Characters from a Learning Drama
Characters from a Learning Drama

There are two main ways that video drama works in learning.  The first is to do with learning theory and the second is to do with anthropology, and they work best when combined. 

Learning Theory – Transcendent Thinking

At home we watch drama on TV for relaxation, so we tend to think of it as a passive activity.  But, in fact, drama only works when it makes us active.  It does this by showing us characters in challenging situations, in which they have to make decisions, and prompting us to ask, “If that were me, what would I do?”.  This type of thinking has been characterized by learning theorist and researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang as “transcendent thinking” (also called “strategic thinking”).  This type of thinking is what we all do to make sense of learning – to integrate it with our existing knowledge and understanding.  Research shows that transcendent thinking leverages semantic and procedural learning in the service of broader knowledge. 

As we learn, we all do our own, spontaneous transcendent thinking, in which we assign meaning to new information and integrate it with our existing knowledge.  But, it’s in the interest of L&D to facilitate and guide this process, otherwise, in the worst case, a learner might assign a meaning of “pointless box ticking” to the learning.

Drama takes a subject and tests it in a notional real-world setting.  It stimulates and guides learners to make up their own meaning, but in the context of seeing what the learning means in practice. 


For the second way drama works we have to look to anthropology. Professor Robin Dunbar explains storytelling as an evolved tool for managing large groups.  Dunbar’s research has shown that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.  This is known as ‘Dunbar’s number’ and is around 150.  

A primate’s chief method of social bonding is grooming, which functions by activating the brain’s endorphin receptors.  Dunbar theorized that since humans have much bigger social groups than other primates, we must be using more sophisticated bonding mechanisms than simple grooming.  These include laughter and singing and dancing.  These endorphin-stimulating activities give us a mental and physical “social high” that bond us. 

Storytelling, with its emotional ups and downs, is another of these mechanisms that has developed, through novels and movies and so forth to a high level of sophistication.  So, when we are delivering a video drama, fundamentally, we are engaging in a form of mass grooming! 

In L&D, this works best if we can encourage those consuming a story discuss it with their close colleagues and friends – leveraging close relationships to stimulate endorphins. 

Let’s Talk About It

Such workplace discussion can take many forms including:

  • Live, text-based discussion of drama content as it is viewed.  This is a form that some people are familiar with via Netflix.  However, it requires a group of learners to watch the drama simultaneously. 
  • Post-hoc, facilitated online chat – functionality that can be seen in MOOCs.
  • Live discussion after showing the video to a room.
  • Finally, we can incorporate a Gogglebox element into to learning – where each video is followed by a film of some interesting learners discussing it.  This is intended to stimulate the audience to discuss the issues when they go back to work and could be combined with one of the discussion elements listed above.

Semantic Learning

Drama isn’t good for all types of learning.  We still need to communicate procedures, regulations, details, theories etc in a more traditional way if we want people to recall the them.  But drama, ideally combined with facilitated discussion, is a perfect tool to stimulate active engagement and for your learning initiative not to be wasted.

Further Viewing

For more insight into these issues see my What Can TV Teach L&D? videos about Star Wars (transcendent thinking), Gogglebox (anthropology) and Game of Thrones (learning campaigns).