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WHO AM I THIS TIME: ROLE-TAKING FOR 21ST CENTURY LEARNING AND GROWTH


by Nicholas Wolff, LCSW, BCD, TEP
Merlin the Magician, according to legend, trained the boy who would become King Arthur by transforming him into various animals through which he experienced different ways of thinking about power and groups. As a snow goose, he participates in a peaceful culture in which leaders are chosen based on their ability to navigate. Things are quite the opposite when he is turned into a falcon and nearly killed when a competitor picks a fight with him, or a fish when he is nearly devoured by a much bigger one. As an ant he can only adapt by becoming robotic, hearing "a noise in his head, like a song on the radio that repeats over and over, and he hears a voice, constantly giving him directions," because the ant culture has eliminated independent thought.

Merlin's method would be called "role-taking" in our world, a learning method that is powerfully effective for internalizing an unfamiliar skill or new information, e.g In a recent training seminar, employees of a large non-profit institution that serves the general public were reeling from the consequences of severe cutbacks directly due to donor money that disappeared down the Bernie Madoff rabbit hole. The employees felt understandably defensive and victimized, sandwiched between what felt like an indifferent and distant administration and unforgiving public. We used role-taking to help them view their daily stresses from a number of perspectives: long-term patrons with expectations that could no longer be met; newer patrons who were demanding and unappreciative; empathetic patrons; immediate supervisors; unavailable admnistrators; donors to the institution; investors who lost millions of dollars and shut down entire foundations. This role-taking exercise allowed emotional expression without too much personal exposure and united the group as they explored and practiced a variety of strategies for dealing with the daily frustrations.

Studies show that new learning acquired through direct participation is internalized more rapidly, something critically important in today's atmosphere of accelerated change. Here are some examples from the literature:

Educational Perspectives published an article describing the work of a Winnipeg, Manitoba science teacher who teaches about particle theory by having students "become," and tell stories as, actual particles. They integrate such complex concepts as conductivity and kinetic energy, interacting in skits, plays, puppet shows."[1] She also uses role-play to teach about the heart and circulation system by transforming the entire classroom into the heart system, using tarps and other props, the kids making the pumping and gushing sounds, and people in from outside the room treated as antigens.

The Astronomical Society of Australia studied the use of experiential methods in astronomy and physics classes. "Conventionally taught students tend to rote-learn," the researchers report, "they fail to integrate their new knowledge into their prior assumptions, and rarely think through the implications of what they learn,"[2] The study involved an interactive class assignment designed to teach about the formation of planets and stars through an imaginative, collaborative process. The students were told that each of them were to imagine themselves to be "world experts in some branch of astrophysics. Just as in the real world, however, no single group can hope to know enough to solve this difficult problem alone. You will have to exchange information with many other groups to devise a complete picture, and win the undying glory of being first to figure out how stars and planets form....Take a few minutes to read your briefing sheets, and discuss what you have learned amongst yourselves. Once you've figured out your own areas of expertise, you will have to exchange information with the other groups. Anything goes; you are allowed to form consortia, lie, cheat, steal, bribe: anything to figure out a complete picture. But bear in mind that unless you share information with other people, they will not share information with you...Your goal is to put all the information you will learn from the other groups together, to make a coherent theory of star and planet formation."[iv]

Results showed that students internalized the necessary knowledge at the same rate as in a lecture format, and that active fostered an observably more friendly and interactive classroom.

The integration of creativity, intellectual challenge, emotional connection, and personal interaction allows trainees/students to practice skills that actualize new information and real-time use of social networks, making these methods fantastic innovations for 21st century training and education.



[1] Margo Hrennikoff, "Implementing An Imaginative Unit," Educational Perspectives 39.2 (2006): 25.

[2]Paul J. Francis and Aidan P. Byrne, "The Use of Role-Playing Exercises in Teaching Undergraduate Astronomy and Physics," Astronomical Society of Australia 16 (1999): 206.

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