In #lrnchat a couple of weeks ago on anxiety in learning, Shannon Tipton suggested that role plays are the worst. Now, I know Shannon and respect her (we’re in synch, her Learning Rebels movement very much resonates with my Revolutionary tendencies), so this somewhat surprised me. We debated it a bit on twitter, and we thought maybe we should make the argument more extended, so here’s my take.
Her concern, as I understood it, was role plays where a subset get up and play roles in front of the room are uncomfortable. That is, there’re roles and goals, and they’re set up to illustrate a point. And I can see that type of role play might create a problem for a non-assertive person, particularly in an uncomfortable environment. (She mentions it here, and see the extended explanation in the comment.)
Now, a favorite model of mine is Ann Brown and Anne-Marie Palincsar’s reciprocal teaching. In this model (generalized from the original focus on reading), everyone takes a turn performing (including instructor) and others critique the performance. Of course, there have to be ground rules, such as talking about the performance not the person, making it safe to share, small enough steps between tasks, etc. However, the benefits are that you internalize the monitoring, becoming self-monitoring and self-improving.
As another data point, I think of the Online Role Playing as characterized by Sandra Wills, Elyssabeth Leigh, and Albert Ip. Here, learners take roles and goals and explore virtually over time. The original one they reference was done by John Shepherd and Andrew Vincent and explored the mideast crisis. Learners got engaged in the roles, and the whole process really illuminated the tensions underlying the topic.
When I put these together, I see a powerful tool for learning. You should design the roles and goals to explore a topic, and unpack an issue. You should prep learners to help them do a fair job of the role. And, most of all, you have to make it safe. The instructor should be willing to take on the challenging role, and similarly be seen to fail, or maybe everyone does it in groups so no one group is in front, then you facilitate a discussion. I’ve done this in my game design workshop, where everyone pairs up and alternates being a SME and being an ID.
I understand that performing is an area of fear for many, but I think that role playing can be a powerful learning experience without anxiety when you manage the process right. Bad design is bad design, after all (PowerPoint doesn’t kill people…). What say you?