An Inquiry into role-play as a tool to deal with complex socio-environmental issues and conflict

The Open University, United Kingdom

Supervisor: Prof. Joan Solomon

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This thesis reports the outcomes of an exploratory study in which a role-play on the controversial aspects of intensive prawn farming was trialled with classes of secondary school students in England, as an aspect of secondary school science education provision.

The empirical part was conducted in the years 2001 and 2003. At the time, growing concerns were expressed about the provision of science education in schools: science learning would still be focussed on the acquisition of specific concepts; yet students would be increasingly disaffected towards learning science. In this scenario, questions were being asked about the value and importance of learning about science and the quality and purpose of science education. Discussions around the purposes and practices of school science education became even more problematic when set against the broader epistemological changes involving techno-scientific research. Researchers in the science disciplines started to talk about a new field of inquiry, such as that of sustainability science (Gallopin, 2004) to grapple with risk, uncertainty and ignorance populating debates about techno-scientific developments and the associated socio-environmental issues.

In other words, scientific research itself was changing and the importance of learning about it was coloured with civic and ethical responsibilities. For its major impacts in shaping the workings of the natural systems, science as a process of inquiry needed to be addressed and understood in school in its changing and problematic aspects.

In educational terms, this would translate with the need to rethink science education, by creating contexts in which students could become active players in the processes of knowledge construction in science, appreciating and becoming familiar with the role of language, discourses and metaphors that populate the acquisition and use of scientific concepts in the broader socio-cultural context. In this scenario, education would have an important role in empowering citizens to make connections between the realms of science, technology, society and the environment, participate in the understanding and discussion of problems and recognise the links between ecology and equity.

The role-play studied in this thesis was introduced for the main educational purpose of devising a context in which such processes of engagement could be enacted. During the role-play, students were specifically involved in the discussion of the specific issue of intensive prawn farming in India, which had both local and global dimensions (Colucci and Camino, 2000).

The study consisted of a sequence of empirical trials, in which children aged 13-14 participated in two simulated decision-making settings. First, they were asked to take on a role and put forward their views in the context of a Court of Inquiry. Second, they were encouraged to act in a context of dialogue, whereby in role, they could engage with active listening in a process of nonviolent conflict transformation.

The purpose of the research was to describe the features of the learning processes activated during the role-play and the level of students’ understanding of the complexity of the issue generated during the activity. Data were collected throughout the study to include a variety of sources: recordings of students’ discussions, open-ended questionnaires, researcher’s observations and students’ own products, which were analysed by both quantitative and qualitative means.

In the course of the research, it became apparent that a discontinuity was present between this form of learning and the conventional, formalised context of the classroom. Such discontinuity was to some extent productive, as the data showed that students in the role-play had engaged in a context which stimulated the acquisition of new skills and broader competences. An important reflection related to the role of language, as a tool for building understanding of concepts and disclosing underlying processes. Furthermore, links were observed between students’ conceptualisations of the issue and the communication strategies being used, such as the competitive and argumentative approaches on the one hand, and the cooperative and dialogical ones on the other. Particular attention was drawn towards to the use of tentative and exploratory expressions in dialogue, which were generally respectful of other people’s points of view and sensitive to the different value frameworks. Although the nonviolent search for consensus was a difficult activity to perform, a content analysis of dialogical interactions indicated that the activity had initiated possibilities for creative approaches to dealing with conflict and this was effective in building awareness of socio-ecological complexity.

On another note however, this thesis was also the story of the maturation of the researcher herself, who was becoming increasingly aware of the changes to the ways of thinking in research which were required to understand a participatory reality. Role-play is not a new tool. Rather it is a well-known form of pedagogy which enhances personal involvement and creativity: in other words, the symbolic and socio-cultural dimensions of human learning processes. However, relationships and context become paramount in a situation in which students engage with their own knowledge, values and epistemologies. The challenge for this research was to describe without constraining in order to capture the quality and dynamism of the learning processes as ongoing negotiation of meanings, acquisition of competences and disclosing of processes behind terms and concepts. This raises questions about the images of science, the concept of the learner and the role of the teacher.

The limitations of the study are discussed and suggestions for research point towards the need for further explorations of the area of conflict and inter-subjective processes in learning.

(This research developed under the supervision of Prof. Joan Solomon at the Centre for Science Education and unfolded in the ongoing dialogue with the Science Education Research Group at the University of Turin, Italy where it formerly originated).


Colucci, L. and Camino, E. (2000) Gamberetti in tavola: una questione globale. Gioco di ruolo sugli allevamenti intensivi di gamberetti in India. Torino: EGA

Colucci-Gray, L. (2007) An Inquiry into role-play as a tool to deal with socio-environmental issues and conflict. Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Centre for Science Education, Open University, Milton Keynes (UK).

Gallopìn G.C. (2004). Sustainable Development: Epistemological Challenges to Science and Technology. Background paper prepared for the workshop on “Sustainable Development: Epistemological Challenges to Science and Technology”, ECLAC, Santiago de Chile, 13-15 October.


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University of Aberdeen, King’s College Campus
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