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Using Radio Drama in the Classroom
Turning Passive Students into Active Learners
by Don Kisner

Theatre of the Mind


Copyright 2003
Balance Publishing Company
all rights reserved

With any educational endeavor, student attitude and involvement are critical to the program’s success. For decades educators have known that students learn best when the activities are hands-on. This is a more efficient teaching method than theoretical discussion for the simple reason that a hands-on activity involves the student to a much greater depth than lecture—lecture involves only the mental, while hands-on uses the physical and emotional to enhance mental learning.

A woodshop teacher attempting to teach the skills involved in building a table without allowing the students to use rulers, hammers, and saws is destined to fail.  These skills could be taught piecemeal— measuring a board, sawing a board, driving a nail—but an effective teacher knows that a project approach works best. For one thing, building a table is an activity that culminates in a practical product—a table. Secondly, all the smaller activities—measuring a board, sawing a board, driving a nail—are obvious steps to reaching an easily understood goal. The student can readily understand that, in order to create a table, he must measure, saw, and hammer. Most students are practical people; they want (and need) to know why they are struggling with a particular skill. If there is no practical end result, they quickly become impatient and find no purpose in learning an isolated skill.

Effective language skills teaching requires a no less hands-on approach than does woodshop. If anything, it is even more critical that language skills be taught with multi-skill-intensive projects. A language arts project that culminates in a tangible product and involves reading, writing, listening, speaking, visualizing, planning, and group interaction is infinitely superior to a piecemeal, skill development approach to language instruction. Add to this a project that intrigues the imagination and allows for creative self-expressing and you have a winner. The amount of involvement that the student feels determines how much the attitude is altered and, therefore, how well the skill is internalized. In other words, the degree of learning is determined by the student’s depth of involvement in the activity.

The unmotivated student is probably the biggest hurdle that any teacher faces. Most educators agree that effective teaching requires positive, involved students. In other words, when students want to learn, they will learn; when they don’t, they won’t. Reluctant learners often ask: "Why do I need to read better?" or  "Why do I need to improve my writing skills?" What they are saying is that they don’t understand the need for learning what the teacher is attempting to teach.

There are two kinds of needs: (1) The primal (felt) needs—hunger and thirst, for instance—which cause discomfort when not satisfied. (2) There are also intellectual needs that, in order to be understood, require reasoning—preparing for winter, fixing the roof, and getting an education are examples. "I know the weather will get cold soon, so I’d better buy a coat." "The rainy season is coming; if I don’t fix the roof my bed will get wet." "If I want a good job, I’d better graduate." The closer these intellectual needs are to being felt needs, the more likely they are to be satisfied. When the temperature drops to 25 degrees, the need for a warm coat quickly becomes a felt need.

It is important for teachers to plan their lessons so that students experience a felt need to improve a particular skill. To do this, teachers need to find an activity that draws the students in. It needs to be an activity that the students feel compelled to accomplish; in other words, there needs to be a student conceived purpose to the activity. When the need is felt, the student becomes active. Writing and producing a radio drama is a real-life activity that not only draws the student in but integrates all the language skills and moves them close to being felt needs, as well.

Teaching language arts is a challenging profession. No other job in education carries with it more responsibility. In one time period, the skills of listening, speaking, visualizing, reading, writing, thinking, literary analysis, and group process must all be taught. To make matters worse, the visual media have made devastating inroads into language processing territory, and the job of reclaiming this vital area falls to the language arts teacher at a time when more and more students are becoming passive learners. After years of being spoon-fed by TV, many students enter the classroom with the attitude, "Okay, I'm here; do it to me." Quite often, the general public, as well, views the learner as the proverbial vessel to be filled. Of course the truth is that students learn best when pursuing an assignment with enthusiasm. Look closely at any successful educational program, and you will find students actively engaged in the subject matter. In fact, the active learner may be the only essential component of a successful educational program. A generous budget can make a huge difference, if it is used to lower class size and move the classroom through the 21st century, but even with a tight budget, active learners show impressive growth.

Accustomed to having pictures created for them, many students are turned off and understandably lost, when expected to read. They become confused and discouraged. Students need to view reading fiction as a series of images intended to help them create an internal movie. Most students are unaware of the similarity between reading and watching a motion picture. They do not realize that visualization—the process whereby mental images of people, animals, objects, places, and actions, move from one to another, developing meaning—can turn the printed page into a movie. Realizing this, students can find joy in reading.

Radio drama encourages and develops internal visualization. Listening to radio drama is very like reading, but the images are much more accessible to reluctant readers. If the student understands the spoken language, the visual images come with almost no effort. After acquiring vivid images from heard words, it is but a short leap to visualizing from the printed word, and this is a big step toward literacy.    

Reading and writing are mutually supportive skills. Students who learn to visualize from the printed word can easily become effective writers. When they understand that what they read can be seen, they can more easily understand that the reverse is true—that images created in the mind may be written on paper. Good descriptions of actions, characters, and settings must be visualized before they can be put into words, and clear exposition requires that the writer visualize concrete examples and ideas. Students need to see the imagery in what they are reading or writing, if they are to be successful at either. Readers need instruction and practice in visualizing what they read, and writers need to learn that visualizing the characters, actions, settings, emotions, concepts, and ideas, as well as the relationships between these elements, is an important part of every stage in the writing process—prewriting, writing, revising, editing, evaluating.

There is a competition for our students’ minds between the printed word and the visual media. The visual appeal is strong, and too much ground has already been lost to TV and video games, but it is futile to forbid young people access to these things. It serves better to help our students discover that a creative mind can generate plots and images that make television sitcoms look like a first grade reading text. The mind was intended for much more than a receptacle for computer generated images and some TV producer’s profit motivated images of life.

Stage, film, and television dramas are media of the eye. A simplified definition of these dramas is that they are stories told to an audience by a series of visual actions. Here, the spoken word is mainly used to communicate information that cannot be communicated by action. The visual media, therefore, must operate within the limitations imposed by the physical world, because the eye can only see physical images. The immense power of the computer, with its ability to process graphic images, has pushed these limitations back, but the limitations are no less imposing. The Star Trek and Jurassic Park type images, though spectacular, must always be physical (visible).

Unlike the visual media, radio drama requires no elaborate sets. The sets are created in the audience’s mind and can be struck and rebuilt instantly. The set can change from the Amazon jungle to the streets of New York in the blink of an eye. The possibilities are endless; anything that can be imagined can be shown. Common ground is needed to bridge the gap between the media of the eye and the media of the mind. Radio drama—fiction written and produced to evoke mental images in the listener's mind—can fill that need. Used with imagination, radio drama can simply and inexpensively bridge that enormous gap between where our students are and what needs to be taught in the classroom. Writing and producing radio drama can stimulate the student's imagination and uncover a power long hidden in many students—the urge to create.

When we think of creating we usually think of starting with something and reshaping it into an original image. An artist, in his imagination, envisions an image then arranges paints on canvas to represent that vision. A sculptor reshapes clay into an imagined image. A carpenter takes lumber and various other materials and creates a house. A writer, however, shapes not just an image, but a whole world, a world filled with beauty and ugliness, good and evil, man and monster, fact and fantasy. To write—possibly mankind's ultimate expression of power—is to make a world and populate it with people, objects, and ideas unique to the writer. Students can experience this power. All they need is a pencil, some paper, their imaginations, and a teacher's guidance.


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Copyright © 2003
Last modified: June 04, 2015