Adam Blatner, M.D.
(First written in 1995, and corrected October 18, 2009)

Role playing, a derivative of a sociodrama, is a method for exploring the issues involved in complex social situations. It may be used for the training of professionals or in a classroom for the understanding of literature, history, and even science. (See also paper on use of Drama in Education on this website.)

The great developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, described two modes of learning: "assimilation" and "accommodation." In assimilation, people figuratively "fill in" their mental map of their world, while in accommodation, they figuratively change that mental map, expand or alter it to fit their new perceptions. Both processes are complementary and concurrent, but different types of learning tend to emphasize one or the other mode.

Rote memorization tends to emphasize assimilation. In contrast, learning to climb a tree, swim, or ride a bicycle emphasizes accommodation. Accomodation involves a gaining of a "knack," and tends to be the kind of learning that is almost impossible to fully forget. Assimilative learning, as we all know, is remarkably easy to forget.

Some kinds of rote memorization becomes accommodative to the extent that the words or ideas are linked to rhythms, poetic cadences, and music, and this is why a certain small group of activities--a recited bit of Shakespeare or a narrative song-- may stay with an individual far more readily than, say, the list of vocabulary words mastered for a foreign language test and then forgotten. It has to do with the using of certain information.

Unfortunately, so much of education is oriented to the kinds of learning that can be more easily tested, which is assimilative, memorization-type learning. Yet what the world really needs is people who have skills, and skills go beyond mere knowledge of facts. Skills, though, require a more complex performance-oriented testing which requires more teacher attention, covers more subtle variables. And skills reflect an accommodative type of learning.

It is a commonly accepted cliché that we want to teach our young people to think, but thinking at any level of complexity requires an exercise of three interdependent component categories of skills: problem-solving; communications; and self-awareness. These skills cannot be learned by reading any number of books, although a little didactic material can be helpful in creating an intellectual framework for the accommodative learning. Rather, the kinds of skills needed for flexible, creative, rational thinking must be exercised, practiced, and learned in a process of interaction, risk-taking, self-expression, feedback, encouragement, and, in short, a process which is closer to learning to swim than learning the capitol cities of the various states.

Self-awareness need not be thought of as a type of psychoanalytic or otherwise obscurely psychologized process. The ancient Greeks called it "rhetoric," and it referred to a heightened awareness of the ways the childish mind can accept deceptive ideas. One learns self-awareness not only by studying the psychodynamic "defense mechanisms," but also by exploring cultural forms of manipulation, in political propaganda or advertising; in group dynamics, the tactics of brainwashing or group manipulation; and in learning about interpersonal manipulations. It extends to how people get taken in by phony statistics, but also turns again to help people reflect on how their own motives may interfere with their thinking clearly about a problem.

From this viewpoint, self-awareness is an integral part of problem-solving and communications. Self-awareness is essential to understanding others. And the best way to learn all three categories of skills (each category containing over a score of component skills) is through role playing.

Role Playing as Simulation

Role playing isn't to be viewed as a particularly psychological procedure. Certainly, it has been widely used as a part of many different types of therapy, but this is because it's a natural vehicle for learning. Role playing is simply a less technologically elaborate form of simulations.

What astronauts do in their practice for missions; what pilots do in learning to navigate in flight simulators; what thousands of soldiers do in the course of military exercises--it's all role playing. Teaching salespersons to deal with customers, teaching doctors to interview patients, teaching teachers to deal with difficult situations, all these require some measure of actual practice and feedback.

Role playing, then, is nothing more than rehearsal. Musicians and football players, actors and firemen, all need to practice their skills. This is because complex operations cannot include all variables in a single lecture or even a thick book. Issues of adapting general principles to one's own set of abilities, temperament, and background; working out the inevitable "bugs" any complex system generates; and preparing for unforseen eventualities--all are frequent goals of this kind of role playing.

Historical Background

The term "role" comes from the "rolled-up" script actors used to use over two thousand years ago in Ancient Greece. In time, the script became the part, and actors then were said to play the "role" of, say, Hamlet or Othello or Ophelia or Desdemona.

But one can also create a role, improvise a performance, and in fact children do this all the time in their pretend play. There's a kind of vitality that attends this type of imaginative activity, and a young physician in Vienna around 1910 was intrigued by the nature of creativity and spontaneity. Just as the modern artists were challenging old traditions, so there were those who saw the traditional theater as encrusted with obsolete forms, emotionally phoney and dead. This young physician, Jacob L. Moreno (1889-1974) sought to revive theatre by inviting the actors to improvise, and his early "Theater of Spontaneity" in 1921 became one of the first "improv" troupes.

Moreno discovered that the activity of dramatic improvisation was therapeutic for his actors, and began to think about applying this approach as a type of individual and family treatment. After emigrating to the United States in 1925, Moreno developed these ideas into a method he called "psychodrama." In addition to applying it to help psychiatric patients, Moreno found that the basic techniques could be modified to help groups address social problems, and called this approach "sociodrama."

Moreno had a most fertile mind, and wove together many associated ideas about social psychology and group dynamics. He was one of the pioneers of group psychotherapy and even engaged in his own type of philosophy, emphasizing the need for appreciating the fundamental importance of creativity in life. (In this, his approach resonated with another great psychotherapist, Otto Rank.) And as a social psychologist, yet weaving together his background with drama, he developed the role concept. There were a few others in sociology and anthropology also thinking about roles, but Moreno added a dimension of actual methodology which enabled people to reflect on the way they were playing the various roles in their lives--role playing.

One aspect of role playing was that of diagnosis or assessment--a test of how a person would act when placed in an imagined or pretend problematic situation. Interestingly, the German high command used this method in order to reform their officer corps. The goal was genuine merit instead of the old tradition of using the college-educated sons of the aristocracy--too many of whom were far from real leaders. And however horrible the political purposes this army then served, it did function to help create a remarkably effective organization, and its officers were a cut above those of other countries. Only after the Second World War began did the allies pick up this technique.

By the late 1940s role playing had become a recognized part of business, community, and other forms of the budding field of what was to become organization development. In the 1970s it was widely used as part of behavior therapy for assertion training and social skills training. It has been known as a method in education since the late 1940s, but there were enough problems with its use that it hasn't fully "caught on."

Problems with Role Playing

Role playing is a technology for intensifying and accelerating learning; it is like electric power tools in relation to carpentry. Just as carpenters have to be skilled in the many components of their craft, so too do teachers have to be well trained and competent, or therapists well-grounded in the various aspects of that role. The tools aren't panaceas, and they don't work well if used carelessly or as a substitute for actual planning and thinking. And, like power tools, they can be dangerous. But even the old-fashioned types of saws and hammers could do damage if one doesn't know or remember to apply the principles of safety.

The most common problem with role playing is that of the leader not appreciating its essential nature: It is an improvisational procedure, and improvisation requires a feeling of relative safety. This must be cultivated in a group, the teacher engaging the students in a "warming-up" process in which they get to know each other in a more trusting fashion and become involved in the theme to be learned. Learning how to warm up a class and how to keep the warm-up going is as much a part of role playing as a surgeon's knowing how to prepare a patient for an operation.

Many people who have had unpleasant experiences with role playing in fact suffered because the teacher hadn't warmed up the class or those assigned parts to their various roles. Simply assigning roles, saying to one person, "You're the principal of a school," and to another, "Okay, and you're a kid who was sent to the principal's office--go!" isn't enough information and those thrown into this situation in that fashion will feel as if they'd been tossed into a pond and told to learn to swim. The teacher as dramatic producer needs to talk to each of the players, interview them "in role," drawing them out regarding their thoughts about associated aspects of their role, gently involving them imaginatively in the situation.

Another problem with role playing arose when teachers gave into their own impulses to "play psychiatrist" and slip from dealing with the group problem to explore some issue to focusing on the real-life personal problems of a given individual. So, for example, if a girl was having trouble in playing Queen Isabella to another child's "Columbus," giving in too easy to the latter's entreaties instead of making him really sell his project, it would be inappropriate to shift into an exploration of why that girl had problems with self-assertion. It's not much harder to prevent these mistakes than to teach safety procedures for power tools in wood shop, but time must be taken to explicitly address these issues and these lessons need to be periodically repeated.

A third problem comes from the common tendency to assume that interpersonal skills are easier than technical skills--though in fact they are even more difficult--and so people tend to think they can engage in directing role playing before they've really achieved a level of bare competence (much less mastery). It's like the way adolescents will say, "oh, yeah, I've got it now" when they have only acquired the most superficial knowledge, whether it be in driving a car or doing some household task. Well, sometimes teachers fail to appreciate the complexity of a skill they're learning, and it's important to emphasize that directing role playing is about as complex as learning how to deliver a baby. And it helps if the person doing the learning is also trained in other ways.

Role Playing and Drama in Education

Role playing uses dramatic devices such as having the players make "asides," comments to the audience that the other characters have to pretend they haven't heard; this allows us to reveal what  we think but are not able to say. Another dramatic device, role reversal, involves the players changing parts so they can begin to empathize with the other's point of view, even if they don't agree. Speaking from different parts of each role helps people become more conscious of their ambivalence. These sociodramatic techniques facilitate the degrees of self-expression and, with reflection, thereby deepen the insight obtained for both players and audience. And thus, this procedure can be used in conjunction with another approach which has different roots: drama in education.

Arising from a number of innovators in both the fields of education (most notably, B.J. Wagner, Nellie McCaslin, Geraldine Brain Siks, Virginia  Glasgow Koste and Elizabeth Flory Kelly in the USA) and the theatre (most notably Viola  Spolin, Richard Schechner, and Joseph Chaikin in the USA), the idea was to foster spontaneous exploration of various situations. This approach has also been called "creative drama," "developmental drama," and similar terms. In America in the 1920s, Winifred Ward pioneered "playmaking," while in England in the 1950s, Peter Slade wrote about the power of drama in his book, Child Drama. This was different from theatrical production--there was to be no script, no fixed lines, no rehearsals. (Theater, as I'm using the term here, in contrast, traditionally emphasizes written scripts, rehearsals, and/ or an emphasis on the performer rather than participation by the whole group.) According to  another pioneer, Brian Way, the learning was in the experience of creativity itself. (Way, 1967): "... drama is concerned with the individuality of individuals, with the uniqueness of each human essence.") While drama in education's source was different from Moreno's, its spirit certainly resonated with Moreno's original vision about the potential of spontaneity as a key dynamic in learning and problem-solving.

Another source has been the work of Viola Spolin, the inventor of "theater games," improvisational exercises which were originally designed for actors. But since the 1960s, many "psycho-technologies," techniques designed for psychotherapy, for professional acting training, even for physiotherapy, have been recognized as having benefits for the general public. (This was the impetus for my wife Allee and I in adapting sociodrama as a method for revitalizing adults and general recreation in our 1997 book, The Art of Play.)

Drama in education and creative drama in the last several years has integrated all these cultural developments. It's more recognized in England, Canada and Australia, but there's a fair amound of work being done in the United States. Unfortunately, it tends to be addressed to the earlier years of childhood, while (I think) it's the older age groups who really need it more. But the cultural forces in general push kids into a process of specialization, whether in art, music, or theater, and this aims at more polished performances. Improvisation and spontaneity training tend to be lost (if ever they were understood) as basic goals of education.

I acknowledge that there is value in actual theater training for some youngsters, just as there is value for the few who want to become more specialized in dance or art or music. But most if not all children need to be helped and empowered to enjoy these primal vehicles of self-discovery and self-expression without having to be concerned as to whether or not they're "good enough." And it is for the general, non-specialized student that we need to cultivate group song-fests, folk dances and general dances, and improvisational and general drama in education.

Drama in education can be used to teach about various topics in literature, social studies, history, and the like, and role playing can be used to enhance these experiences and motivate further  study; or role playing can be used in a more constrained, focused way to help students understand some of the complexities of these subjects. Such experiences may then become a stimulus for more traditional teaching methods, writing and discussion.

Future Implications

In addition to its integration in the ordinary classroom, these methods can also be used synergistically with special programs for children "at risk." Some children have special needs; some are physically, emotionally, or developmentally disabled; and some are simply not the kinds of children who do well in traditional classrooms and need a more active, multi-modal, experiential approach. Again, role playing in itself is no panacea, any more than the new "-scope" technologies now revolutionizing surgery can be effectively applied by people with little training. These are tools, and in good hands, they can powerfully enhance the attainment of the teachers' goals.  The movement towards social and emotional learning in the schools and the promotion of emotional intelligence also should make use of this valuable resource.


Role playing is a methodology derived from sociodrama that may be used to help students understand the more subtle aspects of literature, social studies, and even some aspects of science or mathematics. Further, it can help them become more interested and involved, not only learning about the material, but learning also to integrate the knowledge in action, by addressing problems, exploring alternatives, and seeking novel and creative solutions. Role playing is the best way to develop the skills of initiative, communication, problem-solving, self-awareness, and working cooperatively in teams, and these are above all--certainly above the learning of mere facts, many if not most of which will be obsolete or irrelevant in a few years--will help these young people be prepared for dealing with the challenges of the Twenty-First Century.


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