The Role for Role Plays? (Spring 2017)

For the CRES Facilitation course, I have been assisting with setting-up, observing, and coaching role plays for the students. This is a curriculum element that was not part of the facilitation course when Nelli taught it, nor have I ever seen role plays used for teaching facilitation. Role plays for mediation, negotiation, and even one I created for my undergraduate collaboration course, sure, but not for facilitation. Overall, I think it has been a really good learning experience for students, and it is not a perfect teaching strategy.

The thing that role plays really have going for them is they are a way for students to try something potentially difficult in a safe environment. The irony here is that most students feel like facilitation is easy, and some are so cynical as to question why it is taught as a skill at all. However, at the end of the role play, every student I coached said to me something along these lines: “I had no idea facilitation was so hard.” Hearing this is actually a bit gratifying given facilitation often has to fight to be considered a skill, let alone a profession—anyone can run a meeting, right? So why invest in someone to do that. In this regard, role plays provide a great way for students to appreciate the work that is needed to do this well, and will undoubtedly give more attention to process design in the future.

Role plays are a safe environment because they are not real, this is also the downfall of this pedagogical approach. With such a small cohort, most of the role plays were 3-4 people with 1-2 facilitators with only 90 minutes to facilitate. And yet the role play scenarios were really designed to be multi-hour meetings (or even multiple meetings) with many more people involved. In such small and forced scenarios, the students aren’t able to practice many of the group process strategies (like even small to large group divergence-convergence). Additionally, many get caught up in the story of the role play. The role play that actually worked the best was the “Cohort Gathering,” which was a very realistic, limited preparation required, scenario of their own cohort planning a celebration. Especially in contrast to the final one, a complicated multi-stakeholder natural resources dispute, this one was simple and straight-forward, allowing the students (and coaches) to focus more on the actual process design and skills, rather than the story-line. It is easier said than done, but I think the key might be finding a happy middle ground where role plays are hard enough for students to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of the practice, but easy enough to actually get to practice.

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