Thursday / April 25

Encouraging Role Play to Trigger Meaningful Learning

We aren’t in the business of preparing our students to take tests for the rest of their lives. We aren’t in the business of helping our students learn to navigate school as the end-all, be-all model of life’s journey. Nope. As Jeff Wilhelm reminds us in a Writing Project keynote, “We’re in this to develop tools to use in the real world.”

My latest book, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement, shares the results of a nationwide survey of 6th– 12th graders and what engages them as students. The results are disseminated into 9 categories that are all backed by academic research. One of the most frequent responses to appear is one that asked for learning to be meaningful, grounded in real-world skills, and for many that means Project-Based Learning (PBL).


Imagine a classroom where students invent solutions to the irksome problems of everyday life. Through research, drafting, prototyping, and presentation, students pitch products that solve everything from tangled wires to dog poo. They develop commercials to promote their inventions and these are posted on the school website for all to see.

Imagine a classroom that takes what students learn about their country and challenges small groups to create their own nation. They role-play as cartographers, policy makers, economists, and contractors to develop the infrastructure and constitution that help build a successful nation. They then present their agreements to older students posing as elders in their society.

Imagine a classroom that is given the task to save a vital species. The students Skype with zoologists. They write executive summaries to legislators and develop a social media campaign that includes student-created PSAs and infographics to help communicate their research.

To me, PBL tells a story. The students travel along the narrative, living their learning. By embodying their lessons, the students feel the learning is more meaningful. The most engaging way into the learning is through role-play, assigning students to a real-world position, career, or character that they can own throughout the unit.

From there, everything else follows. The role-play helps set up the authentic goal, and along the way, they will have written, collaborated, created, pitched, discussed, and presented, all through the lens of their mythical role.

I have long been a supporter of PBL. To many, that’s Project-Based Learning. To others, it’s Problem-Based Learning. Of course, let’s not forget Passion-Based Learning, Inquiry-based Learning, Service-Based Learning, and so on… Regardless of the term, they all include the following devices:

  • Real-World Application
  • Role-Play
  • Inquiry (either posed by teacher or student-created)
  • Authentic Audience
  • Group Work, Individual Assessment
  • Outside Expertise Brought Into Classroom
  • Student Voice
  • Student Choice, Highly Differentiated
  • Assessing the Journey, Not Just the Final Outcome
  • “Published” product
  • Oral, visual, text-based presentation
  • Integrating Tech
  • 21st Century Skills: Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Critical-Thinking
  • Reflection

And because all of these elements are utilized in PBL, it is an extremely engaging methodology.


For years, the success of PBL was merely anecdotal. Yes, there had been studies on the elements of PBL: student choice, collaborative grouping, cross-curricular design. But recently, we’ve moved beyond anecdote.

Studies have shown that these kinds of units improve long-term information retention, skill development, and student satisfaction.

  • A study reported in the Mathematics Education Research Journal presented the results between two British secondary schools found that “students in the project-based-learning school significantly outperformed the traditional-school students in mathematics skills as well as conceptual and applied knowledge. In fact, in the project-based-learning school, three times as many students passed the national exam.”
  • Another study, this one by, focused on a particular project-based economics unit that was taught to approximately 7,000 twelfth graders in 66 high schools. The students who participated “outscored their peers in the control group who received the more typical textbook- and lecture-driven approach… Students also scored higher on measures of problem-solving skills and their application to real-world economic challenges…”
  • A recent Edutopia study reported that the effects of PBL with at-risk students “…resulted in greater growth in social studies and informational reading in the high-poverty schools in which we conducted the study.” And they found “…gains were 63 percent higher for social studies and 23 percent higher for informational reading than in the control group.”

But I’m not going to lie; PBL can feel overwhelming to start. For that reason, I want to deconstruct it a bit so that it can be digested into more bite-sized pieces to chew on and enjoy.


Here’s a good place to start: Plan to have students imagine themselves as different characters, professions, facilitators, or experts.

Now think about what you want them to accomplish at the end of the unit.

The lessons, activities, and mini-projects or formative assessments fill in the spaces between the launch and the culmination.

Make sure to plan a reflection at the end of the unit so that students can look back over their journey.

That’s it. Simple, right? OK, I’m exaggerating. There’s more to PBL than that, but that’s the basic structure.

Throughout the unit, students also begin to develop more independence, a skill that is required outside of school as well. You see, PBL transfers the teaching from the teacher to the student. Meanwhile, the teacher assesses the journey of learning rather than simply the end result. This means that the formal “teaching” is replaced by surreptitiously guiding students towards what they need to learn to accomplish a goal. This could look like so many things:

  • Asking probing questions rather than answering them,
  • Having students bring in examples of a particular standard rather than providing them yourself,
  • Developing scaffolds for different levels of learners that are available to all who need them, and are accessed independently rather than prescribed by the teacher

By sitting shotgun in the passenger seat of what’s being “taught”, teachers encourage students to develop their own skills as content-area experts.


Let’s assume, however, that you aren’t yet fully comfortable with PBL as a whole. No worries. If we just tease apart some of the key practices of PBL, any teacher can engage students by adding more meaningful learning to their classroom. Here are just some of the ways you can help make learning more meaningful. I’m calling them different “points of engagement:”

  1. Bring in an outside expert into your classroom – Reach out to parents, alumni, your friends and family, or even your dentist. They can appear face-to-face or Skype in. Tap into your network to find people to contribute their knowledge and experience. Reach out to museums and local laboratories. Make your needs known within your community and bring meaning to your students’ learning.
  2. Involve an Authentic Audience to Help Assess Student Achievement – Many times, it’s only the teacher who sees the end result of a student’s work. But far more engaging is when the published or performed product is evaluated by another audience that has some kind of relationship with the material.
  3. De-segregate the content areas – Blending subject areas is far more authentic and connected to the real world than our current silos of subject-area learning. In the real world, a persuasive speech might include anecdote/memoir as much as it might include data. An email might use analysis to try to persuade the recipient towards a particular response. The only way students can apply and transfer what they learn in school is if they learn they can’t escape tapping into any subject at any time.

And all of this meaningful learning begins with role-playing.

Written by

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher, the coach of one of the largest middle school Speech & Debate teams in the country, and an enthusiastic curriculum design geek. She coaches teachers in developing their own PBL units and works to help tech-tentative teachers become more tech-tenacious. Heather is passionate about educational technology and its role in helping students communicate all subjects and has written a number of books, including, DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History, DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science, Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Content Areas, and Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. Heather writes a popular education blog as Tweenteacher and is also a staff blogger for The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s She blogs about education and parenting at The Huffington Post and is a Fellow of the National Writing Project.

No comments

leave a comment