Role-Playing – Summary of a Teaching Model.

Role-playing as a teaching model was brought to contemporary prominence in large part through Fannie Shaftel and George Shaftel (1970)⁠. Their advocacy of role-play was based on research in the problem-story model, simulations, and game theory.

Fannie Shaftel described role-play for development of interpersonal skills through dramatizations of “life-situations” (1970, p. 556)⁠. These scenes would be “drawn from the students’ current, as well as anticipated, experiences” (Donahue & Parsons, 1982, p. 361)⁠. Scenarios would be selected so that learners can confront such questions as “how are people feeling, who is affected, could this really happen, and what will happen now?” (Shaftel, 1970, p. 558). Role-plays can be considered alternate “constructions of reality” (Donahue & Parsons, 1982, p. 364)⁠. Learners experience the situations through “their own words, gestures, methods of expression” (Cabral, 1987, p. 470)⁠, but within constraints placed on their perspective, the situation, and by the interplay of fellow role players. Learners are protected from penalties that might occur if their actions were taken in the actual situations. Also, because their actions are attributed to a role and not the individual, learners can feel safe in exploring alternative responses to a role-play (Cabral, 1987, p. 471)⁠.

Role-play is an effective teaching model for affecting individual attitudes and for bringing about change in group interactions and relationships (Cabral, 1987)⁠. New insights and attitudes gained from role-play are transferable to other situations (1987, p. 472)⁠.

For individuals, role-play provides a way to “learn who they are, what they believe, what they value” (Shaftel, 1970, p. 558)⁠. In the role of another person, a learner is less able to maintain a perspective that may be incongruent with that of the role (Cabral, 1987, pp. 476, 478)⁠. Personality factors can affect the benefits of role-play activity — individuals with low self-esteem or high need for social approval may be most strongly affected (Cabral, 1987, p. 480)⁠.

In the case of groups, role-play encourages group cohesion and helps groups solve problems through increased member involvement. Standards of behaviour and performance can be established, reducing subsequent confrontations (Cabral, 1987)⁠. The role-play should be tailored to the developmental stage of the group (1987, p. 480)⁠.

There are benefits to both the role players and the observers. Insights can be gained when participants alternate between role-playing and observing (Donahue & Parsons, 1982, p. 363)⁠.

Shaftel and Shaftel identified nine steps for role-play activities. These are a warm-up, selection of role players, preparation of the audience, setting the stage, the role-play itself, discussion of role-play observations, re-enactment with new players, further discussion, and a concluding review of observations (Donahue & Parsons, 1982, pp. 362-363; Shaftel, 1970, p. 557)⁠.

The instructor is to provide “facilitating or clarifying questions” (Shaftel, 1970, p. 558)⁠ and should refrain from providing specific direction (Donahue & Parsons, 1982, p. 364)⁠. “The focus is not on right answers, but on open inquiry” (Shaftel, 1970, p. 558)⁠. The instructor must at all times foster an empathic and trusting atmosphere (Donahue & Parsons, 1982, p. 360)⁠. Role-play is most effective when “spontaneity, simultaneity, and realism” are encouraged (Cabral, 1987, p. 470)⁠. “[T]he more impromptu the role play, the better” (Donahue & Parsons, 1982, p. 362). Scenarios selected for the role-play activity must be open-ended (Shaftel, 1970, p. 557)⁠ and must allow for plausible alternative solutions (Cabral, 1987, p. 471)⁠.

Role-play activities require adequate time (Cabral, 1987, p. 479)⁠. Role-play should be used carefully when the relationships of the members threaten spontaneity (1987, p. 479)⁠. Role-play is less effective when it is not realistic or relevant, or when there is only one possible outcome (1987, p. 479)⁠.


  • Cabral, R. J. (1987). Role Playing As a Group Intervention. Small Group Research, 18(4), 470-482. doi: 10.1177/104649648701800403.
  • Donahue, M., & Parsons, A. H. (1982). The Use of Roleplay to Overcome Cultural Fatigue. TESOL Quarterly, 16(3), 359-365.
  • Shaftel, F. R. (1970). Role Playing: An Approach to Meaningful Social Learning. Social Education, 34(5), 556-559.
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