Damian Todres, Wells Cathedral School Director of Drama and Head of Creative Arts Faculty, says that school drama may hold the key to unlocking both learners’ empathy and their ability to rise to the challenges of tomorrow

Consider the experience of being a child in the 21st century: tentatively exploring ‘who I am’ through the glaring lens of relentless social media feeds, with the emotional burdens of connectivity, commentary and unprecedented self-comparison. Add to this the worries of climate change, perpetual political upheaval and the arrival of a game-changing global pandemic. How can our young people be better prepared to cope in such a world?

An indication of this direction of travel can be seen in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, where we see employers prioritising ‘creativity’ and ’emotional intelligence’ as capabilities they wish to see in their recruits. And here we come back to an old idea: Aristotle’s concept of ‘phronesis’, or ‘practical wisdom’. This is intelligence gathered from practical action and creativity that ultimately informs how to ‘be’ in the world. Concerned with not only the ‘head’ (what to know), but crucially with the ‘hand’ (how to act), as well as with the ‘heart’ (how to feel).

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Employers will prioritise creativity and soft skills – the very skills developed through Drama, says Damian Todres

If the question is how we provide opportunities to facilitate practical wisdom and emotional intelligence in our schools, I believe that Drama is a compelling answer. Through characters from other times and places, Drama utilises human experience to imaginatively uncover shared emotional and personal connections. It is able to further develop perspectives between ‘self’ and ‘other’ due to its inherently social and collaborative modes of working. Empathic thinking and behaviour are encouraged through a consideration of multiple perspectives. During this iterative process, creativity and imagination help to establish a transformative space of possibility that supports far-reaching benefits such as kindness, healing and understanding – qualities that are transferable to the wider life of the child.

Drama is a discipline that explicitly teaches what many consider to be one of the most urgent capacities in education: empathy. Originating from the German philosophical term Einfühlung (‘feeling into’)and theGreek rootpathos,it is the ability to move beyond ourselves in order to meaningfully understand the feelings and experiences of others.

“Drama utilises the universality of human experience to imaginatively uncover shared connections – developing perspectives between ‘self’ and ‘other'”

This facility to empathise holds profound value in developing a citizen of the 21st Century and arguably enables the skills of collaboration, people management and negotiation necessary to be a success in modern life. The late and much-lamented educationalist Ken Robinson made an urgent call for empathy as the next educational disruptor – he believed that many of the problems our children face are rooted in failures of empathy. Learning how to ‘feel into’ is a way to facilitate the development of an agile, resourceful and resilient adult. 

As a Drama teacher, this concern with practical wisdom and empathy has led me to pursue my own research which focuses on  strategies that enable pupils to develop and deepen their capacity to imagine the world of another. It is a competency that may help them to adapt and thrive together in the modern world. 

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Further reading: Canford School on preparing young people for a global future