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Teaching Strategies

The Value of Role-Play in Teaching Politics

Tips for presenting—and critically evaluating—a variety of political viewpoints in government and history classes.

As a high school government and American history teacher, I strive to sidestep perceptions of bias in how I teach and assess by seeking to remain politically neutral. On day one, I tell my students that I don’t care where they reside on the political spectrum—and I really couldn’t care less—as long as they leave for the summer with a stronger understanding of how to defend and advocate for what they believe in.

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To that end, I keep refining my teaching strategy of role-playing characters with different political beliefs to engage student interest.

To portray Democrats’ views, I often shed my role as Mr. Cutler by leaving and re-entering the classroom as Dan the Democrat. Dan doesn’t hesitate to answer questions about why he supports traditional liberal policies. Most of my students lean left, so often they agree with whatever Dan says. On a dime, I turn into Randy the Republican, eager to refute Dan—and before long, I am going back and forth between the two, arguing with myself.

Tips for Role-Playing

Convey the complexity of politics. Before role-playing, I tell students that whomever I portray, it’s impossible to encapsulate flawlessly the mindset of an entire party, ideology, or movement. “Mr. Cutler does a great job of explaining to us that when he is in character, we should keep in mind that there are always exceptions—that it’s possible for a Democrat to be pro-life and a Republican pro-choice,” said one student on a recent questionnaire.

Plan ahead. While my performances may seem spontaneous, all of them require a good deal of thought beforehand, and all of them relate to a connected unit of study. I don’t go as far as writing outlines, but I do research, brainstorm, and rehearse ideas. I fear that a poor portrayal could spread misinformation.

Engage with students as Dan. In this persona, I respond to Republican talking points, like how an overabundance of regulations has forced factories and jobs overseas, hurting the economy—especially for the working class. “What’s really hurting the economy is how wealthy Americans and big companies are not paying their fair share of taxes,” I might say as a fired-up and animated Dan. “Here, I stand firmly by Bernie Sanders, who says there is ‘something profoundly wrong in America’ when one out of five profitable corporations pays nothing in federal income tax.”

Engage with students as Randy. I quickly turn into Randy, who explains that higher taxes prevent employers from offering more competitive wages and better benefits. “Lower the tax rate on the wealthiest Americans,” Randy says, “and you will see jobs begin to return here and the middle class strengthen.” When it comes to fostering discussion as Randy about a politically charged election season, my views have occasionally angered and upset students—and I’m okay with that. Teachers do students no favors by sheltering them from what millions of others think, which denies them a chance to learn how to express their disapproval (or approval, as the case may be) effectively and passionately.

Split time evenly between Dan and Randy. I’m careful to spend about equal time portraying Dan and Randy, as I don’t want to give students any reason to think that I favor one over the other. At any given time, I’m also passionate about being as convincing as possible that Dan or Randy is in the right, which encourages students to rethink their own views.

Pivot to a planned lesson. For example, Randy’s position on taxes leads to interest in supply-side economic theory and what Randy and Dan think about President Reagan. Afterward, with another swing of my chair, I return to being Mr. Cutler to introduce a lesson on how free-enterprise principles compare with trickle-down economics.

Embrace humor. Students love to laugh at how quickly I change roles, which shows my knowledge of various viewpoints, irrespective of my own political beliefs, which they neither inquire nor know anything about. “I pay much more attention in class when Mr. Cutler puts on these personas,” yet another student wrote.

Save time for feedback and reflection. Before ending class, I leave a few minutes to discuss how things went. As Mr. Cutler, this calls for asking students whether my performance helped them better understand and relate to the material. Some students share that while they entered class with one set of beliefs, they leave more uncertain about where they stand on the political spectrum. But just as often, Dan or Randy strengthen a student’s beliefs. As long as students are thinking about big issues that pertain to them and are willing and even excited to learn, I’m okay with some degree of confusion.

Encourage students to role-play. I have never asked students to role-play, though I hope to rectify this shortcoming. I’m confident that my students would enjoy this approach to learning various sides of political issues.

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Do you use role-playing in your classroom to foster discussion about politics? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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