process of enrichment for a wide range of G&T learners. For those who are exceptionally able in academic contexts like English, maths and science, drama presents the opportunity for applying their expertise to  ‘real life’ contexts. Pupils talented in the visual arts, dance and music can design or draw settings, characters, maps, lead dance work or use musical instruments to accompany the drama.

G&T pupils will need less scaffolding and fewer stimuli than some other learners so they can help  the rest of the class to imagine, or understand or build on the clues suggested by the drama. Motivation is another key part of ‘giftedness’ and drama can motivate higher order thinking and problem solving based on the curiosity to discover what will happen and why things happen as they do in the fictional context of the drama. G&T pupils often show a precocious interest in adults and adult affairs, sometimes preferring adult company to their own age group. Drama allows all children to face adult problems with adult responsibilities and this feature may arouse considerable curiosity about the human condition in G&T pupils.

It is also important for G&T pupils to make connections between subjects, and between the curriculum and the broader world; gifted pupils need to be encouraged to look at the ‘bigger picture’ – at how subjects like maths and science help us in the world now and in the future. In particular, during the primary years they need to start thinking of subjects in terms of disciplines – what is distinctive about ‘doing’ geography for instance, or what does it mean to think and act like a scientist or mathematician. Drama can help in this process, both by creating fictional contexts in which pupils imagine themselves to be scientists who have responsibility for solving a problem in the world, or by getting pupils to apply what they have learned in the classroom to ‘real world’ problems

The uncertainty of drama, in which pupils are asked to respond to open-ended questions and to negotiate the outcomes of the drama, can be challenging for academically gifted pupils, who often do best when there are only right or wrong answers, rather than shades of grey. These pupils can be usefully taken outside their learning comfort zone and challenged by the idea that there are sometimes no right or wrong answers.

Because drama is a social way of learning that makes the most of everyone’s gifts and talents, it is an ideal forum for G&T pupils to learn about their social and moral responsibilities. Pupils who are identified as gifted need to learn that they have a responsibility for using their individual gifts to benefit their community, to be self-sacrificing and particularly to help those who are less able than themselves.

The social processes of learning in drama, the emphasis on community and the frequent focus on how collective action may resolve tensions, problems and dilemmas in the fiction of the drama, provides G&T pupils with the opportunity to practise leadership and demonstrate expertise without ego. Because of the focus on human behaviour, G&T pupils can be encouraged to think about the ethics and morality of actions and their consequences. It reminds them that in the future their communities will turn to them for advice, social and moral leadership and support because of their talents and that they need to learn how to respond with grace.

Strategies for supporting the needs of G&T pupils through drama

Below are some of the practical strategies that have been found effective for supporting the needs of G&T pupils in drama.

Talented work beyond the classroom
There will be pupils in your school who are talented in drama as actors, writers, and directors. Many children attend local drama and/or dance groups out of school and some have the opportunity to take graded tests as benchmarks of their talent – if they can afford to do so. It can be difficult to respond to the specialised needs of these talented pupils in curriculum drama time. Of course, there will be opportunities for developing the skills of acting and directing, but in curriculum forms of drama there is less requirement to isolate performance skills for technical training or to draw attention to individual skill attainment in vocal and physical techniques, for instance. Talented young performers need specialist training and pathways to advanced training like young athletes. At Shenton School (see ‘Further reading’), the additional needs of talented young performers are met through:

  • extracurricular drama clubs and performances
  • regular theatre visits
  • visits and workshops from artists, theatre companies and graduate students of drama
  • providing information about local arts groups and organisations.

Busy bees
As suggested, giftedness is associated with high levels of motivation. Gifted pupils tend to seek learning beyond the classroom and after the bell – they thrive on learning and developing their expertise. Talented musicians, for instance, must be motivated enough to practise for hours each day. In drama, pupils can be asked to do tasks on behalf of the group: to research, to write a script or other text for use in the drama, to make a prop or picture, to create a ‘diary’ or ‘letters’ belonging to a character. Pupils may also be given responsibility for sound or lights, or for making a CD of images and sounds for the drama.

Modelling and mentoring
In drama it is important to make the best use of each pupil’s ‘gifts’ – to find opportunities for each to perform to their potential. Additionally, it is important to make use of the skills of G&T pupils and remind them of their social responsibility. This might include: asking them to scribe, or to work bilingually with a new pupil; to chair a discussion; to be responsible for feeding back or summarising a group’s work; to describe what they see and experience in drama; and, above all, to rehearse moral and social leadership in ‘real world’ situations.

Further reading
Dickinson, R. Neelands, J and Shenton School (2006) Improving Your Primary School Through Drama, David Fulton