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The Power of Drama: An Interview with Patrick Pheasant

Patrick Pheasant is the CEO of NEAS, a global leader in quality assurance for the English language teaching (ELT) sector. An avid proponent of drama in the classroom,  we sat down with Partick to talk about the benefits of role play in ELT and the power of drama in the classroom. 


As the education sector shifts back to a focus on doing, as opposed to only memorising, drama is once again finding a place in the classroom.

The growing appreciation of drama in the classroom has excited NEAS CEO, Patrick Pheasant.

“Drama is not used by all teachers,” he pointed out. “But, there’s still a large contingent who use role play as well as other drama techniques such as improvisation, language games and warm-ups.”

“Role play and other elements of drama can help break down boundaries, create safe spaces and allow students to experiment with language they wouldn’t usually use.”

The Occupational English Test uses role play to assess speaking skills, instead of structured interviews found in general or academic tests. We sat down with Patrick to think about the benefits of role play and why it is a better way to test the language proficiency of healthcare professionals.

Drama, role play and pedagogy

Patrick is a firm believer that drama when used in both education and English language testing can deliver additional value to students and candidates.

“Using role play and drama alongside traditional teaching approaches offer individuals several benefits,’” he said. “Principally, it introduces a level of spontaneity that reflects real-life environments, where speakers need to respond quickly to evolving conversations and social interactions.”

During his role at NEAS, Patrick completed a PhD that explored the benefits of drama in the classroom.

“My PhD research looked at the power of drama in educational spaces,” Patrick said. “In a classroom of 12, I developed a scenario where students would role play as Victorian Londoners embarking on a journey to discover gold in Australia.”

Role play and other drama techniques inject spontaneity into classrooms.

The participant-learners were able to connect to the characters because the scenario drew analogies with their real life, reflecting their own journey in Australia.

“The students grasp of English strengthened when they were in character,” he said. “They were much more comfortable taking risks in character.”

“The scenario helped create a safe space for them to experiment and try out the new language without the threat of embarrassment.”

Role play in English language testing

Alongside English language teaching, role play is beneficial in the assessment vertical as well.

“I get really excited when I think about a test that uses role play,” Patrick said.

“In the same way role play exposes English language learners to spontaneity, it’s an effective way to test whether an English speaker can adapt to new situations.”

This is particularly important in the healthcare sector, where doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers need to be able to deal with change and evolving conversations.

“Using role play in testing can measure critical thinking and the application of the language,” he said. “Roleplaying allows you to throw obstacles into a speakers path and see how they react to uncertainty and change.”

With a background in English language teaching, educational drama and occupational therapy, Patrick also highlighted the connection with healthcare training, where role play is used extensively.

“I’ve seen how it’s used in occupational therapy training, and the reasons and outcomes for using it are the same,” he said.

“If doctors, nurses or occupational therapists aren’t tested on how to apply their knowledge and skill in new situations, then they may not ready to be in the healthcare sector.”

Nurses speaking together

Role play can help assess whether a healthcare professional can adapt to new speaking situations.

A balanced approach

NEAS provides a quality assurance framework that establishes and maintains high standards of the English Language Teaching (ELT) industry. The NEAS QA Framework covers seven key areas, including Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

“Part of NEAS’ framework looks at whether providers have chosen the techniques and pedagogy that best suit the needs of their students,” Patrick said.

“Diversity and appropriateness are important. If a provider or assessment tool focuses too much on one technique it can isolate and alienate students who don’t respond well.”

Using drama correctly means ensuring the elements, such as role play, are not isolated from other teaching techniques. It should play a part in a larger whole in ELT and English language assessment.

“So, when you look at OET’s structure, it‘s used in the Speaking sub-test – one of four sub-tests,” he said. “Role play is supported by the other English testing techniques that can be found in OET.”

Drama and role play offer several benefits to students and test-takers as well as employers and regulatory bodies. As teachers become more comfortable with drama techniques, the expectation is to see them become more common across the ELT landscape.

With over 30 years of pedigree, OET has firmly established role play in the assessment sector. If you would like to know more about how OET uses role play, contact us today.

Patrick is running Drama in ESL Workshops around the country, helping teachers and preparation providers build confidence using drama in the classroom. For more information on this NEAS Quality Learning Series, you contact NEAS today at www.neas.org.au.