(An actor playing) Linnaeus.

The dramatic results of botanical engagement

What is the point of teaching, if someone isn’t going to use that knowledge? A new paper by Bethan Stagg addresses that with a study that not only looks at how well students can learn, but also encourage them to learn more in the future.

Meeting Linnaeus: improving comprehension of biological classification and attitudes to plants using drama in primary science education studies the impact of an immersive drama with inquiry-based learning about plants.

(An actor playing) Linnaeus.
(An actor playing) Linnaeus. Photo: Stagg 2019.

The children came from four schools, making 108 participants of ages 10-11. They were tested before and after the drama, and again a couple of months later. That way Stagg could see how attitudes and knowledge had changed.

The event was a process drama. An actor plays Linnaeus in 1735, who has come to the scholl to recruit ‘apostles’ to be sent overseas in search of specimens. The workshop was a hybrid of scripted and improvised elements. I did a little reading on improvisation when I was learning to give scientific talks. It’s more complicated than ‘anything goes’, but it can be very open. I asked Bethan Stagg if there was a difference between the drama guided play. She replied: “Drama is no different from guided play, except I suppose the use of a professional actor and props. Both science and games have rules and play is potentially a more accessible way of communicating the rules of science than the instructivist classroom mode.”

There is a danger that labelling the event ‘play’ sounds perjorative. I think if you were to do that you would underestimate the power of play. Talk to a seven year old about Pokémon and then, an hour or so later, try getting them to stop. Done well, you have an opportunity for learning through doing. The drama element being the preparation for what the pupils will discover.

For this study, Bethan Stagg participated herself as an apostle. I asked her if doing rather than observing changed what she learned about the event. “That’s an interesting question about how it felt to be participating. In our previous botanical drama, ‘Story of a Seed‘, I had no active role, which probably created a sense of detachment, as an external observer. Whereas in ‘Linnaeus’ the children interacted with me, as a character in the drama, and I did gain more of an insight into how it felt to be one of the participants, particularly in the games.”

One of the findings Stagg has made is the importance of a hands-on element to learning. One quote she has in the paper is “We just talk about the plants, we don‘t look at them”. It’s an important point. Could you learn how to swim by watching (closely) someone swim? Can you learn about science by watching someone else do it and talking about it?

Another point that comes from the paper is the reassurance for pupils that the questionnaires used won’t go back to the school. This might seem odd. Why would a child care what they think about plants getting back to the school? Bethan Stagg explained: “Telling children that teachers would not see their questionnaires was a way of reassuring children, as sadly children are so tuned into anything that looks like a test being part of some scheme of continuous assessment. Knowing that teachers would not see papers was also a way to encourage children to be honest in the feedback questions (‘what did you think about the drama’, ‘how could it have been improved’)”

Once the pupils thought there wasn’t a ‘right’ answer to ‘are you interested in plants’ they opened up about what they liked, or didn’t about the event. A result wasn’t just an improvement in botanical knowledge, but also a more positive attitude to plants. They could see that what they learned had a bit more relevance to their lives.

It seems like the event was a success, so what more is happening? Well for Bethan Stagg, the remainder of her PhD. Time and money means she has no current plans for more drama events. But if this sounds like bad news, it needn’t be. Stagg said: “There is nothing to stop a school or community group using the scripts for either drama as a starting point for their own project (both are available as supplementary files in the published papers, or interested individuals can email me directly)”

If I were running a science outreach event, the research showing that this approach has a positive outcome would make me much happier about using it. I’ll admit I’m not at ease with drama, but the fact it’s not something I am comfortable with is irrelevant. The people in botany at the moment are the people most likely to be attracted by current methods of outreach. If you want to reach new audiences, following the same comfortable routines won’t work well. And I suspect this approach could be very successful. While the study was of 10-11 year olds, it should work with a much wider range of people, including adults – if their children give them permission to take part. Stagg agrees: “I definitely think the findings apply to all ages. We all enjoy learning through stories and learning interactively.”

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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