*" Global Issues in Language Education: Issue 30. March 1998. (pp. 12 - 14)

Experiential Based Roleplays for Social Awareness

Tim Newfields

Helen Keller once remarked that it would be good for each person to experience blindness or deafness a few days. Living in darkness, she added, would enhance the appreciation of sight and learning about silence could teach the value of sound. This article examines how experiential learning activities can be used in language classes to promote awareness of issues such as handicaps, world hunger, and landmine proliferation. Some of the strengths and weaknesses of experiential-based simulations are considered. Resources to learn more about experiential learning are also highlighted.
Keeton and Tate (1978) describe experiential learning as a process which allows learners to be in direct touch with the issues they are studying. Related to "discovery learning" and so-called "holistic education", it is a bottom-up learning process in which participants create their own meanings after hypothesizing about shared experiences. In cases where direct experience is not feasible, simulated roleplays sometimes offer viable alternatives. It should be noted, however, that some situations are not suited to roleplay: they may involve more physical or emotional risk than some teachers are prepared for. Whereas students can "stand back" and passively observe many traditional classes, in most roleplay scenarios direct participation is imperative because students are in fact co-participants.
Experiential learning is rooted in constructivism, which asserts meaning is actively molded from experience. Munsell (1995) adds that it, "focuses on learning-by-doing, not learning-by-showing." The emphasis of process over content is a hallmark of experiential learning.
According to Tourunen (1992) there are three steps to an experiential learning cycle: (1) concrete experience, (2) active reflection, experimentation, or observation, and (3) abstract conceptualizing. This cycle is influenced by Kolb (1976), who includes an additional stage of hypothesis testing.
Done with sensitivity, experiential roleplays can offer a vicarious taste of unfamiliar horizons and glimpse of a different world. Done without adequate skill, however, they can appear like gamelike parodies. A key element to the success of the experiential roleplays is a capacity to span from ones immediate experience to the another, sometimes vastly different perspective. The life of a refugee or visually challenged person might seem far to most ESOL students. Experiential-based roleplays, which are related to sociodrama, are an attempt to make a distant world closer, bridging the field of experience. Though children can perform roleplays, they generally aren't able to make the cognitive shift from the simulation to the broader world behind it. For this reason I prefer using experiential-based roleplays with adults. It should be emphasized experiential roleplays involve more than acting specific roles; it involves a process of critical reflection to bridge the the roles we are actually playing in real life.
One type of roleplay which works well in many ESOL classes is a blind simulation exercise. Students who are accustomed to relying on written notes when speaking in particular tend to find this type of activity challenging. For five years I've conducted blind awareness training seminars with university sophomores. After a few schema-activating, warm-up questions about handicaps, half of the participants experienced a twenty minute blind trek and picnic while the other half served as guides. Blindness was simulated by using neckties to cover the face.
Though some students felt anxious about this activity at the onset, after safety parameters were set and the right to decline any activity emphasized, responses were positive. By 'safety parameters' I refer to an imperative that seeing guides protect their partners from significant danger. This doesn't mean that guides need to protect their partners from every mistake - only those which could cause serious injury. (Some guides tend to be overprotective and the issue of how much protection to offer comes out in discussion.)
With a 90 - 120 minute time constraint, about midway through the class, roles were switched and some "blind explorations" in which participants tried to guess various objects from tactile, olfactory, and auditory cues were held. The final 10 - 15 minutes of class were devoted to feedback and reflection. Feelings during the experience were explored. For many students, discussing personal feelings with candor in another language was a refreshing, unaccustomed experience. This was more than an exercise of language - it was an attempt to draw meaning out of an unfamiliar experience and see parallels between blindness and other aspects of life. A description of an extensive four-hour blind awareness training program is available online at www.tnewfields.info/Articles/handi.htm.

In addition to non-sightedness, another disability which can be simulated in class is reduced mobility resulting from the loss of a limb. Crutches and wheelchairs can be used to simulate lower torso immobility; bandages can simulate arm/hand immobility. Connecting handicap awareness to the problem of anti-personnel landmine proliferation, I designed the following lesson:

Landmine Awareness Activity

  1. Ask participants about the 1997 Nobel Peace prize laureates, Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
  2. Cover key vocabulary : civil war, plant landmine, explode, lose a leg, crutches, wheel chair, photo-journalist.
  3. Do the "landmine quiz" (Appendix A) and explore reactions to the various statistics.
  4. Show multimedia clips about landmines. The CARE website has some clips.
  1. Place thirty sheets of paper on the floor of the room. All paper should appear identical from the top, but on the reverse side there are various roleplay instructions.
  2. Emphasize that each participant can step on any sheet of paper . . . several people can also step on the same sheet if they wish: they will share the same fate.
  3. All participants will have 2-3 minutes to read their roles before the simulation starts.
  4. Depending on the class level and time available, the actual simulation can be 10-25 minutes long. A different option is to do the simulation twice in shorter time increments. The contrast between the former and later outcome can be a key item during the discussion.
Here are some possible roles for a class of thirty:

1 SHEET: You are a doctor. You work at a clinic with few medical supplies. Try to help those around you.
15 SHEETS: You are safe now. You can help others - or ignore them and stay in a safe place. Remember: you cannot walk within 50 cm. of  an unturned card without turning it over. If the unturned card has a "X" mark under it, it represents a landmine . . .you will die within two minutes if you come near such a card.
4 SHEETS: You are a farmer. You stepped on a mine while you were planting your crops. Both of your legs are now missing. If you don't get medical help soon, you'll die. [MINE COLOR: BLACK]
2 SHEETS: You are a child. While playing outside, you accidentally stepped on a mine. You have just lost your right leg. It hurts and you are losing blood. Call for help. [MINE COLOR: BLACK]
2 SHEETS: You are a merchant. You sell crutches and wheelchairs. Anyone with 500 yen in cash can buy a pair of crutches. Anyone with 3000 yen in cash can buy a wheel chair. Try to do business.
2 SHEETS: You have some special tools to clear minefields. Your tools are able to clear (stop) all "black" and "blue" mines. It takes about five minutes to clear each mine. If you come to a "green" mine, however, you will die. . . You can accept the risk and try to clear 80% of the landmines . . . or stay in a safe place and give your tools to someone else.
1 SHEET: You have just stepped on a mine and will die within 60 seconds. The lower half of your body feels like a hamburger. (After 60 seconds you can not move or talk.) [MINE COLOR: GREEN]
1 SHEET: You are a soldier. You just stepped on a mine and have lost both legs and eyes. You can't see or walk, but can talk.[MINE COLOR: BLUE]
1 SHEET: You are a politician. You want to buy land mines because you think it is the best way end the fighting in your country. You have 100,000 yen in cash.
1 SHEET: You are an arms merchant. You sell landmines for 300 yen a piece . . . and also tools to clear away most landmines for 30,000 - 50,000 yen a piece. You have no special loyalties and will do business with anyone with money.
1 SHEET: You are a foreign photo-journalist. Take lots of pictures and document what is going on.


Here are some possible questions to raise
during the feedback/reflection session:
* How did you feel during this activity?
* In what ways did this activity seem real?
* Do you feel any differently about landmines now?
* Is there anything we can do to stop landmines?