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Role-Playing in the Classroom

by Pat Schumaecker

Common Problems
Lesson Plan
Enlightenment Radio Talk Show
The Talk Show Format


One of the greatest challenges for a history teacher in today's "do-it-now," "new is always better" world is in convincing students that studying the past can be interesting. One of the easiest ways to do this is to create assignments that encourage students to understand that history was created by real people who shaped and were shaped by the times in which they lived. One of the most enjoyable educational techniques for achieving this is through role-play or simulation. These simulations can be created in many of the following ways. In my school we have put Christopher Columbus on trial, had contests to see who was the "most absolute ruler," pretended that we were descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to review the movie 1776, and finally, we ran a Constitutional Convention and a Mock Senate.

It is very exciting to see students take ownership of a role in history; even students who are skeptical about the assignment tend to identify quickly with the person that they have been selected to represent.


There are a few caveats. The most common involves the problem of presentism in which the students' portrayals become so infused with their knowledge of the events and values of the present that they do not accurately reflect the thinking of the period being studied. Another problem arises with students who are reticent about performing in public. This can be a particular problem with high-school students who are often very anxious about peer approval. I encourage students to come and talk with me if they have a problem. Then, I work with the student to create a short-planned speech. Having spoken once, most students find each additional speech easier and often graduate to more extemporaneous comments. The last problem deals with the complexity of a successful role-play, or simulation. It is very important that the students have a clear understanding of the assignment, their responsibilities, and the criteria on which they will be judged.


The following lesson plan will help you to produce an Enlightenment Radio Talk Show. Although this plan focuses on the ideas of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, this format can be used to discuss the ideas of any group of thinkers.



The students will:

  1. Learn in detail about one figure of the Enlightenment period.
    1. Create a nameplate that represents some of the most important interests or personality traits of their Enlightenment figure.
    2. Play the role of that individual during the talk show.
    3. Apply Enlightenment ideas, with special emphasis on those of their assigned individual, to concrete events and problems of the period.
    4. Verbally express and defend their Enlightenment thinker's views on the issues.
    5. Verbally support or question the views of the other Enlightenment thinkers.

  2. Develop an understanding of the wide-ranging effects of Enlightenment thinking on the political, economic, religious, social, and intellectual climate of the eighteenth century.

  3. Analyze the ideas of the Enlightenment, in general, and the Enlightenment philosophers, in particular, and apply them to concrete events and problems of the period.


5" x 8" note cards
Piece of paper-sized poster board


  1. Students will be assigned one of the following Enlightenment figures. Although not all are strictly speaking philosophes, they all contributed to the Scientific Revolution or the period of Enlightenment that followed. Depending on the size of the class, pick the ones that you believe will work best with your curriculum.

    Francois-Marie Arouet
    Francis Bacon
    Pierre Bayle
    Gabrielle-Émilie du Châtelet
    Marie-Jean Condorcet
    Julie de Lespinasse
    Rene Descartes
    Denis Diderot
    Ben Franklin
    Claude Adrien Helvetius
    Madame Geoffrin
    Paul Henri Holbach
    David Hume
    Cesare Beccaria
    Jeremy Bentham
    Jean La Rond D'Alembert
    Thomas Jefferson
    Immanuel Kant
    Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
    John Locke
    Baron de Montesquieu
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau
    Adam Smith
    Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza
    Voltaire (see Arouet)
    Mary Wollstonecraft

  2. Students use their textbook and at least three other sources (the teacher should decide what portion of the sources should be from print or from the Internet) to find information about their Enlightenment figure in terms of:
    1. Date and place in which he or she lived
    2. His/her primary role in the Enlightenment or the Scientific Revolution that preceded it
    3. Information on his or her views on the following seven topics:
      1. government
      2. economics
      3. religion
      4. women
      5. education and child rearing
      6. war and the military
      7. crime

      A good Internet source is:
      The Internet Modern History Sourcebook

      This information will be put onto the notecards, with one for the biographical material and one each for the individual topics. Remind the students that they will be able to refer to the notecards during the talk show, and that after the talk show they will be collected for assessment.

      Many students are uncomfortable speaking in public. Even though the talk show is very informal, some students will be very reluctant to speak. Explain that everyone will be expected to speak a minimum of three times, but that a short, relevant sentence or a good question will be considered one instance of participation. (This really depends on your class size and the length of the period.)

  3. On the day of the talk show, students will bring a name card. These name cards should not only have the name of the Enlightenment figure, but should also show (through the use of words or images) some important aspect of the individual's life or work.

  4. The teacher will develop a list of appropriate questions for the talk show. This could be done in any of the following ways:
    1. Use the list below. These questions were prepared for a 12th grade AP European History class.
      1. I am presently expanding my options in a small (but with definite plans for expansion) nation on the Baltic Sea. Some of your ideas, such as religious toleration and artistic and scientific freedom, sound like they would be right up my alley. How do you people feel about large armies? Do you think your Enlightenment ideas would help me achieve my goals? How?
      2. I am a poor peasant. I've gotten a raw deal under both monarchical and aristocratic rule. Is there hope for me in this new age of "Enlightenment"?
      3. I want my children to learn to be enlightened. What do you believe to be the best form of education? What would be the most important subjects for them to study?
      4. For years I listened to the church or the king tell me how to live. Now you are telling me their ideas are all wet. Why should I listen to the philosophes? What have you done for me lately?
      5. I am calling with a serious problem. I am a well-known ruler and some of my people (especially this guy named Pugachev) are beginning to rebel. I want to be enlightened but really!!! Help!!! What should I do?
      6. With very little exception all you philosophes are men? When are you people going to get "enlightened" about the other half of the world?
      7. I don't know where to turn. Every time I think that I have found the perfect answer, you philosophes tell me it cannot possibly be right. Now, I am having trouble deciding on the right thing to wear. How can I make decisions if there are no right answers?
      8. I like your economic ideas about getting rid of mercantilism, but I'm worried that this will weaken my country. I don't want to be meat for the Prussian grinder. Help!!! Signed an anonymous Pole.
      9. I am a cleric and I cannot believe that you philosophes are trying to convince people that Christianity is a false religion, or even worse, that there is no God. Are you willing to take the responsibility for turning people away from the one true faith?
      10. My neighbor killed my son. I want my neighbor to die as well. I understand you philosophes are against capital punishment. Where can we meet?
    2. Create your own list of questions.
    3. Ask the students to create questions; remember, the questions should be of a general nature so that any of the Enlightenment figures might be able to answer the question.
    4. A combination of the above.


  1. On the day of the talk show, the classroom should be arranged in a circle or some other way that encourages interaction between the students. The teacher may choose to ask the students to come up with some kind of period costume. I have never done this, but some of my students have suggested it.
  2. Students should be given a sheet of paper with the names of all the Enlightenment figures so that they can take notes on them.
  3. The teacher should act as the radio talk-show host.
  4. After a brief introduction, ask each of the students to introduce themselves and a few of their main ideas to the other visitors on the talk show. The students may use their notecards to do this.
  5. The teacher starts with the first question. Start with questions that are fairly concrete and specific to one or more of the Enlightenment figures. Encourage interaction between the "guests." Your primary role is as facilitator. Only as the students begin to interact do they really begin to "play roles."


It is important for the students to spend some time reflecting on the goals of the assignment and how well they believe they have met them. The following ways illustrate how this can be accomplished.

  1. Give a test on the material.

  2. Ask the students to write a reflection discussing such things as
    1. what element of the assignment they found most interesting.
    2. what element of the assignment they found most difficult.
    3. what they would change about their presentation if they could.
    4. the most important thing that they learned from the assignment.
    5. suggestions for improvements.

  3. Ask students to write an essay on
    1. the Scientific Revolution or the Enlightenment.
    2. the influence of Enlightenment thinking on the eighteenth-century world.


  1. The notecards—Students must prepare acceptable cards with information on at least four topics to achieve a grade of "C" on that portion of the project. These notecards should be neatly and carefully done. A final card will be used for a bibliography.
  2. The name card
  3. Their performance during the talk show—Set number of times a student is expected to participate, either with a comment or a question.
  4. Questions (if they were asked to write them)
  5. Test, reflection or essay (if used for debriefing)



Van Ments, Morry. The Effective Use of Role-Play: A Handbook for Teachers and Trainers. London: Kogan Page Ltd, 1983.