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Constructivism: How Vygotsky and Burner Learning Theories Are Implemented in Contemporary Drama Classrooms

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Constructivism has emerged as one of the most influential learning theories in the practice of education in recent years. Teachers have embraced pedagogy as an important way of constructing meaning in the teaching/learning process and have used it as a tool to lift student engagement while also managing student behavior. More specifically, Constructivism has been used in the Drama setting to ensure students are developing autonomy, playing an active role in their learning, and sustaining knowledge beyond the completion of a school day. The purpose of this study is to explore the influence that the works of phycologists Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Burner had on 21st-century learning in the Drama classroom. The study seeks to answer the question “how do teachers use constructivist learning theories to engage drama students in learning activates and moderate behavior management?”

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Vygotsky and Constructivism

Vygotsky’s theory of Constructivism highlights the role social and cultural interactions play in the learning process. The theory states that knowledge is co-constructed and that individuals learn from peers as well as teachers throughout their education (Hua Liu & Matthews, 2005). A 2017 study conducted by researchers from the United States School of Education explores the ways student’s experiences in the 21st century constructivist-oriented classroom can provide insight into, and be influenced by, the theories of Vygotsky. To assist in understanding the connection between practice and theory, the classroom considers the use of constructivism to enable students to examine themselves and develop high moral values (Sharkins et al., 2017). A sense of community was established, with class discussions and auditory responses at the center of learning. Self-correction, when needed, was not only accepted but encouraged. Students were often actively engaged and working together to solve problems and communicating openly to find a result. The outcome of such a process ensured students had a high level of autonomy but were also able to work collaboratively. Vygotsky describes this as working within a student’s zone of proximal development (Sharkins et al., 2017). Undertaking this study proved that by having teachers intentionally implementing Vygotsky’s theories in a modern-day classroom they were able to support the construction of knowledge and multi-directional learning relationships while keeping students on task and engaged in classwork (Sharkins et al., 2017).

However, in an article written for The National Council of Teachers of English, Peter Smagorinsky stated that understanding what Vygotsky has to offer to modern-day teachers can be a challenge (Smagorinsky, 2013). In contrast to today’s ideals, Vygotsky’s values and practices were built around the Soviet Ideology of dissolving class and redistributing wealth. Yet, the Vygotskian perspective that emotions are inseparable from thinking and what goes on within a person cannot be so neatly isolated from what goes on outside of them, is still very much a part of 21st Century education (Smagorinsky, 2013). By understanding a student’s feelings toward a subject, activity, or person within their zone of proximal development, teachers can better recognize how to assist this student in learning. Titled The Psychology of Art, Vygotsky dedicated his doctoral dissertation to how art produces emotional responses and in turn, a meta-experience, whereby people “experience their experiences” (Smagorinsky, 2013). For example, students often being shut down in class discussions can lead to the feeling of shame and in turn, deprive the student of the opportunity to participate again (Smagorinsky, 2013). With Vygotsky centered around group learning, this process can be detrimental to a student’s development. Conversely, if meta-experience is used positively, the 21st-century classroom is a place where creativity, social learning, and student engagement thrive.

As a result of his upbringing in the Russian cultural bloom, Vygotsky’s learning theories are deeply rooted in Drama. According to M.G. Yaroshevsky, Vygotsky set the goal of “creating psychology in terms of drama”, believing that drama mimicked social environments (Rubtsova & Daniels, 2016). In a 2016 writing, Rubtsova and Daniels researched the concept of drama in Vygotsky’s theory and its execution in drama education. Using young people aged between 11 and 18, with various kinds of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges, they attempted to draw students back into a beneficial learning situation. They completed both social and individual drama games based on Vygotsky’s theories of emotional involvement and working collaboratively. What was then discovered was that by introducing a “dramatic event” students could use the skills they developed within the drama games, to solve, or react to, such an event (Rubtsova & Daniels, 2016). Students were able to re-position their points of view when the dramatic event was re-worked based on what they had learned from their peers or drama teacher (Rubtsova & Daniels, 2016). When students had a positive outcome from their new decision, they continued to make helpful social, emotional, and behavioral choices. Vygotsky’s frame of group learning and constructive emotional reinforcement in the classroom ensured that drama students were engaged in the work, learning from it and monitoring their own behavior.

Despite being one of the most employed learning theories in modern-day schools, a 2008 article for the Journal of Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives in Education by Barbara Blake and Tambra Pope states that 21st-century education would need to change drastically to adequately implement Vygotsky’s learning theories (Blake & Pope, 2008). A new structure of a typical school was put forward to ensure teachers “empower students to make meaning through mindful manipulation of input” (Blake & Pope, 2008). Classes were proposed to be no more than 15 students and school days run no longer than 6 hours. As students develop, the classroom strategies are based on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Blake & Pope, 2008). When assigning students to classrooms, age and developmental levels were be used to group children to better meet their instructional needs. The school had multi-age classrooms to meet this method of assigning students (Blake & Pope, 2008). As the students move through the stages of development, the emphasis is more on small group instruction, peer tutoring, and guided learning, and students would be able to discover their individual style of learning. (Blake & Pope, 2008). As this study is from 2008, it may be said that progress has already been made, however, it proves that there is still work to be done in developing modern-day learning. Dramatic Interactions for Education.

A 2015 book outlining Vygotskian approaches to drama and education, states that Vygotsky’s approaches to education are concerned with the function of imagination, behavior and are largely concerned with the arts (Davis et al., 2015). With creative education essential for adolescent human development, Vygotsky’s theory of development should be at the forefront of any teaching environment. The relevance of Vygotsky’s work to drama education, with his understanding of the ways social and emotional symbols, are used to create a reality should be used as a tool to influence learning and mediate the interactive process, in turn keeping students engaged (Davis et al., 2015). Despite this, Davis et al (2015) explain that Vygotsky has been drawn upon less in drama education in recent years than theorists such as Jerome Bruner.

Jerome Bruner and Constructivism

Jerome Bruner’s Constructivist Theory of Scaffolding is a term coined in the late 1950s to describe the technique that a teacher might use to help guide a student to learn specific content (Valkenburg & College, 2010). The Stanford University School of Education published an article concerning the dimensions of scaffolding throughout education in the 21st century. The theory of scaffolding should successfully predict what forms of support should be provided for a student with any given task (Pea, 2014). Pea (2010) suggests that devising a scaffolding plan should be something students and teachers work on collaboratively when students deviate from best results. Through the incorporation of a scaffolding plan that benefits a particular student’s needs, the teacher can support advanced performances and engage them in their own learning process. In correlation to the above article, Lombardi (2007) explains that students need the tools to solve real-world problems by doing rather than listening. With a scaffolded structure, students can employ skills that will help them learn how to ‘be’ as opposed to ‘do’. If learners are given adequate guidance by a teacher, facts take on more meaning and they use their tools to ‘be’ what they would like (Lombardi, 2007). In doing so, students take on an authentic learning experience that contributes to their commitment to the class and staying focused.

The usefulness of scaffolding does not need to be confined to the typical classroom setting and often lends itself to Drama Education. Christopher Andersen talks about the links between the practice of drama education and scaffolding as a constructivist theory (Andersen, 2004). Using a scaffolded ‘as-if environment, where the student is both the audience and the performer, they are engaging in role-playing while also reflecting on choices (Andersen, 2004). In this example, drama students are put in a simulated real-life situation and are guided with drama techniques to help them better the scene. They are asked questions to point them in the right direction and have other actors sub in, so they can see the direction of the scene. With the director or teacher as a facilitator, learners have been able to step out of their role and examine their prior thinking in a critical way (Andersen, 2004). By guiding them in this way, teachers are implementing scaffolding, and students are actively engaged and grounded in theoretical knowledge (Andersen, 2004). In one similar example, although centered around younger children, Carol Read state that scaffolding and story dram can work together to guide students learning (Read, 2008). Read (2004) explains that scaffolding can be taken down, strengthened, and reinforced depending on student needs and engagement. By then incorporating drama techniques into this, students are building multiple inelegancies and learning to follow rules and conventions (Read, 2008). Story drama and scaffolding share similar features that can be easily integrated to ensure teachers are marinating appropriate support at each stage and students are participating (Read, 2008).

The purpose of this review was to view Constructivism, in particular the theories of Vygotsky and Burner, that have influenced 21st-century learning. It is clear from the research that by implementing the specific theories of Vygotsky and Bruner student engagement can be maximized and behavior management can be monitored. Most of the research found stated that constructivism was highly regarded in 21st-century learning. However, some reviewed sources stated it was important to re-introduce these learning theories into the classroom. Based on the research, it can be said that Constructivism can be used in any classroom setting, especially drama, to ensure students are developing autonomy, playing an active role in their learning, and staying on task

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