Breaking out of the chrysalis: How theater can transform a student

Breaking out of the chrysalis: How theater can transform a student

In 2018, we co-created a pedagogical innovation, The Business Communication Through Drama course. It was designed to help business school students further develop their English language communication skills in addition to acquiring professional competencies through the medium of drama.

Why use drama to teach English in a business school?

The central purpose of drama is to communicate a message, a belief or a story — it can also offer an innovative approach to providing language development, coupled with boosting soft skills, such as negotiation and presentation proficiencies. These tools are all foundation blocks for building business communication skills. Drama has the additional advantage of fostering the student’s emotional intelligence by providing moments for reflection, leading to new learning opportunities.  In a short timeframe, our students form their own theatre companies, take on specific roles, write their own play scripts, design marketing campaigns, and perform on stage in front of a large audience. This is a student-centred project in which the students create their learning experience from start to finish.

We decided to implement our project as part of one of our specialised programmes, the Innovation Durable (Sustainable Development) Program. The 38 selected students were all motivated to be part of an innovative and creative adventure, making them ideal learners for our Business Communication Through Drama course.

At the start of the course, students set up their theatre companies.  Using the Jung Typology personality test, students are able to create multi-skilled and balanced teams. Under tutor guidance, students reflect on which main competency they can contribute, for example, strong video editing skills, writing skills or simply pure creativity. It is important to use this process to set up balanced groups – it is the resulting mix of personality types and competencies, which determines how the groups are formed. Everyone in the group contributes to the script, marketing campaign and on-stage performance.  In addition, each student takes a leading role in different aspects of the production such as set, costume, or sound designer. As the course develops, the role of the lecturers change as they become coaches and facilitators along the journey.

Sustainable development as the thematic focus of the course

Sustainable development acts as the thematic focus of the course, allowing students to reflect on current trends and issues. Each company must develop a play concept from the three P’s of sustainability: People, Planet and Profit. Students explore the concept through a combination of Ted Talk videos, the United Nation’s sustainability goals and in-class dialogue. Here the independent learning process kicks off and students launch into the script adventure. Our drama expert, Justin Fuller, helps students frame their script ideas through improvisation, supporting and encouraging them to let go of their inhibitions. Instead of sitting at a desk, students are set free to explore and expand – they literally become “actors” in their own learning. 

What’s next?

Students continue working together with their teachers to unravel the characters, plot, setting and stage directions.   In addition, the scripts are further refined through peer feedback and formative assessment. As the theatre companies focus their creative energy on designing a poster and video teaser, which are advertised on social media and throughout the school, the actors rehearse their lines and practice on stage. The teaching team provides feedback so that students can improve their language accuracy, performance and voice projection on stage. This iterative feedback process ensures continuous improvement and new learning.

All of this hard work culminates in a memorable on-stage performance. It is exhilarating (and at points, entertaining) to see how these students spike in confidence, take initiative, deal with unknown situations, work in teams, take pleasure in speaking English and ultimately succeed in this immense challenge! After the main event, students create a vlog (video blog), which provides an opportunity for them to contemplate their learning experience. Through this process of introspection, students reflect on the language and soft skills they have acquired.

A lever to develop confidence and competencies

We implemented a research project in 2019 to measure whether this type of pedagogical innovation could help business school students become more competent managers. We asked the students to fill in an anonymous questionnaire integrating the LIKERT Scale and open-ended questions. The results were collected and objectively analysed – they demonstrated that students gained in soft skills, such as critical thinking, time management, decision-making, presentation skills and creativity. Students also felt that they had improved their improvisation, voice projection, expression, enunciation, and stage performance skills. This helped confirm what we had been witnessing throughout this journey, that these students had grown in confidence and competencies that will be beneficial to their future professional careers.

Our take-away from this experience is best concluded with the following quote:

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn” –Benjamin Franklin—

Mary-Jane MichaelidesMary-Jane Michaelides, Professor of Business Communication, SKEMA Business School

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Hélène DurantonHélène Duranton, SKILS Director (Skema Institute for Languages and Sport), SKEMA Business School

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Justin FullerJustin Fuller, Independent Theater teacher, Expert in Learning Through Drama, SKEMA Business School

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