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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

06.30.18England Reflections 1: Role Play and Practice are Different

It’s easy in practice to slip into playing a character…


I’m sitting at Heathrow Airport after a pretty amazing four days in England where Colleen Driggs and I had the pleasure of working with teachers in Folkestone and Plymouth (Ivybridge, actually) as well as visiting the amazing Torquay Academy.

It was great working with UK teachers. They’re always reflective and insightful, serious about their subject matter and have high standards for achievement and knowledge. And they tend to see issues in education through a similar but slightly different lens from American teachers.

Not surprisingly I’m leaving with a notebook full of useful insights. I thought I’d share a few that are especially useful in a series of short blog posts. They’re a bit of a hodge-podge. I apologize for that. But this—and seeing my family—is basically what I’ll be thinking about crossing the Atlantic.

First: Role Play and Practice are Different: People often conflate the terms. Ask a group of teachers to practice and they will often say, “Oh, ok. Role playing. I hate (or love) doing that.” But they are not the same and the differences are important if you aim to get people better at their jobs.

When you role play you attempt to take on someone else’s persona. You rehearse the actions they might do or you execute the skill as a hypothetical person might do them. Practice on the other hand involves you playing you–in a specific situation or using a specific approach. It involves rehearsing yourself as you will look in performance or perhaps finding the version of you that you’ll want to use in performance. It is a more authentic exploration and therefore riskier. This is worth being aware of.

What does this difference look like in actual practice?

Teachers role playing often exaggerate the things you ask them to practice. They play someone else doing a teacher move, say, and ham it up a little. They will often use a bit of deflective humor. Big smile–see me doing the disco finger. They often exaggerate either student or teacher roles– perhaps out of self-consciousness, especially when they are not accustomed to and acculturated to practice.  Role Play can be useful when we are asking people to think about other’s POV but it’s less useful for developing and reflecting on your own work. It erodes the realism a bit and the journey towards you. Obviously it takes a lot of work to make people confident and comfortable enough to play themselves and not some hypothetical other–to practice instead of role playing but the difference is worth it.

This is something Colleen and I stumbled on in reflecting (in the pub, naturally) on one of our workshops. We’re going to start intentionally discussing the difference in our workshops.