Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

9 July 2014

Benign role-playing

Clark @ 8:06 AM

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?


  1. Her side of the story ;)

    Clark – I just want to start out by stating that I appreciate the concept of role-playing and understand why my fellow L&D professionals may use this technique to drive a learning point home. My challenge, however, is on a couple of levels. First, being the one you addressed regarding non-assertive adults. Not unlike forcing people into round-robin reading (Joe you read the first paragraph, Sally you the second etc) people have anxieties that as facilitators we cannot anticipate, and putting people in front of a room of their peers regardless of our best efforts, is potentially not a “safe” place and if used has to be very carefully managed.

    My second challenge is in the way role plays are designed using a quasi “Oreo” approach – saying something good, point out areas of improvement, then end on a positive note. We know adults stop listening upon hearing the “bad news”. Regardless of the level of positivity that surrounds the negative nugget, most adults will fixate on the negative. Therefore regardless as to how we buffer or moderate the constructive feedback (and let me be clear, I am talking simple constructive feedback, not rude/harsh/troll comments), we will naturally gravitate to what we have perceived to have done wrong, tuning out the good news. To help countermand this, it has been my experience you have to conduct feedback sessions in smaller groups with the facilitator actively moderating teh activity.

    I wholeheartedly support your idea of pairs and I personally like using triads. Three rotating roles, one who is practicing, one acting the role of being practiced upon, and the third person is the observer/note taker. Next in my toolbox are teach backs, where pairs can display and practice while teaching back the concept to each other. This allows for a safer place for adults to practice a concept rather than on a stage with others “judging” (in the students eyes), allowing for the focus needed to reflect and learn.

    Great debate, and I’m curious as to your other readers opinions.

    Comment by Shannon Tipton — 9 July 2014 @ 12:44 PM

  2. Hi Clark & Shannon
    I appreciate the interesting debate! I like using role-play type of scenarios and think you both have an interesting take. I will say that I am not as interested in making a ‘safe’ place, because learning requires vulnerability and risk. It’s okay to be uncomfortable! In fact, the more comfortable you get with feedback, the more you will succeed. As facilitators in various settings we definitely need to role model this behavior, btw.

    Let me give you an example…Toastmasters clubs are created around this idea– that gentle but constructive feedback can help you improve. We use the sandwich method as well- something positive, area for improvement, and something positive. I find many times people are not used to receiving feedback and understanding the difference between ‘I can improve in this area’ and ‘I am terrible at my job.’ After receiving feedback and seeing others graciously receive feedback, even the more introverted folks are more comfortable. What’s more, by having members evaluate each other, we are teaching people to give gentle feedback that can make a huge difference in job performance. It much less scary to get regular gentle feedback then to find yourself surprised in an annual performance review. Just my 2 cents :)

    Comment by Shelly Blair — 10 July 2014 @ 4:16 PM

  3. Shelly – thank you for taking the time to comment. I totally agree that learning requires reflection and risk taking. I am all for creating an environment where people can fail, people fail in real life so they need to be able to be allowed to fail in learning. Therefore my point was not to coddle the learner, but perhaps look at other ways where they can practice the skills being taught without having embarrassment be front and center in their minds. Another exercise that I am fond of is the “tag-out”. Let’s say we are teaching behavioral interviewing and we want people to role play the techniques – I act as the person being interviewed and we have an interviewer. When the audience senses the interview is going wonky they can tag out the interviewer. At the end of the exercise everyone who “tagged” must be able to explain why they wanted to “tag” in.

    What I am saying, in my opinion, is that there are better ways to set a learner up for success rather than plopping them in pairs in the front of a room of their peers. I mean, that’s not realistic is it? Then why go through the pain point? Besides by the time you get to the last pair they will be totally prepared to “perform” perfectly after hearing all the feedback – and that’s not learning either, that’s acting.

    As I said, I’m not opposed to role-playing in general – I just believe there has to be better techniques than what we have used in the past – as what is important is not how the learners behave in front of you (or the group) it’s how they behave when they are not in front of you or the group. Right?

    Comment by Shannon Tipton — 11 July 2014 @ 9:20 AM

  4. Very intriguing debate…here are my 2 (or more) cents:

    Let me get this out in the open first: As a *participant*, I absolutely cannot STAND role play exercises. Next to “Death by PowerPoint” lecture, I’d say it’s my least favorite means of learning/training. I think I die a little bit inside when I’m participating in a session and the facilitator breaks out the role play. Ok, maybe that’s a bit much. ;)

    That said, as a *facilitator*, I can appreciate both sides of this debate: Clark’s take from a methodology standpoint makes a lot of sense to me. It CAN be a powerful tool for learning, without question. The key (in my opinion) – 2 nuggets from Clark’s post:

    1) “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.”

    2) “…when you manage the process right. Bad design is bad design, after all…”


    I’ll go out on a limb and say most of the time, these things are NOT top of mind when a role play exercise is developed for a session. I’ve seen it too many times. The intentions might be good, but the execution is lacking in one or more of the areas above. I think the notion that many learning designers/facilitators are actually taking the time to be mindful and think through all of these factors simply isn’t realistic. There’s a lot of that “bad design” lurking out there, even among seasoned, skilled professionals.

    In my experience, the reality of role play is more along the lines of where Shannon is coming from – and from a practical place, I agree with her counterpart wholeheartedly. This is probably why I (as a fairly introverted person) personally can’t stand it. In fact, I just had this conversation with my boss about a week ago – he LOVES role play, but he is outgoing, competitive, loves attention and has very thick skin. Not everyone is like that, and not everyone is comfortable “acting” and ultimately receiving feedback in a large group setting. This goes back to creating a safe environment, having ground rules, etc…

    I, too, love the alternative of using a triad approach with rotating roles – rather than performing role play/re-enactments/simulations in front of the full class group. Digging into a case study or scenario this way provides that same “mock” environment, but without the larger, on-stage feeling.

    Thanks for pointing me to this discussion – good stuff!

    Comment by Michelle Baker — 11 July 2014 @ 11:06 AM

  5. I think role playing really has its place. I saw this first hand when I was doing a training on chaplaincy. In that scenario a family role play around death allowed everyone to develop an empathy for the situation of others in the scenario. Role play is used a lot in medical education. It is a useful tool for practicing you would interact with a patient or resident in a difficult situation – or a way to practice a new clinical teaching strategy. So, although I personally used to hate role plays, I’ve learn to appreciate that there are very good pedagogical uses for them.

    Comment by Rebecca — 7 August 2014 @ 6:45 AM

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