The key to lasting learning? Role with it

Don't dismiss acting in class as a waste of time; it can engage students in ways that other methods could never replicate
20th March 2015, 12:00am


The key to lasting learning? Role with it

Which is better for learning: pretending to be Stalin or reading about him? Many teachers would say the latter. But it is too easy to regard role play and simulation as gimmicks to provide light relief in the classroom. Worse, we can make the mistake of treating re-enactments and hot-seating activities as frivolous and incompatible with rigorous academic teaching, especially as students get older and the pressures of covering syllabus content increases.

Actually, role play can have a vital role in the classroom. To prove it, I set myself the target of teaching some major units of the International Baccalaureate (IB) history syllabus entirely through role play over several weeks of lessons, focusing on topics that students in previous years had found less engaging.

This approach was a radical departure in itself, but the real challenge was to pursue it in a way that improved rather than undermined the quality and quantity of content coverage. At IB and A-level, content is quite rightly king - without it, meaningful opinions can neither be formed nor substantiated.

So how do you make it work? Below are four strategies I have adopted. I used them for history but you can easily adapt them for your own subject.

Teacher as lead actor

The most straightforward way to construct a role-play-only teaching unit is for the students to adopt generic roles and for the teacher to be the only person to adopt the role of a specific character. This involves minimal preparation for the students and keeps things tightly structured.

For example, my lessons on Tsar Alexander III are framed around the question of whether he was more of a reactionary than a reformer. So my approach is to adopt the role of the tsar, while the students imagine themselves as nameless "ministers" - half of whom should always aim to provide progressive advice and the other half take a traditional tack.

I start by introducing myself as the new tsar and remind my ministers that I have come to the throne as a result of my father's assassination by terrorists. I immediately chair a debate between the "reformers" and the "reactionaries" on the subject of whether my coronation speech should pledge revenge for my father's murder or strike a more conciliatory note - maybe even offering an amnesty to the killers. I also make the point that at the time of his death, my father was planning to call a new parliamentary assembly: should I announce that this is still going ahead or not? Finally, what title should I give to my coronation speech?

After talking the issues through and hearing the arguments for and against the different options available, I thank them for their input and read out the actual coronation speech that I have decided upon, which I have titled the Manifesto on Unshakeable Autocracy. This is the point when students busily take notes about the issue at hand, the decision the tsar took, and their judgement about whether this policy suggests he was a reformer or a reactionary. This format is then repeated for other key policies, with homework time used to write up findings and to conduct research relating to the issues due for discussion at the next meeting.

Students take charge

Even more ambitious (and academically rewarding) is role play that requires each student to take on the role of a specific historical character for several lessons, as the teacher takes a back seat.

For example, in our investigation of the period in which Lenin ruled Russia, each student adopts the persona of a different member of the government. As an initial homework task, each student researches their character's position on key issues facing the new Soviet state - including their attitude towards working with other parties and employing terror as a means of control.

In the lessons, I take the role of President Kalinin, acting as chairperson. Each lesson then works through issues "as they arise" between 1918 and 1924 in a similar format to the study of Alexander III, with the added benefit that the discussions are not merely generic arguments for and against different policy positions but sometimes a five-way argument between key characters using genuine quotes from their own writings.

An election debate and a bag of sweets

Getting a select group of students to take on roles and debate with each other while the rest of the class picks a winner can be extremely effective.

For the study of Stalin's rise to power, five students play the key members of the Politburo at the end of 1924 who could feasibly have taken power after Lenin's death (Stalin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev). Prior to the lesson, each student prepares a short speech explaining why they are the best person to lead the Soviet Union. In the lesson, the five candidates sit at the front of the class as the rest of the students form the audience. A large bag of sweets is split between the audience members and then the five campaign speeches are delivered as persuasively as possible. When the speeches are over, each member of the audience splits his or her sweets between the candidates in proportion to the respective political strength of each individual, explaining their reasoning to the rest of the class as they do so. Each candidate counts the sweets they have and we record this in a spreadsheet.

Then I outline the first key event that takes place: Lenin's funeral, and in particular Trotsky's failure to attend and Stalin instead delivering the funeral oration. We discuss whose reputation will clearly benefit from this and whose will suffer, after looking more closely at the details behind these developments in the form of primary source readings and video clips.

After discussion, one student is nominated to decide who should lose sweets, how many they should lose and who should gain them. The new numbers are added into the spreadsheet along with an explanation. This process is repeated to cover subsequent key events until Stalin is left in an unassailable position in 1929. The students then convert the spreadsheet into a graph to spot the key turning points and categorise the main causes for Stalin's rise, which will provide the basis of an essay.

Arm-wrestling and simulated society

The most complex role play I have attempted is designed to teach political ideology rather than key events. My "Marxism through arm-wrestling" unit not only provides an essential ideological introduction to a proper understanding of the 1917 October Revolution but also helps students to form their own opinions about the respective merits of left- and right-wing ideas about society and the economy.

Each student starts with an initial amount of capital (sweets). Depending on the result of bouts of arm-wrestling, they can gain or lose capital unfairly. Inequalities quickly emerge. Thereafter, each of the wealthier "bourgeois" students is given the opportunity to increase their capital by engaging in production - they "buy" some paper and scissors from the teacher and employ members of the poorer "proletariat" to cut this into neat circles (proletarians who demand the highest wages end up being unemployed and leaving the game, a rule which means that wages are kept low).

The teacher will buy a certain amount of the goods that come out of each "factory", as long as they are of a decent quality, on a first-come, first-served basis. This ensures that the bourgeoisie demand more and more from their increasingly disaffected workforce. This process is repeated over several rounds, with subtle twists each time: for example, factory owners can confer with each other and discuss a wage strategy to keep wages down (in other words, create a cartel); the teacher can offer a credit system at a low rate of interest, to encourage entrepreneurialism; workers can form a trade union with a nominated representative to negotiate with the owners, or pool their resources to create a strike fund that all members can draw from.

As the game proceeds, attempts to maximise profits drive down wages, discriminate against smaller traders and generally create a class of disaffected, exploited proletarians.

The outcome of the unit is that each student produces a "Beginner's Guide to Marxism" that they can refer back to at different points in the course. In subsequent lessons, students produce a critique of Marxism and a defence of capitalism, and thereby form their own independent judgement.

Russel Tarr is head of history at the International School of Toulouse in France

What else?

Help your pupils to understand the abolition of slavery with this engaging role-play task.

Encourage clear communication with this business role-play exercise set in a hotel.

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