Posts By: Geraldine Jones

Sophie Whiting reflects on her teaching about peace processes using role play

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Peace treaty


Role-play: Creating an inclusive peace?

Whilst teaching a final year unit Peace Processes in the Middle East and Europe, I have been impressed by the level of knowledge and historical context students bring to the classroom. Whilst the range of resources available in terms of books and journals as well as blogs and social media can provide a time-line of activity, there is a tendency to overlook dynamics that operate at a more human level. From a distance, and with the benefit of hindsight, actors involved in peace negotiations can more easily be portrayed as internally unified and working towards clear objectives.

Therefore, I was keen to construct an exercise that would enable students to understand and appreciate the nuances of intra and inter-group dynamics during peace negotiations. I also wanted to highlight why certain issues such as decommissioning of weapons and security reform tend to dominate post-conflict agreements at the expense of alternative factors such as ensuring the presence of women and other minorities at the negotiating table. During this unit we also explore the role of international actors and discuss what characteristics are beneficial in facilitating peace talks. Beyond these contextual elements, I have also been keen throughout the unit to build on transferable skills such as problem solving, independent thinking and group work – a role play seemed like a dynamic way to combine all these elements.

Setting the scene

In order to set the context, I constructed a fictitious conflict. I decided not to draw on a real scenario as I was conscious not to be reductionist about a complex and contentious case study (you can only cover so much in a 50 minute seminar). Students were given this brief outline on Moodle a week before the seminar:

A conflict has been taking place in the country of Genovia. Over the last five years violence has occurred between the Genovian government/army and East Genovian forces, who want secession and independence for the region.
There is currently a ceasefire in place and peace talks are taking place between 5 different actors/groups. Each group has three key aims that it wants to achieve via peace negotiations.

Along with the scenario above students were also provided with relevant literature which would hopefully enable them to connect the role play with the academic debates. In other instances I have heard of tutors giving students their roles before the session so they could research in to this further. However, in this instance I wanted students to act more spontaneously and have to formulate a strategy within the time constraints rather than beforehand.

The Role Play

At the start of seminar students were placed in to one of the 5 groups:
1) Women’s Organisation: A small group who have formed a new political party to highlight the lack of access to political and public life for women.

2) Prisoners’ Organisation: An organisation from East Genovia campaigning on a platform to represent the interests of current and former political prisoners.

3) Political Party A – East Genovian Republican Party (EGR): Campaign on platform of independence for East Genovia and linked to a paramilitary group

4) Political Party B – Party of Genovia (PG): Political party wanting to protect the unity of the country

5) International actor: An external mediator who will facilitate talks between all groups and will act as chair of the session.

The groups (which had 5 members each) were provided with the three cards – each with a different objective on them (see example below). The first task was for each group to agree the order of importance of these objectives for when they entered peace negotiations with the other parties. The intention here was to highlight the relevance in intra-group dynamics – were there any disagreements on the importance of the objectives? Were these decisions made democratically? Did one person tend to take on the role of leader?

peace cards

Secondly, the groups were then separated in to different negotiation tables so that there would be one from each different party present with an international actor to act as chair. At the negotiating table, groups could bargain with one another by trading their cards. It soon became apparent that their own negotiating aims would be in direct conflict with the aims of other groups. For example, whilst the prisoner’s organisation aimed to guarantee amnesties for crimes committed during the conflict others would not accept the early release of political prisoners or the implementation of amnesties. As a result, some difficult decisions would have to be taken by everyone involved– how could they get the best deal possible for their group? Should they go back on the agreed importance of these aims? How would the rest of the group respond if a deal was made with their ‘enemies’?

Finally, whilst also having their own objectives, the role of the ‘international actor’ to the progress of the talks was key. The international actors could decide their own rules for the talks and acted as chair of the session. Therefore, this would test their diplomacy and management of conflicting interests and the extent to which they could act as a neutral actor in facilitating negotiations.
With this exercise there was a lot going on at once and students only had 50 minutes to complete the task. This was not necessarily an issue and the time constraints (and slight chaos) actually helped replicate the expected pressure. However, it was crucial to plan this exercise thoroughly.

My Advice for Colleagues

From this initial experience I would suggest to anyone considering doing a role play exercise to (1) provide print-out instructions to each group – as there is only one lecturer (usually) in the class room this helped clarify the task before questions arose (2) give clear time frames for each task and follow this up with frequent time checks to make sure things are on track (3) ensure you have time for a discussion or de-brief to round off the session. Here it was helpful to have 3-4 key questions in mind in order to bring together the various aspects explored in the role-play and begin to connect this to the academic literature.
I was pleased to see that all students fully embraced their roles for this activity and also enjoyed the experience – some went as far to say it was the best class they have had whilst at Bath. However, there are certainly some tweaks that could be made. Now that I have some experience with how to run a role-play exercise I intend to insert some further aspects or ‘unexpected events’ (such as a break down in a ceasefire) to bring in further elements of the unit.



Felia Allum reflects on a whole semester of organised crime roleplay

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Last week, I finished teaching my Italian organised crime role play unit for the second time; there were two seminar groups, one on a thursday and one a friday. Last year, I took a leap in the dark in deciding to teaching organised crime through the use of role play. I restructured the whole unit so that in parallel to my lectures as the basic teaching material, students engaged by playing six games. The first two games are a kind of introduction as the students establish their clans - by pulling out of a hat the different roles: boss, wife, adviser, associates, foot soldiers and then, recruiting the necessary members (game 1) and then together deciding their business plan (game 2). This time we had 4 clans in each seminar group.
After which, the students were given specific case scenarios around different topics - there were 4: inter-clan relations, extortion, drug importation and distribution and politics. Then as individual clans the students design and write up their role play.
To do this, students are given time, academic texts and advice to think through  the different issues and how they would resolve them, which they then write up. In terms of assessment, this a collective group dossier that the students write together, in it they explain how they believe the different issues will be solved by the various clans. It is the academic literature which informs their decisions and thinking; so we end up with a student designed role play.

Not one game is ever the same and the stories build up, from one week to another so that there is some kind of coherence, not only in terms of events but also in terms of character development. Although both seminar groups had the same scenarios, they were played in a different order and the endings were very fundamentally different: in one group, there ended up being a massive shoot out and it remained unclear who survived. In the other seminar group, there was a lot of tension and potential for violence but a truce and peace agreement was finalised at the last minute, which meant life in the district could carry on as usual.

Students commented on the fact that the games were played at a quick pace and that they lacked structure. The more I have thought about this, the more I have realised that these are actually some of the main features of the role play. Role plays are by their very nature unstructured, flexible, messy, rough and blurred. The beauty lies in how students think on their feet and respond to these real life situations and how I as a teacher can explain to them their thinking and what could and should have happened.


Ben Bowman reflects on running a NATO simulation

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In this post I wanted to write in a pretty unguarded way about how simulating a crisis for NATO has supported my teaching of an international relations unit called International Organization.

International Organization is a tough course to teach. The biggest challenge is always posing organizations in the form of conceptual problems, rather than just going through their anatomy. This is engaged pedagogical practice, but it is also pragmatic: if I taught students how the UN Security Council worked today, and it was reformed tomorrow, they could be forgiven for thinking my course was a waste of a Tuesday afternoon! So I try to keep out of the rote memorization of how organizations are put together, and ask questions about how and why they came about, and where they're going.

One of the problems I wanted to pose for students was the actual day-to-day practice of being in an international organization and using that kind of venue to cooperate and compete with fellow actors. Led by my research and experience of role-playing a fictional organization last year, I decided to put together a simulation in order to guide students through something like the experience of being a delegate to an international organization. This year, we simulated NATO, employing an accurate model for debate and discussion, a committee structure for deliberating and drafting policy as well as a senior council for the final agreement, and a crisis session.

The students were divided into teams, each team to a real-life member state of NATO like the USA, Albania, Croatia or Germany. In the crisis session, the whole cohort of 120 or so students came together and were given a live, breaking simulation of a crisis, based closely on real life events, in which a Russian military aircraft collided with an airliner over the Baltic Sea. The crisis was accompanied by mock-up news articles, NATO and military briefing papers as accurate as I could make them, realistic call-signs for the interceptors, and carefully planned stimuli to elicit a critical perspective from students about military buildup and the tide of war through securitization and competitive rhetoric.

I was extremely happy with how difficult the students found it to come to any agreement. NATO decides by consensus, and member states were so eager to have a say, push their own standpoint and get their preferred policies passed that the group was unable to agree on much more than a basic statement on the event. I was clear to students that this was a great educational experience since almost all were both excited by the event and eager to continue, but frustrated by the process. Politics is often reported to us in public discourse as the meeting of diplomats or other elites who decide or agree on certain things, and the students were able to simulate the experience of being elites, but they were also able to access the vital role of stalemate and disagreement. Often, organizations and meetings, even the most senior ones, are unable to agree on anything without lots of informal networking, deliberation, horse trading and diplomacy.

There are a few opportunities to develop after the crisis session. First, I am pushing students in the final meeting of their simulation - the North Atlantic Council - to learn from their experience in the crisis session, and make greater use of informal discussion and caucusing, opportunities to convince others through rhetoric, and so on. This will build an extra layer of learning through practice. Second, I am thinking through ways to adapt the simulation approach to a more varied body of student-led actors. Students in the unit have flourished in their representation of member states, and their enthusiasm and engagement with the idea of being diplomats from a national government has been inspiring. However, the singular focus on state-to-state relations has restricted their opportunities to talk outside the boundaries of state conflict and military deployments. There has been a minor tendency towards Ruritanian thinking, and a lot of discussion of foreign policy towards Russia that has been useful but rather to the exclusion of other important issues. I am eager to include a broader selection of actors to join states, such as regional organizations and NGOs. I have a few ideas for this and look forward to the opportunity to try them out.


A fly on the wall in an Organised Crime Role Play activity

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Student discussion

Clans discuss their game plan

I dropped into one of Felia Allum’s role play seminars last week and was truly impressed by the level of student engagement. The seminar group was divided into 4 mafia clans each with different identities but co-located in terms of their operational area. The role play ‘games’ extend across several seminars so a history of clan activity is created as the games progress. Each clan takes responsibility for leading the role play in any one seminar, having been allocated a topic in advance around which they have to read the academic literature to understand the concepts and issues involved. However the clans don’t know when they will be asked to take the lead!

This is how things progressed over the course of the 2hr seminar I attended.

Each clan in turn summarised their position at the end of the previous week’s game in terms of alliances, threats, deals, etc with other clans, their legal and illegal businesses and how the flood (a crisis encountered in the previous seminar) had impacted on their operations.

The topic for today’s game was announced as ‘Politics’ and the lead clan thus identified. All clans spent 5 mins discussing their game plan and their priorities associated with this theme and the wider power struggle between their rival clans.

The role play started with the lead clan introducing a candidate they wanted to sponsor to run for election and thus set about organising an election campaign for him. They clearly wanted the other clans to vote for him but needed to understand what was the best strategy to adopt. To add atmosphere one student is tasked with finding some suitable background music to play while the clans discuss their responses to this move by the lead clan.

Felia announces that there are to 2 days to go before the election. Another clan responds by putting forward their own sponsored candidate. A TV debate is organised for the two candidates to take questions and all clans and citizens attend. There are some questions from the floor but the rival clan’s candidate is taken ill and the debate is curtailed. One of the clans play a reputation card against another clan which influences that clan’s actions for 20min of the play. An electronic timer displayed on the screen keeps track of this. Election day arrives and all the clan members vote (using the study space app) and the lead clan’s candidate prevails. However, it appears that one clan member has betrayed an alliance when casting their vote.

Suddenly, it is announced that the elected candidate has been assassinated and the losing candidate stands in to fill the gap until a new election can be organised. The funeral of the dead politician takes place accompanied by appropriately solemn music. Clan members’ attendance at the funeral is strategic and aligned with various inter clan alliances. At the funeral, a scandal emerges that the boss’ wife of the lead clan had been having an affair with the murdered candidate, when the previous week she had rejected the attentions of a foot solider from a rival clan, making clear that she wanted to protect her honour. A businessman close to the lead clan is proposed as the new candidate in the forthcoming elections that will take place during the week.

Just before the game concludes another clan plays a bomb card and a crime card against the clan who has proposed the alternative candidate. This will curtail the victim clan’s activity at the beginning of the next game.

The session closes with a 10 min debrief discussion on the learning outcomes from the game. Felia led this discussion. She made clear what the learning objectives were: ‘to organise an election campaign and make sure that all clans voted for the candidate sponsored by the lead clan. In particular, to understand the nature of the political exchanges between politicians and Mafiosi’.   Students reflect on their clan’s game plan and also on what issues the role play has revealed regarding how mafia clans establish political power, how they manipulate politicians in order to further their business and what kind of resources are exchanged between the different actors.

Three students agreed to share their reflections on the role play approach to teaching and learning. A key message from the students was that the fact that the role play spanned the whole unit meant that they were constantly thinking about and researching the unit topics in order to decide how their clan should play the next game and how cross cutting themes like the role of women in organised crime influenced and was manifest in the role play.  This meant their thinking and understanding developed over a period of time. Further, they commented that in a more traditional pattern of seminars where students take turns to present on a topic once their turn has passed then they said they tended to disengage. Clearly student engagement in this Organised Crime unit not only stimulates students 'to do the reading' but also encourages them to synthesise concepts, discuss and develop new ideas between session. For these students clan business became a topic of conversations in the corridors!


Felia Allum reflects on how time and space impacts on teaching with role play

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As teachers, we stand in a lecturer theatre or in a seminar room, and teach, lecture and seek to inspire our students as they listen to us transmitting our knowledge, our expertise and our stories. That is what we do. We accept the rooms we are allocated and the time slots we are given. We cannot get involved in timetabling or room organisation. And, it does not matter anyway, - time and space - because we are asked just to teach, right? Well, NO.

One thing that organising a role play game has taught me is the importance of space and time. Perhaps for traditional forms of teaching such as lecturing, the organisation of space appears less important because students sit in such a way that they listen and absorb what the teacher has to say. Perhaps for traditional forms of teaching such as seminars, time slots cannot be increased because the normal 50 min slots where presentations are made, discussions are held and conclusions elaborated works for what is required. But maybe we need to think again.

Getting the right room and amount of time for a role play is key to its success.

Let's start with room space. For traditional teaching, a teacher at the front with desks all facing forward is seen as a classic and useful set up because one person has to teach and hold students attention at the front. However, this classic set up, already does not work for seminar presentations or discussions because it can be seen as rather aggressive and unconducive to productive and free flowing discussions among students. Chairs organised in a circle, away from desks, somehow break the tension and create a friendly and participant atmosphere. For role play games, room space is just as important because it is a game that needs to be played and acted out. The room becomes a theatre, students become the actors, and so, they need to move around, they need to act out situations, they need to engage with other groups, they need to talk among themselves. If the actors are on top of each other, they feel their acts are more constrained and limited. 'We overheard what they said' said one student because the space was too confined. That overhearing preempted a possible reaction by the group that overheard and therefore the game could must be as natural as it should have been. There needs to be enough space or the right amount for students to be able to act out their parts and regroup without overhearing the plans and next moves of other groups. For role plays room space becomes vital for the success of the game but there is a more general point about how we must use room space appropriately to achieve our teaching objectives.

I think that we some times forget this and accept what timetabling give us, perhaps because we are lazy, perhaps we just do not think about these important considerations. We can no longer do this because students deserve better but also universities now have such brilliant facilities and rooms that we need to make sure we just them effectively for the right teaching methods. At the University of Bath, we have some fantastic rooms in the new Chancellor's building on the 4/5 the floor, which not only have great views of the Chilterns but are made for role plays, big, spacious with lots of light and work tables.

Chancellors Building group work space

Chancellors Building group work space

All this to say, we must use our teaching environment to make sure that we can achieve our teaching objectives. On too many occasions, I have had to chair seminar discussions in lecture rooms with the traditional set up, we must move away from this.

Time is also fundamental to teaching objectives, less important that room space but something to consider. Each university has its own allocated time slots, usually under an hour, with a few minutes for students to move from one lecture to another.

We roughly know that our students cannot concentrate for more than 10-15 minutes on the trot which why it is so vital to break up a lecture as well as seminar activities so that students can reflect and take all the information in but also that it should be a fun activity not a stressful one where they try and keep up with the fast speaking lecturer. We need to think about how we use time and how much time we need. For example, I am fortunate to be able to have only on group of pg students but we have a 3 hour slot so we can get through our different activities but not in a stressful, fast, manic way....

For role plays, it is the same. Time is needed to play the game. It cannot be rushed because students need to think and discuss their reactions before they act them out. At first, I thought that we would have too much time but far from it. 2 hours worked well for our role play games not only was it the necessary time for students to act out their scenarios but it also gave us a precious 30 mins at the end. That 30 mins at the end, was the debriefing session and another key element to a successful role play.

For the role play to make sense a debrief is mandatory for the students to reflect and analyse what has taken place but also to give the teacher the opportunity to stress the important aspects of the game and what lessons we can learn from it. The debrief is the teacher centered moment of the class where everything can be bought back, away from the game to the importance of the academic literature, having critical insights and developing analytical reflections. This can only work if undertaken in the right environment with the appropriate amount of time, only then can the teaching objectives work and there does not exist a disjuncture between the various elements. If teaching and reaching the learning objectives are not going as smoothly as they should, maybe space and time should be looked at.


Matthew Alford reflects on our recent Exploring Role Play Workshop

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guest speaker

Guest Speaker Dr. Frands Pedersen

Today comprised an excellent set of sessions exploring the use of role play in teaching and learning with colleagues from Humanities, Social Sciences, and Engineering. I think the key aspect was the open attitude encouraged by the organisers and each speaker to both the typical positives (eg. very high attendance) and negatives (eg. some students are uncomfortable with ‘play’) of role play, so it felt like a very free flow of ideas.

Simon Usherwood joined us by Skype to present his ideas on "how to make fun useful" in the classroom. One question raised today was about whether students actually should have "fun" during their learning experiences. I think this was answered well by Frands Pedersen who pointed out that even if there is no additional pedagogical benefit, as long as there's no harm... why not? Other speakers pointed to additional benefits in more playful teaching and learning, which might not necessarily relate to the immediate assessments but would have more holistic plus points, including stronger group cohesion and deeper forms of learning. Frands had brought in a set of student designed board games including "Fight for Libya" and "Public Disorder: The London Riots", in which the police chase the rioters around the board, and it was obvious that these had engaged students effectively in understanding the key issues behind the actions of these two opposing groups.

We finished with a round table discussion on role play led by Felia Allum, drawing on her own experiences in teaching about organised crime through this method, bringing in the speakers from earlier and including reflections and ideas from Ben Bowman (PoLIS) and Kei Tsutsui (Economics) from their teaching contexts.

I really enjoyed today and it helped me reflect on my own attempts to run seminars in more interactive and stimulating ways. For example, I want to move towards having my student cohort take on the role of Congressional delegates. There is a balance to strike on the amount of information we should give to students on role-play opportunities - it might be more empowering and exciting for students to have a greater say in what role they play in any scenario and I will think further on this matter before implementation.