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Bringing pantomime into the biology lecture theatre

Posted by on September 12, 2017

Dr. Ian Turner, our 2017  HE Bioscience Teacher of the Year, is a National Teaching Fellow based at the University of Derby.  He is currently Head of Forensic Science but his main teaching areas are genetics and science communication.

Nominations for the 2018 HE Bioscience Teacher of the Year award are now open.


Pantomime as an entertainment and art form originates in Greece and came to fashion in the ancient theatres of Rome during the reign of Emperor Augustus.  Pantomime has been part of English entertainment since the 18th century Harliquinade and the traditional fairy tale pantomimes of the 19th Century.

Today pantomime remains as form of theatrical entertainment, traditionally at Christmas time usually based on a fairy tale or nursery story that incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, and audience participation.

ACT ONE: Pantomime in Higher Education

Lecture theatre pantomime (LTP) is one of my approaches to learning that uses the lecture room as a stage and uses a range of learning styles and approaches including role-play, analogy and props to create a buoyant learning environment to enhance students understanding.

Dr. Turner and Dr. Turner acting as Phagocyte (soldier) and Pathogen (Viking) in a Lecture theatre pantomime to teach the immune system. Photo credit: Matt Howcroft, University of Derby

Lecture theatre pantomime (LTP) has been used to educate students in a wide range of contexts an example is in the teaching of an area of genetics called the ‘central dogma’.  LTP delivers material in a dynamic ‘live’ fashion.  The pantomime involves simple props such as pegs, washing lines, paper plates and costumes (builder’s hats) with the lecturer playing the role of key proteins in the central dogma process.

The LTP is supported by the static visualizer (pipe cleaners to represent DNA molecules) and traditional PowerPoints.  The session even involves the demonstration of the orientation of the repeat unit in a DNA molecule via a handstand (with assistance).

LTP is also used in a range of other contexts including the immune system.  In this LTP a fictitious analogous role play of the invasion of a barbarian horde (pathogen) on a castle (the human body) guarded by soldiers (phagocytes) and scientist (lymphocytes) are used.

Each component of the immune system fits into the analogy e.g. Dendritic or Antigen Presenting Cells are ‘soldiers’ looking to capture rather than kill the enemy.

Student testimony shows that LTP has a lasting and transformative impact on the students learning experience and energises them for their whole degrees.  It takes HE science and opens it up to learners using a simple technique.

ACT TWO: Strengths of LTP

LTP is viewed extremely positively by students. In an end of module (central dogma example) feedback sheet (two year aggregate) 94.90% of students rated the delivery style and LTP lectures as ‘very positive’ or ‘positive’.  Very pleasingly (whilst acknowledging other variables) there has also been a statistical significant improvement in student exam performance on ‘central dogma’ questions in the years since LTP has been adopted.

A strength of LTP is that it is inclusive and can transcend language and cultural barriers to learning. LTP focuses on the core understanding of the process or the concept (the pantomime or analogy) using a simple technique rather than the terminology or specifics.  These are fundamentally important but very difficult to learn without the core understanding.

Dr. Turner demonstrating principles of the ‘central dogma’ using a lecture theatre pantomime based approach. Photo credit: Matt Howcroft, University of Derby

LTP also helps to break down stereotypes that may exist about ‘lecturers’ and help to create a connection between the learners and lecturer.  The inclusivity of LTP means that it accommodates the full diversity of student learning styles.

Using Fleming’s VARK model of learning as a reference point, the LTP approach involves Visual (diagrams and props), Auditory (speech / analogy), Reading / Writing (Text) and Kinaesthetic (role-play) elements which allows all learners to engage with the session.


LTP is not an approach for every academic, but used in the right context can revitalise a difficult lecture. LTP shows that alternative and energetic approaches in the lecture theatre can transform the student experience and improve their engagement and achievement.


Dr Ian Turner under @DocWithTheSocs and his LinkedIn can be found here.

Ian’s pantomime work is published in Innovative Practice in Higher Education, Vol.1 (3) pages 1-11.

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