Why Use Role-Playing?

Initial Publication Date: December 21, 2006
"There's three sides to every story:
Yours and mine and the cold, hard truth."

- Don Henley ("Long Way Home", I Can't Stand Still, 1982)

The problem with teaching pure, undiluted information is that afterwards, the students, if they paid attention, will be left asking "What is it for? What does it mean?" Role-playing enables them to start answering these questions and to start expanding them: "What does it mean to a farmer in Nigeria, to a coal miner in Ohio, to an oak population in the Balkans." Information, alone, rarely makes people change their minds, but personal experience often does. Role-playing, like any good inquiry approach, transforms the content of education from information into experience.

Motivating Students

  • The creative aspect of the exercise will make it seem more like play than like work.
  • The pressure to solve a problem or to resolve a conflict for their character can motivate a student far more than the sort of pressure that they usually face preparing for an exam, and it is far more typical of the pressure that will be on them in real life.
  • Role-playing exercises are particularly useful in courses for non-majors to emphasize the intersection between science and daily life. Popular geoscience role-playing scenarios generally deal with hazards and environmental issues that combine natural and social sciences.
  • Augmenting Traditional Curricula

  • The primary purpose of role-playing exercises is to get students to look at the material they are learning in a new light. The instructor is persuading them to alter their mental maps of the world instead of just filling them in (Blatner, 2002 ).
  • Role-playing exercises show the world as a complex place with complicated problems that can only rarely be solved by a simple answer that the student has previously memorized (Cage, 1997 ).
  • Additionally, the students learn that skills they learn separately (such as quantitative and communications skills) are often used together in order to accomplish many real-world tasks (Bair, 2000 ).
  • Adding a sympathetic, generally human element to science is often encouraging to students with science and math anxiety. Lessons can use role-playing to emphasize the value of feelings and of creativity as well as of knowledge (Dallmann-Jones, 1994 ).
  • Exercises emphasizing the importance of people and their viewpoints are important preparation for students who will go on in many professions, including business, academia, and politics.
  • Real-World Skills

  • Students need to understand the needs and perspectives of the people around them to get through life, and to understand themselves.
  • Role-playing exercises can be used to develop skills important inside and outside of science: the kind of skills needed to make learned information useful in the real world. Many of these are very difficult to teach using more traditional methods of instruction: self-awareness, problem solving, communication, initiative, teamwork (Blatner, 2002 ).
  • If an assignment includes research or problem solving, students are more likely to retain knowledge that they have constructed themselves more than that simply handed to them in lecture (Havholm, 1998 ; Duveen and Solomon, 1994 ).
  • Bonnet, 2000 tried, with some success, to instill ethics in school children using role-playing.
  • Accounting students from the University of Illinois had an easier time finding jobs after completing a curriculum that included role-playing than they did after the traditional curriculum (Cage, 1997 ).
  • More Specifically...