ARCHIVED—From role-playing experiences to real-world jobs
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- What am I really teaching?
- The use of role playing
- Doing it and evaluating the results
- Continually stepping back
Maple Ridge Secondary School
Maple Ridge, British Columbia
One of the defining moments in Ted McCain's career came when he asked one of his better students a question from a test that the student had written two weeks previously. Despite having scored in the 90s on the test, the student was unable to answer the question. That set Mr. McCain off on a deep questioning of just exactly what students were learning in his classes.
He knew one thing for sure. He did not want to go on teaching students how to pass tests only to have them forget everything they learned. The problem lay, he realized, with the system and not with the students. The system is amazingly insular and has an overwhelming focus on simply preparing students for the next grade without making much of a connection to the real world. The student who performed so well on the test demonstrated this. He had shown a highly intelligent response to the demands put on him: he had learned what it takes to do well on tests, but it had little lasting positive effect in terms of preparing him for the rigours of the modern workplace. The challenge Mr. McCain set for himself was to work out new ways of challenging students that would force them to develop skills that are more useful in solving real-world problems than cramming their short-term memories to pass a test.
Mr. McCain drew on his experience in the private sector, as well as his professional skills as a teacher, to work out a number of innovative strategies for leading students to learn skills that will prepare them to make their way in the world. Here he not only describes one of these approaches, but he also explains the way he initially thought about the issues that led to it.
I know I am not alone in wondering whether my students are getting much out of what I teach them. This is a question that every responsible teacher constantly asks themselves.
I teach students in their final years of high school and my classes deal with technical skills such as computer science, information management, multimedia production and Internet publishing, as well as career preparation. I was aware that, despite the overwhelming emphasis on preparing students for post-secondary education, the majority of students in the public school system end up getting jobs with what they have learned by the end of Grade 12. Thus it was natural for me to get input from the people who employ students when they graduate. One of their recurring complaints really hit home. I heard over and over again from employers that new employees have a strong tendency to wait to be told what to do.
Knowing this, my next challenge was to figure out exactly what was wrong with the way I was teaching my students. The employers saw something but it was my problem to figure out how to better prepare my students so they could succeed in today's world.
The problem is that students too often develop skills that are highly effective in school, but what we really want them to do is develop skills they can use in the world outside the school walls. By the end of high school students have become very conditioned to rely on the teacher to tell them what they need to know. Not only are they used to working this way, but they have also become very good at it. The challenge then is to develop ways to force students to think for themselves.
I had two goals: to foster independent learning and problem-solving skills in my students, and to provide a link to the real-world workplace that students will encounter after they leave school. I discovered that role playing accomplishes both of these goals. I don't use it exclusively; it is just one arrow in a quiver of instructional strategies that I use to hit pedagogical targets and one that can be easily adapted to any existing program. I use it in my technical courses but it can be easily applied to other subjects such as social studies, science or language arts.
I conduct a business meeting in class as if I were somebody other than a teacher. I might, for example, own a shop that sells off-road motorcycles and parts and that needs a web page. Alternatively, I might be a magazine publisher looking for a new computer system that will allow my editors to work more closely with freelance writers. While in character, there is a whole raft of questions that I either can or cannot answer, or might answer differently than a teacher would. The dirt bike shop owner, for example, is not going to be able to answer questions about HTML scripts. If my students ask the publisher whether he wants a local area network, he is likely to respond that he hired them to answer that question.
The point here is to cut students off, temporarily, from my expertise as a teacher of a certain subject. This forces the students to begin thinking for themselves. It also forces me to shift the focus of my teaching. I can't just give the students a problem and watch as they flounder. I have to equip them with an understanding of the basic steps to follow when solving problems.
The role playing will succeed in solving the problem as I have defined it above (that is, forcing students to think for themselves) if it produces a number of results.
First, it should make students quick to react. They should know to start listening as soon as one of my role-playing selves describes a real-world problem. They should take notes. And they should start asking questions that will help them determine this person's problem.
Second, this approach will have succeeded if it changes my role as a teacher. If the students really are self-starters they will see me as a resource for certain kinds of information. On the other hand, it will fail if they successfully resort to tried-and-true tactics that either weasel the answers out of me or lead me to jump in and start solving problems myself.
Finally, if the problems that my role-playing self presents to students meet curriculum and pedagogical goals, then I know I've done my job.
There is no formula for role playing. You simply research the part to prepare yourself as well as possible and then do it.
It is important to note that one of my primary goals in presenting problems to my students in this way is to create the confusion and paralysis that is usually experienced when young people are presented with a problem to solve in their first job. I want this to occur in my classroom because then I can teach the students the process required to develop successful solutions. By the time students leave my classroom, they should be able to step seamlessly into the working world. I teach students that there are four basic steps they must follow:
- figure out what the problem really is
- plan a way to respond
- do it
- evaluate what happened so that you can do better next time.
Obviously, there is much more to it than that, but this is the basic framework that gets elaborated with each problem the students solve. The important thing is to get an organized way of working, whether as an individual or as a group, and apply it to real-world problems. You can — and should — go on perfecting the process every time you use it.
This brings us to the final step, evaluation. Obviously, for a problem solver that means getting useful knowledge and skills out of the experience. It also means determining the criteria against which to measure a student's performance and assigning a mark to that performance.
The evaluation criteria come from the planning stage of problem solving. I set out a few above when I talked about the things that would show that my role playing had succeeded. If I find, for example, that my students coaxed an answer out of me shortly after the role playing was over, then I may want to figure out some reason to leave the class next time to let the students work on their own.
For those of us who are not professional actors, one of the major concerns is evaluating our performance. In my role playing (which was not great the first time I tried it), I rely on my experience in business and as a consultant to play the part. If necessary, I ask actual business people to help me when I find in my self-evaluation that I don't have the knowledge to do a part convincingly.
A similar approach works when evaluating student performance. Students set out, in determining what the problem is, a series of targets or objectives. The next step for the teacher is simply to ask them to evaluate themselves by writing out an assessment of how well they did in meeting those objectives. They then sit down with me and I discuss their performance with them, agreeing if I think they are right and explaining when I think they might have undersold or oversold themselves. Just as in a real-world performance review, the students leave these discussions knowing that they want to improve in a number of areas and knowing that I want to see them incorporate those objectives into their next problem-solving plan.
I have discovered one other important piece of the puzzle of teaching students to become independent problem solvers: continually stepping back from the process. I compare this to teaching a child to walk. At first, you hold children's hands to keep them upright, but as the children become more practised, you get them to walk on their own, first for very short distances and then longer distances as they become more sure of themselves. I do the same thing with my students. At first I am very involved in holding their hands throughout the entire problem-solving process. However, as the students become more skilled, I purposely step back from my involvement in developing solutions and I continue to step back until I am no longer needed at all.
As a teacher, I want to provide support for my students without making them dependent on me. I succeed if they take the skills they need to succeed with them when they leave my class. Statistics tell us that most of our graduates are going to be entrepreneurs working in small companies. Role playing is only one of many strategies teachers can use to help students step from high school into the working world.