Instructional Strategies: Role-play, Simulations, and Live Events

Learning in Roleplay, Simulations, and Live-Events

Many teachers are looking to increase a student-centered, constructivist focus to learning in their classrooms, believing that students need to be actively engaged in seeking and understanding meaning.

Anne Sample (2000) provides these guiding principles for teaching and learning which support this teacher focus (page 25):

  • knowledge is constructed from the experience of the learner;
  • knowledge resides in the mind rather than externally;
  • learning is a personal interpretation of the world in that the learner’s beliefs and values are used in interpreting objects and events;
  • learning is an active process of making meaning from experience;
  • learning takes place in contexts relevant to the learner;
  • reflection is an essential part of learning; and
  • learning is a collaborative process in which multiple perspectives are considered.

Role-plays, simulations and live events are instructional strategies that can be used to increase student centeredness. Here are some of the reasons that teachers’ effort and time invested in designing these learning options create student engagement, empowerment and learning;

Multisensory In all three strategies the opportunities for students to see, hear, listen, touch and feel tend to be present. Generally, movement is present as students act out or take actions to make something happen. Tactual feelings are often activated, as all three tend to have some social/human interaction verses learning alone.

Relevance and Emotions – These learning options build relevance for the content, creating an increased presence of emotions.

“Memories formed during a specific emotional state tend to be easily recalled during a similar emotional state later on.  For example, during an argument, you easily recall similar previous arguments.  Thus, simulations and role-playing activities enhance learning because they tie memories to the kinds of emotional contexts in which they will later be used.” (The Role of Emotions in Learning, Robin Hill)

Process Skills – Students take actions and make decisions in these instructional approaches providing an opportunity to practice critical life skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communicating, reading others, etc. Its often difficult to work on these skills in other instructional strategies.

Jane Dunkel Chilcott (Effective Use of Simulations in the Classroom) differentiates role-plays and simulations:

Simulations are designed to replicate a real-life situation, having students assume roles where they analyze data, make decisions and solve the problems inherent in the situation. Throughout the simulation, students respond to the changes within the situation by studying the consequences of their decisions and subsequent actions and predicting future problems and possible solutions.

When role-playing, students act out a predetermined set of events, knowing the outcome of their characters’ actions. Playing a role acquaints the student with the historical scenario and develops an awareness of the factors influencing a decision made at that time. Students can practice “walking in someone else’s shoes.”  (Role-playing the decision to use the atomic bomb in World War II is an example.)

Students’ actions determine the outcome of a simulation. While the situation being simulated has existed, exists or could exist in the real world, in the simulation the outcome is impacted by the decisions the students make. (Passing laws in a mock Congress is an example of a simulation.)

Live-Events (Real World) add to multi-sensory, relevance, emotions, and process skills, the presence of the real environment and real consequences. While in the stock market simulation, students can make a decision that loses the initial investment each was given to start, no real “losses” have occurred. When students borrow $100 from the PTA for materials for their bake sale, prepare all the goodies, and then a snow storm sends everyone home for three days while goodies go stale, the consequence is real. Giving the wrong change in a simulated store leads to an understanding of the importance of math accuracy but without the real consequence, such as the receipts not balancing when a student works the cash register at the school store during parent conference day at school.

Here  is an interesting example of simulation and live event conducted by middle school students at Honey Creek Community School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The live- event was a simulation that the students designed and implemented for their parents. Sixth, seventh and eighth graders spent weeks preparing for the homelessness simulation. They were assigned different businesses, nonprofit organizations and government agencies in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to represent during the simulation. They researched the services offered by each entity. Parents were assigned a character and given a short bio, which outlined their living situation and what their goals were during the simulation (finding food, taking a shower or establishing a permanent address). Students learned as they prepared and conducted the experiences that would create learning and understanding for their parents.

The next unit of study for these students will be micro-economics. They will create their own products to sell and conduct a market day. Parents are invited to bring in items needed by local homeless shelters, which they then trade with students for their products. The school will donate the items to homeless shelters.

Consider opportunities that exist for your students to engage in some roleplays or simulations that require minimal preparation as they “step into” learning situations. What resources does technology offer?  Where might you want to build more complex simulations that drive student engagement with relevance and emotion? What opportunities exist to empower students in real world situations with real consequences?

Semple, A. (2000). Learning theories and their influence on the development and use of educational technologies. Australian Science Teachers Journal, Vol 46(3).

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