When Acting Out in Class is Good

I’m a big fan of using role play in my science classes. I will find at least one excuse per unit to get students acting out some biological process like the electron transport chain or meiosis. First of all, it gets them out of the seats in which they are confined most of the day and engages them physically as well as intellectually.

More importantly, however, I believe it creates an experience that will help provide clarity and lead to deeper understanding and retention of the process being simulated.

Many processes in biology are hard to visualize and impossible to show in a high school setting because of their small scale. For example, while students are able to view electron micrographs, drawings and cartoons of the cell membrane, they will never be able to see the individual phospholipids and proteins. The closest we can get on our microscopes is a cell nucleus or two! And while I have them model the fluid-mosaic using soap bubbles, they will never actually see the interactions between the different components in the membrane. Animations and videos are helpful and using the interactive whiteboard can also provide clarity. However, I believe the best way to get to know the cell membrane is to become the cell membrane!

Role play activities are rarely used in science classrooms despite the benefits they can provide students in creating conceptual change. One reason for this may be that an effective human simulation can be difficult to plan and execute – especially with large class sizes. However, with a bit of creativity, careful organization, and the right attitude, role playing mineral ion absorption in root hairs can become a fun and worthwhile experience! If we look at science from a constructivist approach, role play can allow students to build their own understanding of abstract phenomena as they become part of the process they are studying. For example, one concept that I find students struggle with is meiosis. Every year students are befuddled by certain aspects of the event no matter how I teach it. One especially tricky idea for them to grasp is how the cell can be haploid after the first division AND the second division. I feel like I am constantly trying to explain it in different ways, but not reaching every student. Some will adopt the “just accept it and move on” attitude that I had in high school. I try to avoid letting this happen whenever possible. It is a learning travesty! This year I decided to try a full class simulation of a cell in meiosis to see if it would help clarify some of the confusion. I did it as a review activity after the students had completed a self-oriented, differentiated approach to learning the material. Everyone had discovered meiosis in their own way. For those reading who are unfamiliar with the process I will spare you the details. But the moment that convinced me this was a good idea was in Act 7 when the sister chromatid students separated in anaphase II. In a real play such a performance may be followed with applause. In this situation there was a round of “OOOOOOOOOOH!!!! Now I get it!” Success! For at least some of the students in the class, the simulation provided an opportunity to reconstruct the information they had gathered previously in a way that made more sense. And hopefully they now have a memorable experience to draw on when they are asked to explain meiosis in an assessment.

My other favorite role play moment happened just the other day. We were creating a human periodic table in grade 9 science with the ultimate objective of helping students understand bonding. Students were assigned an element and given a sign to wear around their necks.

On the signs they drew B-R diagrams on the front and stuck electrons on with blue tack. They then answered questions about valence electrons, ionic charge etc.. on the back. At this point students had a very limited understanding of ionic bonding – mostly that atoms share electrons in bonds in order to achieve full valence shells. I hadn’t even explained the activity yet when all of the sudden, students started bonding with each other! “Hey Zoe! I’m chlorine. I can share electrons with you!” “Oh yeah cool! I need to get rid of this electron.” I was amazed, happy, proud. The students were all smiles as they found partners for each other. I just stood in stunned silence.

Students figure out the activity on their own.
Students figure out the activity on their own.

Here are some more examples of role plays/simulations that I have done in my science classes (the ones I can remember right now!)

  • Kreb’s cycle and electron transport chain/chemiosmosis
  • Mineral ion absorption in roots
  • Transpiration
  • Particle theory
  • Periodic table
  • Ionic bonding
  • Cell membrane/fluid-mosaic model
  • Transmission of nerve impulses
  • Circulatory system
  • Digestive system
  • Gas exchange
  • Immune system
  • Enzyme tag
  • Electric circuits
  • Predator/prey cycles

If anyone wants further explanation of how I’ve done any of these, please let me know.

I’m no expert, but here are some tips that I thought of in order to help prepare an effective role play:

  • Background knowledge is key. No point in asking a student to act like molecules that they are unfamiliar with. I probably wouldn’t use a role play as an “engage” or “explore” activity.
  • Planning is necessary. Don’t try to wing it. I’ve done that before and it is usually a flop. I will bust out the post-it notes and stick them on random students and say “go for it!”. Inevitably it turns out highly unorganized and can confuse students more. Rarely is it one of those magical teaching moments.
  • Run the simulation in small groups. Sometimes I have only half the class do it at a time. When there are 24 students it can get chaotic and students end up with meaningless roles like the cell wall – lame.
  • Guide the students through the simulation the first time. Give them lots of help. Then have them try it on their own while  you watch and provide feedback.
  • Have students switch roles. In some simulations there are minor and major roles. It might be more useful for students to try a couple of different parts.
  • Pre-select students for the initial run through. I pick my drama students or my very outgoing students to be the guinea pigs for simulations. I have some very shy, introverted students that don’t like being the centre of attention. Yet I don’t want them to miss out on having a starring role! So I get the more confidant individuals to act it out first. We iron out the kinks and then switch parts when everyone is comfortable with the different roles.
  • Have fun with it. If the students aren’t laughing as you say stuff like “Everyone act like chromatin! Come on – loosen up – let me see your spaghetti arms!” then you are not doing it right.

Here are some links to resources about using role-play in science and teaching.

Role Playing in Teaching and Science by Gabrielle McSharry and Sam Jones

Role-Playing as a Teaching Strategy by Lori Jarvis, Kathryn Odell, and Mike Troiano

Role-playing, conceptual change, and the learning process: A case study of 7th grade pupils by Pirjo-Liisa Lehtelä

Teaching Method: Role Play by J. McVittie


5 thoughts on “When Acting Out in Class is Good

    1. Hahah!! There are so many things in biology that I never really “learned” in high school or university. It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I figured things out for myself, trying to anticipate student questions!

  1. Hey Juliana,
    I loved this post as it is something I believe in and try often. Am I correct in assuming from your post that you generally organize and “direct” the (what I like to call) human demos? I have done a lot of this in the past (ETC, Calvin Cycle [complete with rap!], non-cyclic photophosphorylation, enzyme catalysis, food webs, etc) but this year with the Kreb’s cycle I let the kids research it, organize it, and act it out while I filmed the whole process and showed it to them later. Surprisingly it worked quite well! There are a lot of things on your list that I would love to try (just finished root mineral uptake unfortunately!), especially as we move into human physiology. If you have the “instructions/ideas” in a handy format for gas exchange, circulatory, digestion, and immune systems I would love to see them. If you don’t have them in a convenient format to send, please don’t go to any trouble.

    I also hope to engage you a little over the details of how you put together your evolution unit as I am going to try and do something similar with a homeostasis unit in my grade 10 class in March. Would it be okay to drop you an email on this in the near future? If you are too busy with all your prep, no worries at all. Wish I could send you something to even things out – thanks so much for sharing your ideas!

    1. Hi Kevin!

      What a fantastic idea! I haven’t really thought about asking the students to come up with the role play before. That is definitely something I am going to try in the future. I have some instructions for the circulatory and immune systems done up already. Please do send me an email so I can pass those on to you. Email me at msagostino@gmail.com. Also I’m happy to give you any details you need about my units. Things have changed a bit since the first evolution one! I’ll try to post about it soon. But like I said, please email me any time.

  2. Simon Underhill

    Hi Juliana
    Twitter led me here after #MYPChat. As a DP bio teacher myself I am always looking for new ways to vary the content and this sounds great – I must admit to not being as creative with DP as I am with MYP. If it would be alright to email you as well to ask for any of these resources for Role Plays, that would be great.
    Hope to chat with you on Thursday – 12:01 UTC May 2. “Planning, implementing & evaluating inter-disciplinary units.”
    Simon Underhill

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