The benefits of roleplay: teaching History

Meet our first guest blogger, Dr Joe Merton from the Department of History!

Joe Merton is Lecturer in Twentieth Century History at the University of Nottingham. His research and teaching interests focus on the political and cultural history of the post-1945 United States, especially issues of race, ethnicity, crime and the American city.

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/history/people/joe.merton

For my most recent research, see:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X1200026X

For me talking about teaching elsewhere, see:
http://www.historiansonteaching.tv/presenter/dr-joe-merton/

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Few words strike fear into students’ hearts more than the dreaded “roleplay”. Whenever I mention it at the outset of a module or seminar class, this seemingly innocent, playful term has students squirming in their seats, looking anxiously for the nearest exit. I can see what they are thinking: ‘I didn’t take History to act’; ‘I can’t do accents’; ‘Will I have to dress up?’ Yet during my teaching career I have found that few tasks or exercises offer the same potential, or can deliver the same results, as a roleplay exercise, especially when it comes to deepening student learning and breeding historical understanding and empathy.

In my own teaching, I tend to use roleplay for two types of topic. First, roleplays can work extremely effectively when working with morally complex or awkward historical topics, replete with all sorts of ambiguities. In my Year 2 module on the politics of race during the Cold War era, I ask my students to read and interpret the findings of Henry Kissinger’s National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 39, which when produced in 1969 advocated closer American ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa at the expense of black liberation movements, in the guise of a group of State Department policymakers. Students on the module consistently declare their incredulity that the United States would forge a close relationship with a racially exclusive regime, especially in an era of Cold War competition and non-white liberation, and many are wont to lazily dismiss this alliance as evidence of “typical” American “hypocrisy” and “double standards”. When forced into role, however, and asked to select between NSSM39’s five fiendishly difficult policy options, they quickly recognise the intractable situation in which American policymakers found themselves during the Cold War, caught between their own moral and ethical values and strategic imperatives, and begin to develop a keener sense of empathy with the historical actors they are studying.

 

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Second, I have also found that roleplays work extremely well in opening up highly complex, multifaceted historical topics thatfor many students are very difficult to understand. In my Year 3 module on the American city in the 1970s, we investigate the fiscal crisis affecting many US cities during the period: a crisis which pushed New York City to the brink of bankruptcy in 1975 and Cleveland over the edge three years later. The causes of this crisis are fiendishly complex – too much so to cover in a two-hour seminar class – and difficult for students to conceptualise. Grimy, decaying Cleveland, ok, but how could a city as energetic, as global, as evidently prosperous as New York – or at least the twenty-first century New York students recognise – go bankrupt, they ask? Splitting the students into groups of mayoral advisers and equipping them with a number of 1970s urban problems, and 1970s prescriptions for the travails of the city, helps them answer that question. As they work through in small groups the pros and cons of each suggestion or solution, from a massive infusion of federal funds to outright abandonment of the city, they come to recognise the enormity of the crisis facing many cities and the weaknesses, even the futility of many of the prescriptions offered forward. Their end-of-roleplay briefings to the mayor (i.e. me), emphasising the intractable challenges facing our city (yet also the creative ways by which we might overcome them), reinforce to both of us that the learning aims and objectives for this session have very much been met.

Roleplay exercises present a number of challenges for both students and teachers. For many students, especially the quieter or less confident, the idea of a roleplay exercise seems at best challenging, at worst actively intimidating or scary. For others, a roleplay is an opportunity for a laugh and a lark, and is certainly not to be taken seriously. And the majority of students could almost be forgiven for asking how on earth this exercise will help them for their assessed essays and exam. In these instances, it is imperative that the teacher sets out clear guidelines and expectations for the exercise. As with all learning, the exercise must be fun, but it must also be clearly structured, well-organised and inclusive. In my roleplays, I emphasise full-group participation and inclusion. Students are encouraged to work in small groups towards collective goals, rather than as individuals. The aims and objectives of the exercise, and its relevance to the broader topic under discussion in the seminar, are made clear from the outset. The provision of a handout or worksheet for groups, along with a clearly-defined time limit for the exercise, focuses student concentration on the task and gives a sense of evident learning outcomes to be met by its conclusion. And my own personal participation in the exercise, be it as big-city mayor or Secretary of State, demonstrates to the students the value I myself attach to the exercise and its importance to their learning.

Consequently, roleplays can be successes too. They make the past immediately accessible to students – a felt experience or reality, because they themselves are participating in it via the roleplay – and stimulate student enthusiasm and motivation for the topic under discussion. They capture the sheer complexity and difficulty of history, and the complex, often morally challenging questions it poses for us. They aid students’ academic progress and understanding by stimulating deeper learning of the historical topics under discussion, something which students themselves acknowledge in their module and teaching feedback: as one anonymous student wrote this past semester, ‘He [me, I presume] really broke it down. At first roleplays didn’t sound useful but [they] made you think about the key issues of the topic in much more depth.’ And they develop students’ empathy with historical actors, events and experiences, and therefore the past more broadly, furthering historical understanding – which is surely what studying History should be all about.

Dr Joe Merton
Department of History

 

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One thought on “The benefits of roleplay: teaching History

  1. Fabulous piece. There has been a bit of discussion of this on Facebook, and I am taking the liberty of paraphrasing some of the points raised there, by a number of colleagues from Classics. One described a role play scenario where students had to buy each other as slaves, an another colleague described a role-play scenario on the impact of Roman garrisons on communities, with students as either Romans or ‘natives’- the success of this was described as ‘students really getting into the sandals of their characters’!
    My own example would be to hold a witch craft trial where everybody gets to read the Malleus Mallearum (Hammer of Witches) and two weeks before the seminar, students draw their ‘role’ out of a hat (accused, judge, neighbour, husband, Dominican prosecutor, midwife etc). I knew I was on to a winner when one year I was informed by the ‘judge’ that the ‘accused’ had tried to bribe her two days before the seminar by offering a packet of jaffa cakes in the case of an acquittal….
    Roleplay works because it is fun but works best when students pull together as a team and when the work has gone in to prepare it.

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