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The use of role-play in the science lesson: a study on discussion and conflict resolution.

Laura Colucci-Gray

School of Education, University of Aberdeen, Old Aberdeen, AB243FX,

Paper presented at the Scottish Educational Research Association Conference, Perth, 25-27 November 2004


The teaching of controversial socio-scientific issues is core to an education for citizenship worldwide. An important aspect of this education is to develop the ability of citizens of a global society to deal with uncertainties. This involves the development of new approaches to knowledge as well as practical suggestions for approaching problems in which facts are contested and values are in conflict, the stakes are high and decisions are urgent. This paper reports on the experimentation of a role-play with 14-15 years old students. Students worked in small groups, they engaged with group discussion, role-taking and the nonviolent resolution of conflict. Discussion transcripts, researchers’ notes and semi-open ended questionnaires constituted the data. The results showed that role-taking can be a means for developing students’ cognitive and emotional involvement; it provides a context for addressing a complex issue and for reflecting on the nature and evolution of conflict. Reflections on the nature of science and science teaching, and the limitations of the study will be offered for discussion.


According to Morin (2000) the awareness of the ineliminability of uncertainty is one of most important contributions from the knowledge of the 20th century. The failures of socio-economical predictions (in spite of their sophisticated mathematical tools), the growing mistrust in the myth of progress, the crisis of the future and the great socio-environmental disasters have reinforced awareness of the intrinsically uncertain character of human history. While there have been appeals for a better democratisation of science (Lubchenco, 1997), some authors argued that the crisis of science education can be understood within a wider planetary crisis (Morin, 2000; Orr, 1994) and that science itself may be in need of change (Gallopin et al., 2001).

There are themes and problems which are essential and relevant to us in our daily lives, both as individuals and members of society but which are rarely dealt with in schools, in their complexity and specificity. Conflict is a very common experience in everybody’s life, it is part of our social and family lives, also at school. Yet it very rarely addressed in school and most importantly is not made the object of reflection and open field for research. This research was configured as an in-depth study on a teaching and learning unit which introduced students to the exploration of conflict, through the role-play simulation of a complex and controversial socio-environmental issue. The rationale of this study was greatly influenced by curriculum development programs such as Science, Technology and Society (Solomon, 1993), in which role-play was a privileged tool for raising students’ awareness of current science–based issues and to develop abilities for citizen participation in democratic decision-making. Important reflections were also derived from development studies which framed the reflections on science and technology within the global context of international politics and development, bringing in issues of multiculturalism, difference and power (Giroux, 1992). An educational project which was based on the theme of conflict did not only concern the acquisition of content but it aimed at developing cognitive, relational and emotional skills. It aimed at empowering students to deal with important challenges of life in current societies, through a research mindset and with the recognition and synergic involvement of everybody’s own energies, knowledge, power and resources.

The study was initiated by some initial exploratory questions: what are the behaviours in a conflict circumstance? What are the consequences, feed-backs and outcomes of conflict? And also, can a conflict be "resolved"?

Starting from a small-scale project in a secondary school in England, this paper explored the use of an "old" and "contested" educational tool, role-play to carry out meta-reflections on a number of interconnected educational realms: the idea of knowledge (to include scientific knowledge); the idea of citizenship; the relationships between humanity and the environment (the Earth).


Role-play is usually associated with a particular category of learning tools that have become known as "gaming exercises", including also simulations and games. Collectively these techniques are known for providing participants with some form of imaginary or real world within which to act out a given situation. Tansey and Unwin (1969) reported that since the beginning of their use they were successful in promoting a high degree of commitment and involvement by the participants, inducing motivation. Also those students who would normally act as "trouble-makers" during the lessons often became effective leaders in the game. Drawing on the work of Wallace (2003), Camino and Marasso (personal communication) used role-play as a tool for dealing with a macro-conflict, proposing both an approach in the third person (knowing about theory and articulation of conflict) and an approach in the first person (recognising one’s own emotions and attitudes in a situation of conflict), which accounts for reflection on oneself as a fundamental requirement for action.

"Everyone is always and everywhere more or less consciously playing a role…" (Goffman, 1956).

The roots of a theory for role-play can be traced back to the studies on communication and social interaction of George Herbert Mead (1934) and Erving Goffman (1956). In describing this processes Goffman (1956) adopted a "dramaturgical approach", in which individuals’ actions likened the performances staged by actors playing a role in front of an audience while the actor does his/her best to try to convey his/her feelings, his/her understanding of the situation and to "express and reveal" himself/ herself before the audience. In this view being in role and the practice of role means to achieve capability for action, which is not only in the form of the doing but also in the form of creative and intuitive thought, as we strive to engage the audience. Following the dramaturgical model of Goffman the established social roles can be recognised through their appropriate "setting", "appearance" and "manner", on the basis of projected character traits that have normative meanings. Higgins (2000) observed that social expectations operate as imperatives concerning a person’s cognitions, as well as his or her conduct during role enactment. "Just" preparing for role-enactment can influence how information is encoded and "retrieved" in the memory, and that even reasoning can be influenced by role enactment (e.g. the use or not use of base rate information). In the context of sociocultural studies, the works of Vygotsky (Claxton, 2004) showed the ability of people to unintentionally "pick up" their mental habits and values from those around them. Children for example learn from watching their elders, what to notice, what to ignore, what to laugh at and what to be afraid of. From such considerations it emerges that through the performance of a role, a person brings in the values, interests and knowledge of a particular social group and a specific context, in which the specific role originated. More recent studies on communication (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986) indicate that the audience’s receptiveness and engagement in the interaction are most often independent from the logical contents of the words the individuals might use, and logical reasoning from the side of the audience will be most unlikely. Rather they will depend upon those signs that Goffman says are given off by the individual. As Goffman reported:

"It is important for us to realise that we do not as a matter of fact lead our lives, make our decisions, and reach our goals on everyday life either statistically or scientifically. We live by inference" (Thomson, O. op. cit, p.15).

In such context a view of science which stretches beyond the validation of evidence in the assessment of actions in socio-environmental issues begins to emerge. Role-play introduces the dimensions of values, but also context and goals. In role-performance the dimensions of action and thought, and knowledge and values are inseparable.

Educational issues in relation to role-play

A number of post-structuralist theorists argued that people have a multiplicity of overlapping subject positions, both arising from everyday practice and through the identification with broader discourses. In line with such a view, role-performance takes on a more contingent character, becoming equal to the expression of a point of view which develops out of and coexists with a multiplicity of other perspectives. For some commentators this conception of free-floating subjects may at its extreme tend to dissolve into relativism and nihilism, in models of societies made of essentially dissociated individual subjects that are pursuing different interests. On the contrary in this research value was also given to the arising of forms of communality and solidarity, which are visible in a variety of biological communities, from ancestral bacteria (Margulis, 1999) to human communities, as shown by the chain of solidarities around the globe which constitutes what has being called the anti-globalisation movement (Sachs, 2002; Klein, 2000). A way to make sense of such discrepancies may be that of reconsidering the notion of role in the light of a more fluid concept of the self. This mechanism is better illustrated by the work of Shott (1979), who identified specific feelings that accompany role-taking. While affect may arise from the fulfilment or the frustration of individual needs and interests, Heron (1992) made a distinction between the more agitated character of emotion and the feeling of empathy. Heron (1992) indicates the educational value of empathy as the cultivation of the capacity of the psyche to participate in wider units of being, "to indwell what is present through attunement and resonance" (pp.16). This process is fundamentally different to that of consciously evaluating consequences as it is often spontaneous and unconscious, as we become able to "put ourselves in other people’s shoes". Heron defines the domain of empathy as also that of participation, presence and resonance: the feeling of empathy has a creative dimension, by which we can place ourselves in communion with what we find and perceive as outside ourselves. Following the work of Hyde, the process of empathy also associated with heterocentric evaluation, at the same time enhances our own sense of identity (Hyde, 1955, reported in Heron, 1992). Yet as reported by Lifton (1993) empathy is a process that tends to be selective, and in some measure situational. Individuals may vary in this capacity, depending upon the educational experience and development of the self. Empathy requires to be capable of decentering, of stepping back from one’s own involvement to enter the mind of another, while an immature or fragmented self is often divided between the infantile tendency to separate and "own" and the adult’s search for integration and synthesis. Hence one of the problems which may occur with role-playing and which will need consideration is that of experiencing a series of temporary identifications in which one may "lose oneself" for a time, as opposed to empathy, which implies compassion and coherence. When dealing with school students I could reasonably expect difficulties and differences in relation to the specific context, age and gender as education through role-play was set to involve cognition at al levels: cognitive, emotional/relational and imaginative.

The socio-environmental issue of intensive prawn farming and the emergence of conflict.

The role-play used in this study dealt with the global, environmental and social issue of intensive prawn farming (Naylor et al., 1998). This activity spread massively – during the last ten years – along the coasts of many tropical countries. Promoted and funded by International Institutions in order to improve protein input in the diet, to offer new opportunities for employment, to raise the economies of developing countries, this activity has also produced widespread damage to the coastal ecosystems, and has weakened the subsistence economy of local populations. In the state of Tamil Nadu, local villagers organised themselves in a nonviolent protest movement against the growing shrimp industry, according to the gandhian tradition of Satyagraha (Rigby, 1997).

The understanding of the proposed issue required a multidisciplinary network approach: from natural sciences to economics, from ethics to law. For example, players were required to investigate food chains and ecological webs - both of them are in school science curriculum - within the context of global trade, as well as within the local scenery of the mangrove shrub. Drawing upon an established tradition in science education, this role-play activity was aimed at providing students with the opportunity to appreciate the dynamic and controversial aspects of science, as both a process and a product of a particular society and a key player in complex societal issues, which are characterised by the relationships between science, technology, society and environment (Solomon, 1993; Camino and Calcagno, 1995). Following the approach of Mitchell (2000), perspective-taking in role-playing was used to create a simulated public argument leading to the exploration of the many layers and perspectives embedded in public arguments, which are sometimes obscured by "yes – no" debating formats. Building on the use of role-play to simulate public arguments this research drew on the work of Moscovici and Doise (1991) to combine the influence of both cognitive and socio-emotional elements (e.g. acceptance of agreement) in decision-making. However the consideration that in India the controversy became a real conflict expressed by a broad and organised non-violent protest gave the opportunity to address the conflict and research constructive ways to deal with it. In amongst the various strategies which can be adopted to deal with conflict, this research was based on Galtung’s theory of nonviolent conflict transformation (Galtung, 1996). This approach was greatly influenced by the ideas that were exposed and put into practice by Gandhi (Weber, 2000) and they included: nonviolence towards oneself, towards others and towards Nature. Galtung maintained that conflict does not necessarily bring violence whereas behind many violent actions lie unsolved conflicts. Those conflicts which apparently end with the victory of one party are not really "concluded", but they evolve towards further clashes, with an escalation of violence (which may direct or in direct). Galtung proposed to devise nonviolent contexts in which the parties in conflict endeavour to creatively transform their condition. This can start by framing the current conflict into a wider scenario and by proposing a multiplicity of solutions. These are different from those that were originally proposed and they contain the potential of satisfying the needs of all the participants involved.

This research made use of role-play to achieve two main interconnected aims:

- to give students the opportunity to explore the controversial aspects of an important issue in society, which involves them both personally and as members of a democratic, global community.

- to gain experience of conflict within a framework of nonviolence, reaching out for both the search of results and individuals’ self-transformation.

Especially in relation to the second aim I can anticipate that such an expectation would have been difficult to achieve within the available time and resources of this study. Such aims were long-term vision which informed my practice, while I worked towards more definite and specific objectives. In order to deal with conflict in a nonviolent way it is important to develop a variety of competences: dialogue, active listening, empathy, respect for others and research into the common needs. The role-play activity was therefore aimed at creating participatory contexts in which students practiced with "listening to others", by being in other people’s shoes and by sharing and becoming aware of the preconceptions, the mental schemes and the inferences through which we grasp the sense and the meaning of messages out from our ineliminable subjectivity.

Research questions

The focus of this research is on the use of role-playing as a means to address and learn about conflict , exploring the attitudes and behaviour to deal with it creatively. This relationship is complex and the aspects attended here are:

Based on the background outlined above, the questions that this project set out to answer were:

Q1. Do the students take on a role and how far in their discussion does this happen?

Q2. Does role-taking help students to build consensus?

Q3. How do the students approach conflict and the cooperative search for consensus? What is the nature of their decision?

Q4. What do the students learn from the experience?

The scenario of the role-play and the characters

The role-play (Colucci and Camino, 2000) was set in Madurai a large city in Southern India, where a Court of Inquiry was convened to discuss the problems lamented by the local villagers after the installation of intensive prawn farms along the coasts of Tamil Nadu. Taking on the role of representatives of a number of societal groups, in the first part of the role-play students enacted the public inquiry in which a commission of adjudicators was in charge to issue a verdict on the basis of sentiments expressed by the delegates. In the second part of the role-play the characters convened in groups of people with conflicting opinions engaged with an activity of nonviolent conflict transformation. Role-card were prepared to represent the actors involved in the controversy. Students were divided in "friendship groups" (Duveen and Solomon, 1994) of three members with the task of "giving life" to their characters by means of a presentation. In the role-cards students would find the identity and background of the character and his/her opinion about the controversy. The full set of characters was constituted of :

Table 1 List of characters

Generally in favor of prawn farming

Generally against of prawn farming

Commission of adjudicators

Sonja Rey
(Minister for the Development of India)

(Indian landowner)

Dr. Krishna

Paul Power
(American entrepreneur)

Tami Sunethra
(representing the movement for the land)

Margherita Broecarts


(leader of the nonviolent movement)

head villager)

Robert Brown
(Minister for Indian Agriculture)

Priscilla Singh
(Representative from FAO)

Dr. Goshivah

Marco Dandri
(Italian NGO’s volunteer)

A selection of slides and spread-sheets of collated information (from textbooks, newspapers, web-sites) provided information on the local geographical and socio-economical scenario, scientific and technological aspects of the prawn farming industry and an up-to-date on the current conflict (including aspects of rural life and the people involved in the nonviolent movement). The simulation activity was organized in three stages (Fig. I), characterized by a combination of teaching/learning approaches (lecturing, group work, dramatization, personal reflections, groups’ presentations):

Figure 1 The role-play activity divided in three main stages

During the activity data were collected through a variety of means: researcher’s notes prior and during the activity, recordings of students’ discussions, semi open-ended questionnaires. Semi-quantitative and qualitative analysis was carried out. Table 2 provides an overview of the classroom samples:

Table 2 Classroom samples

N. students



How recruited

Teacher involved

Quid pro quo

Pilot study

·        the activity fits in with the National Curriculum requirements (area: citizenship);

2 classrooms(22 students)2 schools.

Year 10
(13-14 years old)

June 2002
2 hours.

Telephone contact with the teachers.

A: teacher of biology;
B: teacher of Physics
Main study

·        the activity is a challenging experience for a classroom of capable students.

1 classroom (30 students, from school B)

Year 10
(13-14 years old)

June 2002
2 hours

Telephone contact with the principle teacher.

Biology teacher (Principle teacher)


Towards students’ active involvement.

The pilot study revealed that role-play is not a common teaching strategy in secondary schools. While some students had experience of role-play in geography, none of them had done any role-play during the course of a science lesson. During the role-play the students displayed difficulties in working in groups and this was exacerbated by the need to understand the procedures of the game. However during the simulated debate they got involved, while they were grappling with the complexity of the issue and the performance. One group which more successfully managed to carry out cooperative work, also took on role and they effectively put across their point of view, without the need to refer to the authority of the text, nor to that of the teacher. This gave sufficient evidence for reflecting and improving the activity, which was re-proposed in the second study. A sequence of steps was taken in each study in relation to both cognitive and relational aspects:

- simplifying the information materials: the number of technical terms was reduced and the parts with techno-scientific information were rewritten to suit a non-specialist audience;

- Formulation of questions to focus the attention of the group on relevant aspects of the role-card.

- Strategies for improving group work (e.g. use of instruction sheets, formation of friendship groups).

- Strategies for establishing new dynamics of leadership in the classroom (change of the teacher’s function and position, change of role for the researchers, active use of students’ consent form).

I learnt to "argue from someone else's point of view" (main study, after thoughts).

In the role-play students began by stating their considered and prepared positions. All groups started their presentation by speaking in the first person and declaring their identity and background. The students voiced a number of identities, each one bringing particular forms of knowledge, experience, values, beliefs and goals as they "took the stage": they expressed themselves in the complex construction of a point of view. A common pattern for example in students’ initial presentation was to declare that: "we are… we have seen that… we think that…". There was no need for recalling the students’ attention nor to make any disciplinary intervention, but an organised mutual interaction between the audience and the speaker took place. While the audience was in a disposition of listening to the speakers and it engaged with the performances, the speakers endeavoured to express their point of view in a clear, personal manner and to give reasons. This was often the product of a group effort, as the group members mutually supported one another with positive remarks and notes of encouragement and they contributed with new information or integration of new dimensions into the argument. Being in role also corresponded to taking on responsibility for words and actions. From the analysis of the small group discussions, it appeared that the girls in the Tami group worked with a high level of internal cooperation which was manifested during the public discussion. This internal consistency allowed the Tami group to produce a presentation in which consistency was sought between words and actions: they internalised the voice of their character and so they stood to the questions of the adjudicators. . This also confirms my first hypothesis that the enhancement of team work through role-play can lead from thinking to action: e.g. "We don’t eat them because we are against it" (Tami, pos. 52).

Other groups, with less internal consensus, appeared less consistent and more easily susceptible to slip out of role and to "lose face" (Shailesh; Sonja; Dr. Krishna), in despite of their ability to articulate sophisticated information (Margherita, Dharwar). The comments from the questionnaires confirmed such difficulty, which was particularly felt during the simulated debate.

Knowledge systems and cognitive strategies

As well as locating themselves as a group simulating an event, the task of each group was to "become" a character and to try to take on the time/space reality of that character for the purpose of the simulation. The issue on prawn farming brought together characters from different social and cultural contexts, bringing along different understandings of the nature of time, space, the relationship between mankind and nature, beliefs about personal and common good. These understandings formed a continuum between two views represented by the power of science and technology to transform Nature on the one hand, and the ability of people to live as a human community in a balanced ecosystem on the other (Lyle, 2002; Sachs, 2002). That the students perceived this as a continuum was exemplified by an increasing complexity in the understanding of "key themes" such as health and water, from being the responsibility (or property) of some, to being a more diffused and continuous element which extended beyond the single individuals’ power and interests. The students did more than simply reading the card and their presentations were richer in meaning than the original card-descriptors. In their construction of identities and cultural perspectives the students actively tapped into and shared sets of values and beliefs which are formed by different social and cultural experiences and out of different kinds of relationships with the social and natural world. What is more the students actively made such views as their "own", sustaining them as respectable, valid and legitimate positions in the course of a public discussion. Role-play proved to be an effective means to educate for an appreciation of pluralism and it is interesting to examine the cognitive strategies the students used to make sense of such variety of interpretations. As suggested by Lyle (2003) two important approaches are the opposite pairs and the notion of chronology, which can lead the students to be sensitised to a range of possible futures from the formulation of different standpoints. For example while for the government and the entrepreneurs progress is a linear function of time and it can grow indefinitely, for the local villagers such progress grows in function of the destruction of Nature. According to these two views the long-term visions are those of a certain optimism on the one hand and an epic of destruction on the other ( Tami: eventually the whole India will become like infertile).

Forms of knowledge and modes of thinking.

While two poles of knowledge systems could be recognised, the discussion of the students displayed not only a condition of divergence of points of view and incompatible goals, but also a condition of competitiveness. In line with Galtung (1996) examples of these conflict are found commonly at the micro-level in the competition for the use of an object but also at the macro-level, such as the natural resources, like a river, a piece of land or the conflict for oil, which has become a planetary conflict. In the educational context this can provide interesting opportunities for reflection: the preservation of one’s own ideas, the defence of one’s own life projects can easily lead to conflict (from the meta-reality of the role-play this can be recognised also in the local reality of the students, for example as a conflict between parents and children). At the macro level social groups which claim their way of life or traditions that they had kept for a long time, can enter into conflict with other group, perhaps following an enforced migration or due to changes in the social and environmental context. Throughout the transcript the students expressed such condition of both interdependent relationships and competitive clashes. While the initial presentations aimed at the expression of a point of view, through the alternate use of analytical and integrative thinking (for example Tami and Margherita), the presentation strategies gradually adjusted to a climate which was becoming increasingly adversarial, in which students’ attempted to demonstrate the truth (for example Jeganatthan’s appeals to the laws as a symbol of justice, whereas) at the expenses of other options (Dr. Krishna). Similalrly while the biologist (Margherita) started to sketch a view of Nature in which human communities are part and parcel of the natural environment, Doctor Krishna and the local entrepreneurs perceived the thriving of human populations as separate and somehow prior to that of Nature. These concept were also illustrated through the use of scientific metaphors: while Margherita moved from the linear conceptualisation of the "food chains" to that of the "food webs", revealing feed-backs and spiralled interferences, Dr. Krishna deployed the argument of the progressive evolution of human population as the inevitable struggle in a scarce/inadequate environment.

Science, risk and responsibility.

By relating the evidence from the debate with the findings from the group work, a correlation between internal levels of cooperation (with meaningful interaction between the group members) and quality of students’ conceptualisations began to appear. Presented with the problems and risks of a scientific method of food production (intensive prawn farming) the characters reacted with a number of different manifestations, which are describable (table 3). In other words, the more effectively students actively listened to one another and deeply discussed their role, the more flexible, resilient and able to incorporate feed-backs and relationships appeared to be the front. For example while the Jeganatthan group produced an effective consistent front, the internal interaction of the kind collaborative/competitive led to an extremist position, to taking side, which overrode the existence of risk. In contrast the more cooperative/constructive mode of the girls in the Tami group produced a consistent front which also accounted for a more cautious position which acknowledged and internalised issues of risk and uncertainty.

Table 3 Relationships between internal consensus, responsibility and action in the different character groups.


Internal dynamics

External presentation


Position on risk


Individual work/
pair collaboration
(i.e. making supporting moves)

Inconsistent front/ Loses face

Promotes economic development

Puts trust (and responsibility ) in the experts.
No risk


Cooperative interaction
(i.e. completing each other sentences)

Consistent front

Reports on the health risk associated with the prawn farming policy

Expects the unexpected. Invokes precaution.
Admits uncertainty.


Individual work/pair collaboration

Inconsistent front.

Promote personal interests

Risk is minimised, responsibility is ignored.


Individual work

Credible but inflexible front

Explain the coupling between human communities and ecosystems

Recognises risk as damage to the environment.


No interaction/

Consistent but non-credible front

Promotes the economic interest of a group

Responsibility and risk are rationalised in monetary terms.
It does not acknowledge ignorance.


Competitive interaction


Declares the flaws and demonstrates the truth.

Overrides risk. Frames responsibility as blame of others’.

Dr. Krishna

Collaborative interaction through leader

Consistent front/short for words

Makes a pragmatic recommendation

Control risks through the control of Nature.


Facilitated interaction through peer.

Inconsistent/out of role

Spreads information

Overrides risk. Frames responsibility as blame of others’.

Democratic decision-making and the discovery of conflict.

In line with much of democratic decision-making settings the definition of the agenda, the allocation of roles and responsibilities and the allocation of time, the role-play simulation of the public discussion aimed at creating the conditions which would be conducive to making a decision (Moscovici and Doise, 1992). An underlying network of themes and issues was progressively "unlocked" and weaved together, as the adjudicators were took on board the variety of points of view, they critically examined them on the basis of specific variables (i.e. health issues; employment) and "re-addressed" the issues to the speakers in the form of critical questions.

While this served the purpose of conducting an organised discussion, it did not facilitate the search for consensus: rather a perceivable adversarial style was associated with the discussion. The evidence from the role-play supported the studies of Hastie and Pennington (1991) in which they described participants’ attempts to convince the audience to agree with them, for example through appeals to the common good, or the advocacy of a compromise solution. Such findings demonstrated the limitations of allowing the participants to settle over a solution of compromise: event if compromise might have appeared as a natural tendency which the role-play forced to stop, it would have also ruled out other possibilities and the discovery of a larger game extending beyond the preservations of self-interests. Yet the ruling out of the compromise position in the role-play had the effect of increasing the level of conflict and it made the decision-making environment more alike a criminal jury deliberation, a categorical and less "continuous" type of deliberations. By so doing the discussion moved away from the simple negotiation/bargaining process to become a rational process of exchange of arguments to enable the adjudicators to pronounce a verdict both on factual and normative issues. The adjudicators’ verdict was expressed in the form of a narrative which was produced after careful pooling and scrutiny of evidence, and in which the scientific elements blended together with what was preferable and what was morally right: e.g. "they do not need to be rich". However while the adjudicators operated within a framework of conflict prevention, acting on a thoughtful basis and contemplating future consequences, the conflict was not solved The students’ reactions after the adjudication sowed that some of the incompatible goals underlying the issue had not been addressed (e.g. the verdict did not really help to solve the problem of food) and feelings of aggression and dissatisfaction also arose. On the one hand the decision contributed to give more power to the local villagers, bringing their voices on board alongside the voices of multinational companies, members of the Government and the International Organisations. On the other hand the conflict evolved into other conflicts which students managed to address only in part. During the activity of conflict transformation, only two groups gradually learnt to sustain dialogue with assertiveness and awareness of other people’s points of view, while the others either entered the escalation of the denial of conflict. Yet for all the groups the recognition of the common condition of human beings on a Planet which has shown to be finite, was the necessary grounding point from which equal rules and criteria for everybody to benefit from the goods which are offered by the natural systems could be defined. The students’ difficulty to move across contexts appeared in several occasions during conflict transformation, as mentioned for example by the dialogue between Tami and Shailesh:

"although prawn farming is important we could take up something more long term, really better like um, rice but we did also have a point that rich countries like China for instance wouldn’t, is that right, big countries like China wouldn’t need to buy any rice" (Tami & Shailesh, final presentation).

More familiarity with activities of reflection on one’s own personal assumptions was a necessary requirement to build creative and collectively shared social representations (Moscovici and Doise 1991).


In relation to the aims of the study, the results provided a number of important reflections on the intimate interconnections between ecological and social sustainability, within a framework of nonviolence. Role-play emerged as a "flexible methodology", conducive to a variety of aims and objectives, For example role-play was used as a teaching technique for practising with the acquisition of school competences: search of relevant information, cooperation, empathy. Informed by the theoretical reflections, the role-play provided a context for reflecting upon science-based controversial issues: following from previous work in the Public Understanding of Science (Miller and Osborne, 1998), role-play contributed to an awareness of the variety, inconsistency and insufficiency of data, and an elaboration of a view of science as a "social process" (Ziman, 2000). However also other additional dimensions came into play. The decision-making process showed that while the review of scientific evidence was important, other aspects such as the authoritarian image of science, the relationship between scientific knowledge and power, science and democracy and facts and values were also considered. This made the study move towards an integration of a view from the outside (in the third person, which rationalises, describes and measures), with a view from the inside (in the first person, which feels and reflects). In line with Kasemir et al. (2003), the data began to reveal that in order to understand stakeholders decision-making processes other dimensions such as wisdom, character and compassion played an important part and similarly a rich record of personal experiences which are shared in the course of cooperative forms of interaction also matter. Alongside a critical awareness of the role of science as "elected" form of knowledge (role of the experts, the hierarchies of knowledge), students were introduced to the elaboration of an idea of science which was linked to complexity and the experience of the plurality and legitimacy of points of view in controversial issues. As the role-play activity progressed, a distinct change in the quality of the teaching and learning context also occurred. Although the physical appearance of the class was left unchanged, there was a dramatic shift in social and cognitive complexity. From a classroom system essentially "simple" (two main roles, one main avenues of communication), the teaching and learning space turned into an articulated, complex systems, made of a multiplicity of voices (pluralism), forms of knowledge in both local and global contexts and emergence of new understanding. For example in the final questionnaires the students pointed out that they learnt to: "Listen carefully to the opinions of others"; "Argue my case a bit more and persuade a bit more. I also learnt more about my fellow class mates"; There are many unfortunate conflicts around the world beyond what we see in the news". In this respect role- performance can be used as an "indicator" of a complex process: while being easy to observe and without exposing the students directly, it allows an expression in the "first person".

It became also increasingly apparent that through the theme of conflict social and ecological relationships were coupled together. The globalisation process puts in relation (creating mutual influences) people, social groups, populations, but it also connects ecosystems, natural resources and consumable goods which are visible through measurable transfers of matter and energy from the two sides of the globe. The role-play revealed such interconnection also showing how situations of conflict can be cause often without each "knot" on the web to notice. Conflict can be increased and exasperated by the individuals’ behaviours, although they do not arise from direct interpersonal relationships. Success with taking on role allowed the participants to engage with a form of "reality-practice, in which they role-play provided a learning environment to deal with conflict. During the role-play enactment students practiced with a number of thinking skills (decision-making, deliberation, problem solving, creativity), but also metareflection, in order to identify the different levels of violence in relation to people and the natural systems and to internalise nonviolent approaches to dealing with conflict through the development of fundamental attitudes (assertiveness, empathy, willingness and disposition to listen to others).

However not all students managed to work through the conflict, while the role-play provided a rich learning potential. With awareness of both the reality and the fictious, an opportunity was given for the ongoing shift from cognition to meta-cognition, from language to meta-language, from teaching techniques and methods to methodologies. This provided a core of ideas for further research on socio-environmental controversial issues which can build on role-play within a framework of citizenship and sustainability. For example some of the key ideas which emerged from the taking and enactment of role were:

The views of the single disciplines (Physics, Biology) focus on, measure and value different aspects and phenomena of the same reality, which require to be integrated within a larger and coherent vision/framework;

What is perceived as a linear relationship of cause and effect, as a segment of reality is often a section of a circle, a feed-back which underlies cyclical, recursive processes;

Our perceptions and explorations are framed within boundaries that we apply to objects and processes in order to be able to bring them into focus, but by doing this we eradicate the connections with the context and modify the situation in ways which are unknown.

A final note should be given on the role of the teacher. By making explicit the reasons for, and purpose of the activity, power was shared amongst the children and with the children in a web of relationships which included both the children and the researcher. This way of working challenged the asymmetry of teacher/student talk which dominates in schools, allowing the whole classroom to use talk as a thinking device (Lyle, 2002) and a means for collective action. Yet in order to extend such webs of teaching and learning to include other Institutions outside the school, an imaginative, reflective role of the teacher is important. Professional development courses for teachers can be devised to integrate reflection on personal behaviour and attitudes in relation to issues of conflict from the micro to the macro-scale: this can include research on teachers’ abilities to formulate thinking habits which move beyond problem-solving and decision-making to creative and meta-reflective thinking (McGuinness, 2004) and make them appreciate the risk as well as the opportunity which may lie in conflict situation (Camino and Marasso, 2004). The role-play was informed by meta-methodological aspects seeking an interconnected relationship between the observer and the observed, in consistency with a specific value framework (nonviolence) and a paradigm shift (from science literacy to the interdisciplinary framework of sustainability, Camino et al. and Colucci et al., personal communications). Further research can focus on the combination of role-play with a number of other interactive and reflective strategies aimed at developing teachers’ role as promoters of new interpretive models, and exploring the relationships between complex forms of knowledge and elaboration of more complex approaches to knowing. In the realm of the cognitive science this can corresponds to operating a shift from learning dispositions to mental habits (Claxon, 2004a, Claxton 2004 b), which enhances creativity and through which we can recognise the complexity of natural systems, in their harmony of multiplicity of forms and creative manifestations. While the role-play offered the students the experience of different forms of democracy (representative, participatory), suggestions were given for an extension of the concept of democracy from the local to the global sphere, in which issues of social and ecological justice are meaningfully explored in the context of Life on a finite Planet, the Earth (Lovelock, 1994).


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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 19 December 2005