Role-playing activities, a traditional aspect of the way children play, has attracted attention by both educational theorists and markets for children's games. The use of role-playing as a method of instruction is a crucial element in social studies instruction. There are a number of key reasons for this. First, child's play has always been characterized by role-playing. Children will usually adopt a number of roles when playing with other children; they reap enjoyment from the processs of emulation. In past generations, children have played 'cops and robbers,' 'cowboys and Indians,' and any number of games that require that they characterize themselves as actors. Writers and game manufacturers have capitalized on this process, and have introduced an array of ever more intricate games that involve problem solving, social interaction, and a precise understanding of the context in which game-players must operate.
One of the most important concepts that teachers must convey to children is that decisions are made at every level by people who base their decisions on the subjective information that they have gained through a combination of analysis and intuition. This is critical in that students must understand that even condemnable actions may be understood if presented in context, albeit without apology. For instance, students might be asked to assume the role of members of the Japanese Diet in 1941 and determine whether or not the bombing of Pearl Harbor is in the best interest of Japan's empire, the 'co-prosperity sphere.' By doing so, students are able to understand all decisions in a human and social perspective rather than assigning historical protagonists and their foes moral categories.
This is crucial even when a normative approach to historical events is considered to be essential to instruction. For instance, when teaching children about the holocaust or the Soviet Ukrainian terror famine, it is usually considered of normative importance to convince students that these demonstrably terrible events occurred within the context of a once-civil society that had fallen to moral depravity through the inaction and acquiescence of a citizenry that had succumbed to rational ignorance. In mastering these concepts, students are afforded and understanding of public responsibility in an Aristotelian sense: the social studies course not only provides them with a broad understanding of the historical, social and political context in which they will act, but also affords them a circumspect understanding of civic virtue: what constitutes goodness and responsibility at the basic, inter-subjective level that such concepts exist and are common to people of different faiths and ideologies.
According to William Lowe, author of Structure and the Social Studies,
Historical study requires constant exercise in the relationship of details and generalizations. It gives experience in the organization and classification of extensive data. It teaches the student how to look for relevant information and to use it in solving problems. If you approach it right, history teaches you how not to be swamped by details that will soon be forgotten, but to use them in order to develop understanding.
This reflects a traditional view of how students should approach the subject of history; he emphasizes the recognition and categorization of knowledge over an engagement in activities designed to build a student's appreciation for how historical decision makers acted. In Social Studies for Secondary Schools: Teaching to Learn, Learning to Teach, Alan Singer addresses the question of what goals are common to Social Studies teachers. Here he discusses teaching methodologies and their failings- one of the methodologies that he criticizes is the one that is most antithetical to the role-playing concept: that of "teaching the facts." Of this method he writes:
This view of social studies education is supported by popular writers like E.D. Hirsch, Chester Finn, Diane Ravitch, and Allan Bloom, who bemoan declining academic standards while compiling lists of "facts" that students should know at each grade level. What I call the "Dragnet School of Social Studies Education" (lecturing the facts) is frequently referred to as the "transmission model." It is a teacher-centered approach to classroom practice; teaching is defined as organizing and presenting information to essentially passive learners. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire describes it as the "banking method.." "
(Singer and Alan J. Singer and the Hofstra Social Studies Educators. 64)
In his criticism of this methodology, Singer emphasizes that this methodology, rather than reflecting an intuitive understanding of the social and civic reasons for teaching social studies, serves only to effect a stratification of students based on demonstrated competencies in the memorization and recitation of facts. He believes that such an approach merely serves a stratified society based on competition for resources, that isn't committed to either learning or democratic values. It might be added that the labor resources favored by this stratification, students that can memorize rote facts and 'regurgitate' them during an examination, is a poor reflection of social needs, not only from the civic perspective but also from the standpoint of a market economy: it might be said that anyone with a cursory understanding of computer operation might at any moment be able to access information that easily exceeds the content of his memory of his high school history courses by an order of several thousand.
Instead, Singer supports a model for teaching that is based on an alternative view of the way that people learn, complemented by an alternative set of educational and social goals. This he calls 'inquiry-based social studies education,' which he claims is based on student questions and research and on student-to-student and student-teacher interaction. Such a method, he says, would be based on "exploring the world and making meaning of what they discover." Such a process, he believes, would teach them the meaning of citizenship and community in that they experience democratic relationships: he believes the exploration of democracy is should be one of the chief aims of such a course as it reflects a social need for an educated polity. It could be easily argued that such a polity would be characterized of informed decision makers that were both familiar with historical precedents and the methodology employed by political leaders in decision-making.
Singer and Alan J. Singer and the Hofstra Social Studies Educators. 64)
Role-playing provides us with a new approach to teaching that shifts away from the rote memorization that usually serves only to color students ideas about the subject. By contrast, role-playing serves to teach students concepts in a way that reflects the way which they already behave and enjoy themselves when they are outside the classroom. Warren Hope, in his Journal article "It's Time to Transform Social Studies Thinking," conveys the importance of this matter by relaying his own personal experience:
Today I am haunted by the statements made by my college students as they reflect on their k-12 social studies experiences. The students invariably speak of their dislike for social studies, commenting that the teacher did not make it interesting, what was taught was irrelevant, it was taught by a coach who had other things on his mind, or the teacher sat behind the desk and told the students to read the chapter and answer the questions at the end. Being bombarded with these highly distressing comments on occasion after occasion is very upsetting to a teacher. If, however, that is the pedagogy those students experienced, it is no wonder that social studies is so routinely and soundly criticized.
This reflects one of the biggest problems with Social Studies today: adverse selection. Students that would normally be 'turned on' to history and social studies because of the way they reflect the human condition and everything dynamic and riveting that one would normally find in a novel or television program are instead turned off by an over-emphasis on dry facts conveyed by apathetic practitioners.
Joanna Sullivan refers to the style of learning that incorporates role playing as 'cooperative learning' because the style allows students to explore historical and sociological themes together rather than leaving them to comprehend the text as a narrative, a process that usually causes them to abandon interest. This methodology establishes individual accountability within the group. Sullivan claims that this process is basically a method of facilitating interdependence among students by involving a broad spectrum of structures that include peer tutoring, collaborative learning, and reciprocal teaching. Many of the faculties of role-playing reflect this process, as students are able to explore topics together while also exploring the ideas of the people whose roles they are acting in.
Although Sullivan acknowledges that such teaching methodologies present philosophical difficulties to teachers, she also believes that the educational community ultimately supports these ideas because this community is one that values individualization and group interaction.
In addition to conventional role-playing where students adopt the roles of historical decision makers, role-playing can also play a role in exploring assigned reading material and themes associated with the topic that they are seeking to learn about. Sullivan relays the story of a teacher, Mrs. Beaton, who used such a methodology in her 8th grade class: