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A chance to be a minister;Subject of the week;Social sciences

Clive Thomas on the importance of role-play in teaching politics

If ever a subject lends itself to a more exciting approach than formal teaching, it must be politics. It invites students to research, analyse in a critical way, and discuss and examine their own views - and role play can be a particularly effective strategy.

Thorough preparation is essential. This enables the lesson to become an informed discussion rather than a monologue from the teacher and a parade of half-truths and prejudices from the students.

As for topics, all politics teachers will have recreated council meetings and mock parliaments. Mock elections are particularly successful - the Hansard Society organises a nationwide mock election every time there is a General Election. The Federal Trust recently launched a comprehensive series of booklets called Practising Citizenship, which has various simulation exercises - for example, a mock European election and a simulation of the European Court of Justice. It has also organised a host of supporting events, including training days for teachers.

But simulation exercises are not without their pitfalls. The "game" is not the object of the exercise. Pupils should be encouraged to think for themselves, to challenge and counter opposing views, to research into contemporary issues, and to come to a decision - even if the decision is to come to no decision.

The exercise must be structured and roles assigned, parameters and timetable explained and procedural information given. Central protagonists should be ascribed certain character traits and strongly cherished views and objectives. Teachers must avoid the temptation to prepare too much, leaving too little to the students' own endeavours and setting such constraints that students become little more than actors in a well-scripted play.

I was recently involved in a simulation exercise dealing with the expansion of the European Union. Roles were allocated, such as Commission Members, Ministers of the Council, MEPs, ambassadors from the applicant countries, lobbyists and journalists. Each participant received a single A4 briefing sheet which outlined the individual's objectives, certain strategies and constraints and some indication as to procedure. The French Minister, for example, was told that expansion should not compromise the Common Agricultural Policy.

There then followed a period of research and study when everybody delved into the workings of the EU in general and their own role in particular. The Internet and newspapers played a vital role in this research.

Projects as ambitious as this can't be undertaken in a single lesson or even within the confines of a single classroom. But, with the co-operation of other teaching staff, they can be completed in a day.

"Follow-up" is particularly necessary after a role-play to discover and summarise the main points, to correct any misconceptions, and to fill in any gaps.

Any queries or suggestions can be addressed to Clive Thomas, co The Politics Association, Old Hall Lane, Manchester M13 OXT. Telfax: 0161 256 3906; e-mail: Society, tel: 0171 955 7478.Federal Trust, tel: 0171 799 2818.

Clive P Thomas is former chair of the Politics Association and chair of its Education for Citizenship taskforce

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