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Drama and Role-play
Richard Jones-Nerzic

Drama is often seen by student teachers as one of the riskiest classroom strategies. Unless well-managed, drama can quickly become noisy, chaotic and difficult to control. And yet, ask pupils at the end of the school year what they enjoyed most or (more significantly) what history they best remembered, and the chances are that your risk-taking role-play is top of the list. In this section we exploit the potential of digital video and YouTube to view some examples of role-play conducted by students at the International School of Toulouse and British International School of Bratislava.

For me empathy is the most important historical skill. Trying to understand why people in the past thought and acted the way that they did is crucial if we are to explain why events happened. In the history classroom, dramatic role-play or event re-enactment are techniques that allow present orientated students to step more easily into the shoes of people in the past. This is never easy. We have to teach our students to avoid what E.P. Thompson once called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. Students have to begin to learn not to condemn those in the past for attitudes and opinions which might offend us today.  Slave traders and defenders of child labour were not ‘stupid’ or simply ‘bad men’. Similarly students have to learn not to abuse the powerful advantage of hindsight. We know that the assassinations in Sarajevo in 1914 led almost inexorably to the killing fields of Verdun and the Somme. But the vacillating European diplomats of July 1914 did not. We need to be aware of this before we pronounce judgement on their incompetence. (see also Ian Luff's discussion and justification)

The following examples include the full secondary age-range and all abilities. 


1. The Power of the Heavy Machine Gun – A practical demonstration (an activity designed to provide grasp of historical context)

2. The Rhineland Simulation – A practical demonstration with elements of Role Play (an activity designed to develop pupils' understanding of some of the issues involved in making retrospective judgements.

3. The Cuban Missile Crisis – A practical demonstration, (activity designed to concretise key or particularly difficult concepts)

4. The Vietnam War – role play with elements of practical demonstration (as above)

5. The Society Game – a Role Play - (an activity to encourage appreciation of attitudes and beliefs of people in the past)

6. The New Model Army – A Role Play (The purpose of this role-play is to emphasise the difference in attitude - and hence in fighting potential - between old style armies and the New Model Army).

Examples with video from Richard Jones-Nerzic

Treaty of Versailles 

Year 10 and Year 12 students spend a morning debating and rewriting the treaty of 1919.

Abyssinia Crisis

Year 11 students take on the role of Cabinet ministers during the crisis of 1935. Will they appease Mussolini?

The Reichstag Fire

Year 10 students conduct the trial that never happened. Were the Nazis guilty of the Reichtag Fire

Child Labour Debate

Year 9 take on the role of supporters and opponents of child labour in the 19th century.

Defending Guy Fawkes

Year 8 students play the role of Guy Fawkes' defence lawyer. They have two minutes to defend their client.


Year 7 take on the role of Lollards seeking to reform the Catholic Chuch.


Some suggestions for roleplay and practical demonstration activities from Ian Luff

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