Understanding Roleplay

In constructivist fields of education one of the tools that is used frequently is roleplay. In fact Batner (2006) argues that they are the best way to develop the soft skills that are in high demand in the post industrial environment. However roleplays are fairly regularly misapplied (especially in a language learning context ) An Understanding of what roleplays are what they can be used for and how to get the most out of them is therefore essential. Before attempting to use them.

Roleplay as a term comes from J. L. Moreno (1934), he was basing his work off of the “theatre of spontaneity”  In which actors would engage in exercises to practice their skills. 

He identified three different forms of roleplay by looking at what the player would be engaging with in each. The three types are the psychodrama, the sociodrama and the simulation. 

The psychodrama is where the roleplayer is dealing with personal issues. They take on the role of a specific individual assigned to them by the director/ teacher / therapist. It is used primarily in therapy style settings and to explore interactions between people at a personal level.

The sociodrama is where the player is dealing with larger scale societal or collective issues. They take on the role of an exemplar or attempt to speak for a specific class of people. For example one player may be asked to represent the economic interests of a specific group while another may be asked to represent the social interests of a group. This style of roleplay is used primarily to examine intergroup and intra group conflict.

The simulation is where the player is placed in a ludic system. The other two types are very Padia or free play based as they do not have a specific goal or rules for taking actions built into them. Simulations however are ludic with a limited choice of actions available to the players and usually an associated time constraint. The simulation is used to help train specific skills and to explore situation which at least appear to be solvable. 

The biggest problems teachers have with using roleplays can be broken into two groups.

The first is the teacher being too engaged. When this happens  they normally do not provide enough time or encouraging interaction between the players. Petranek et al (1992) points out that learning in roleplays only takes place in the interactions. Many teachers find themselves wanting to give the answers to the students or prevent them from going down routes in the play that they feel are unproductive. While it is important to provide scaffolding for the players this is normally done through the briefing materials not during the roleplay itself. 

The second is the teacher going to the other extreme and being completely disengaged. When this happens the teacher will miss opportunites to engage different techniques to deepen understanding. Moreno pointed out several techniques that can be used to deepen understanding these included: 

1. Replaying a scene

2. Role reversals inside a scene

3. Making asides

4. Mirroring the scene.

The teacher may also treat the roleplay like a book activity once it is over turn to the next page. However good debriefing skills are essential to get the most out of a roleplay exercise.

So a balance must be struck by the teacher between grabbing the spotlight and not paying attention. 

Roleplays are incredibly useful teaching techniques as they allow the player to take part in an experiential cycle of learning. However if a teacher wants to use them to their best advantage they have to choose the correct one to use.

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