Hey…I know…Let’s role-play it…

Before I morphed into an English teacher, I was a social worker for six years in Chicago.  Teachers, in general, are pretty keen about role playing.  And there are always a handful of teachers who jump into the role of “difficult” student.  But usually they are a source of comic relief more than an actual threat to the teacher’s control within the role-played situation. Social workers are different.  When a social worker gets into the “difficult” client role, they take years of pent up frustration and a deep understanding of human pathology and then focus it like a laser of discontent on their poor coworker. 
I remember one particular training on personality disorders.  Now personality disorders are messy things.  Think about it, personality disorder means just what it says, a person’s personality, their core style of interacting with the world, is their illness.  One of my coworkers, a lovely woman by the name of Lucy, was acting as if she suffered from passive aggressive personality disorder.  I was her social worker.  I asked her about her day and she replied in a non-reply kind of way and slowly pulled a half eaten sandwich out of her pocket.  I tried to get her talking about her upcoming job interview, but “P.A. Lucy” just methodically took her sandwich apart, layer by layer until she had three nice piles laid out in front of her, one of bread, one of sandwich meat, and one of lettuce.  All the while a half-smile played across her lips and she agreed haphazardly with everything I said, including the suggestion that she put her sandwich away.  I did not feel like laughing.  I’m pretty sure the other social workers in the room also did not feel like laughing.  We were all linked by a taught thread of impatience, a desire to slap the sandwich pieces across the room.
So I was wondering about the connection between role-playing in social work, teacher training and the language classroom.  If we look at what the basic ELT literature has to say about role-playing, we find out that it is classified as a social interaction activity (Richards & Rogers, 1985), that it, “allows learners to explore the effects of different contextual factors…on language,” (Thornbury, 2006), and that it helps to activate a learners, “emerging language skills.” (Nunan, 2004).  Now if we replace the word “language” with “therapy” or “teaching” I don’t see much of a problem with how role-playing is similar whether you are an English teacher, social worker or language student.  Role playing allows us to contextualize what we have learned and allows emergent skills to find further room for expression and development.  It also provides students (and social workers, and teachers) with a chance to work on fluency and accuracy; to not so much develop new skills, as to sharpen or keep the ones already acquired in good working order.  
In Moral Principles in Education, Dewey (1909) writes about a swimming school where the students were taught to swim without actually ever going into the water.  When one of the students was asked what he did when he finally did get into the water, he said simply, “Sunk.”  There’s actually a Japanese saying, “Swimming training on the tatami mat.”  It’s usually used when referring to someone who has only studied theory without attempting to put it into practice.  And perhaps that’s what makes role-playing so attractive to social workers and teachers.  It lets us get off our tatami mats and flounder around in the water, although teachers are much more likely to offer each other a hand if things get choppy, while social workers take a little bit of joy in pushing each other under. 
But for language students, I think the attraction of role-playing is a little different.  Students are continually constrained by the limitations of the classroom and these environmental boundaries invariably rub up against the students’ desire for a more uninhibited form of expression. Role-playing offers students an exit from the boundaries of the classroom.  When everything goes well, students can find themselves washed up on a deserted island or making contact with an alien civilization.  It’s a psychic-affordance which is wholly dependant on the students’ imaginative capabilities and willingness to fully invest in a roll. And once invested, I think that role-playing also serves as a kind of buffer for the ego, allowing for greater risk taking than might otherwise be possible.  Which might explain, for the most part, why during roles plays:
– (nice) social workers seems to get nastier
– (disciplinarian) teachers revel in rule breaking
– and (disaffected) students sometimes go way out on a limb
 and start show genuine signs of caring for each other…
(OK, I did my homework.  I read and thought about what is positive about role-playing.  Tomorrow I start to write about how such a good idea could have gone so terribly wrong in my 5th period class yesterday.  Hope that brings you back for post #2 on role-playing.)   
Sources:
Dewey, J. (1909). Moral Principles in Education. The Riverside Press: Cambridge.
Nunan, D. (2004). Task-Based Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.
Richards, J. C. & Rodgers, T. (1986). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.
Thornbury, S. & Slade, D. (2006). Conversation–from description to pedagogy. Cambridge University Press.

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