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Role play methods in training and development


Why are so many participants resistant to using role play methods in their learning? We know from the work of Dale and others that role plays and simulations can be incredibly helpful ways of experiencing behaviour and skills and of learning from the insights derived. As a method, role play draws on at least three of our human senses - seeing, hearing, touching - and uses a fourth quality - doing - to engage us at many levels. With this level of engagement, it is no surprise that the resulting experiences offer powerful rehearsal and learning. And yet, when asked to use the method, so many participants still say 'I'd rather watch' or 'I'll do anything except role play'.

The reasons for this resistance include not wanting to 'perform' in front of others, fear of 'getting it wrong' and 'not being able to find the right words'. The vast majority of reluctant participants whom I have encountered have had bad experiences of role play methods in practice and more than anything else, this has contributed to their fear and avoidance.

So, how should trainers use role play techniques in a way which is acceptable, fun, engaging and full of learning? Most trainers have their own ideas, but here are a selection to get you going.

Generating the script:- Not understanding the context, being unfamiliar with the roles, not identifying with the situation are all factors which limit the value of a role play. These factors are most likely to occur where the role play situation is created or pre-prepared by the trainer and given to the participants. It's more engaging to work with the participants in creating the role play situation and script. Ask for typical situation which they have encountered or visualise occurring. Ask them to define the main characters and their personalities. Invite them to suggest some of the events likely to be happening. By working as a large group together in this way, and brainstorming their ideas for the situation, everyone is able to generate an identify for the role play whilst thinking their way into it. Drawing out the role play as a story board using a series of simple cartoons can be a further way of developing the storyline, particularly with less confident players.

Volunteer participants, don't coerce them:- People need to choose their level of engagement. If they are forced to take on a role, the activity is unlikely to go well. Many trainers find it helpful not to schedule a role play type activity until the second half of an event. This gives them time to assess whether the activity is likely to work with the group, and if it's not, to substitute it with something else. When asking for volunteers to take on roles, always recruit people to the most difficult role(s) first, then work backwards to the less threatening roles. If you fill the easy roles first, the most assertive people quickly occupy the least difficult roles, leaving the least confident to take on the most difficult.

Using multiple people in each role:- Instead of recruiting just one person for each role, why not recruit two or three who can then 'shadow' each other: one person takes on the role until they become stuck, at which point another person from their shadow team takes over. This reduces the sense of being 'stuck in the hot seat'. It also ensures that more people are involved in the role play and actively learning.

Let participants have time-outs:- Stopping the action - pausing it for a few minutes - allows people to return to a support group and decide what to do next. It's possible to break up a role play into several short episodes, each of which will have many learning points. Rarely does a role play lead to a successful outcome to the event under observation; rather, there are a series of micro-level behaviours and actions which influence the course of events. Spotting and understanding these individual contributing factors is the key to learning from the role play.

Allow plenty of time:- A good role play or simulation takes a lot of time. A rule of thumb created by one group of trainers recently suggested the following division of time: setting up, scene setting, preparation (35% time); running the role play itself (20% time); de-roling and de-briefing the whole event (45% time). They suggested a minimum time allowance for any good role play of 150 minutes which equates to half a day. How often have you witnessed (or tutored?) a role play where far too little time was allowed for de-briefing - even though this is the key to unlocking insights and learning from the event.

Done well, role plays and simulations can be a great way to learn. It's a shame that so many participants have had bad experiences, and too many trainers are unwilling to use the techniques. These ideas are developed from the extensive practical chapter on using role play methods in the best-selling 'Toolkit for Trainers' which is available from the Pavilion catalogue in the TrainingZone shopping Mall

Searching the Internet for other helpful resource material on role play methods is a somewhat frustrating experience. All too often you end up at one of the myriad of sites devoted to games playing of a fantasy kind, or alternatively to a site about better dog training. Here are a few of the more relevant ones if you want to follow up on this topic:

BV Marten at Syracuse University offers a simple taxonomy of different games and role plays with straightforward instructions for running them. Called 'From Role Play to Intelligent Agents', he explores four different uses of role play.

This site offers various papers and resource publications on the use of role play available for sale

The TrainingZone Toolkit offers an introduction to the use of role plays and simulations, particularly within youth programmes and other gaming contexts, but with some thoughts about wider usage. It's drawn from 'The New Youth Games Book' by Alan Dearling and Howie Armstrong.

Steve Finkel's has an excellent online guide entitled 'From Knowing to Doing' which offers some great tips and ideas for making role play actually work.


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