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Teaching Through Role Playing

The presently popular technique, role playing, traces back to the psychotherapy of the 1930s. From that narrow beginning, role playing has spread to many and varied forms of education from the primary levels of the elementary school to the upper echelons in managerial training of business executives.

Many teachers confuse role playing and drama. Although they are similar, they are also very distinct in style. Perhaps the most strategic point of difference is the handling of the subject matter: genuine drama usually requires a script, whereas role playing retains the element of spontaneous or at least extemporaneous reaction.

Role may be defined as the way one behaves in a given position and situation. In managerial science, discrepancies in the identificational role are referred to as “role conflict”—inconsistent prescriptions held for a person by himself or by others. Role playing as a teaching methodology is the conscious acting out and discussion of the role in a group. In the classroom a problem situation is briefly acted out so that the individual student can identify with the characters.

A few years ago one of my seminary classes had a unique experience in role playing. It points up the dynamics which can accompany this teaching methodology. Small groups in the class had been assigned to demonstrate various teaching methods in class. The group on role playing set up a situation in which one member played the role of a young man seriously injured in an automobile accident. The only other role was God’s attempting to explain to the now rebellious young man how His plan included this catastrophe though the young fellow was about to enter Christian college and give his life for the ministry.

The group arranged the chairs of the class in a circle. In the center, two chairs were set facing each other and unrehearsed dialogue proceeded. The young man shouted at God because of what had happened to him. The calm response of the other player and the progress of the dialogue created a dynamic of learning which those present will not soon forget.

Values of Role Playing

Role playing can be used with students of most ages. The complexity of the role situations must be minimized in using the method with children. But if we keep it simple for their limited attention spans, role playing can be used even in teaching preschoolers.

Role playing allows people to make mistakes in a nonthreatening environment. They can test several solutions to very realistic problems, and the application is immediate. It also fulfills some of the very basic principles of the teaching-learning process such as learner involvement and intrinsic motivation. A positive climate often results in which one can see himself as others see him.

The involvement of the role playing participants can create both an emotional and intellectual attachment to the subject matter at hand. If a skillful teacher has accurately matched the problem situation to the needs of his group, the solving of realistic life problems can be expected.

Role playing can often create a sense of community within the class. Although at first it may seem a threatening method, once the class learns to share a mutual confidence and commitment to the learning process, the sharing of analysis over the role situations will develop a camaraderie never possible in monological teaching methods such as the lecture.

Problems in Role Playing

Perhaps the major drawback to teaching by role playing is the insecurity of class members. Some may react negatively to participating in a situation which will be discussed and possibly criticized by other members of the class. And role playing takes time. The class discussion of a five-to-ten-minute role playing situation may extend to several times the length of the situation itself. Sometimes extremely beneficial results may accrue. At other times, because of ineffective performance on the part of the players, or mishandling on the part of an unprepared teacher, the outcome may only be a superficial rehash of what everyone already knows about the problem.

The relationship of the people in the group is a crucial factor in the success of role playing. At times it may emerge as a negative factor. For example, previous interpersonal difficulties experienced by group members may arise in class to corrupt the role playing situation. Also, if the group has people of different status, they may be reluctant to become involved for fear of being humiliated before the members of the class who are smarter or more popular.

These difficulties with the method are formidable, but they are not insurmountable. Nor are they so extensive that they should prohibit us from experimenting with role playing. The potential benefits of the method quickly overbalance the difficulties which seem so apparent in the initial preparation stages.

Principles for Effective Role Playing

As a teaching technique, role playing is based on the philosophy that meanings are in people, not in words or symbols. If that philosophy is accurate, we must first of all share the meanings, then clarify our understandings of each other’s meanings, and finally, if necessary, change our meanings.

In the language of phenomenological psychology, this has to do with changing the self concept. The self concept is best changed through direct involvement in a realistic and life-related problem situation rather than through hearing about such situations from others.

Creating a teaching situation which can lead to the change of self concepts requires a distinct organizational pattern. One helpful structure for role playing follows:

1. Preparation

a. Define the problem

b. Create a readiness for the role(s)

c. Establish the situation

d. Cast the characters

e. Brief and warm up

f. Consider the training

2. Playing

g. Acting

h. Stopping

i. Involving the audience

j. Analyzing the discussion

k. Evaluating

Although we do not have time to explore each of these in detail, it is important to note that all of them focus on group experiences rather than on unilateral behavior of the teacher. The group should share in the defining of the problem, carrying out the role playing situation, discussing the results, and evaluating the whole experience.

The teacher must identify the situation clearly so that both the characters and the audience understand the problem at hand. In casting the characters, the wise teacher will try to accept volunteers rather than assign roles. Students must realize that acting ability is not at stake here but rather the spontaneous discharge of how one thinks the character of his role would react in the defined situation.

Players may be instructed publicly so that the audience knows what to expect or privately so that the audience can interpret the meaning of their behavior. Be sure to allow for creativity of the actors within their character roles and do not overstructure the situation.

The discussion and analysis of the role playing situation depends upon how well we involve the audience. Key questions may be asked by the leader and/or buzz groups may be formed. All members of the group (actors and the audience) should participate, and the reactions of the actors may be profitably compared to those of the audience.

The audience is just as much involved in the learning situation as the actors are. In the analysis and discussion time, the audience should provide possible solutions to the realistic problem situations which surface.

It is important to evaluate role playing in the light of the prescribed goals. Categorizing behavior is often overdone and gets in the way of the learning process. Evaluation should proceed on both group and personal levels, raising questions concerning the validity of the original purpose.

Throughout the entire process it will be necessary to deal with certain problems which arise in role playing situations. The backward, silent member must be encouraged to contribute. Create an atmosphere in which he is unafraid to share ideas, confident that no one will laugh at his contributions or harshly criticize his conclusions.

The overbearing monopolizer must be curtailed in the discussion phase of role playing lest he dominate the group and thereby quash the dynamic, Solving this problem may require some personal counseling outside of class. Tension and conflict in the group may not always be bad. Sometimes these elements act as a stimulant to thinking. There is such a thing as “creative tension,” and it is frequently found in a role playing situation as group dynamic emerges.

At the end of the discussion time the group should collectively measure its effectiveness in reaching biblical solutions to the role problem posed at the beginning. The techniques of role playing afford another approach to involving students in their own learning process toward the clarification of self concepts, evaluation of behavior, and aligning of that behavior with reality.. You can see why this is a desirable approach to classroom procedure for the Christian teacher. Prayerfully used under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, role playing can be an effective instrument in the Christian classroom.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible