Cultivating Creativity with Role Plays

The quote attributed to Albert Einstein, the epitome of a physical scientist, has always fascinated me: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” By integrating individual role plays into courses such as History and English, a teacher can challenge students to use their imagination and creativity, light up their right brains, and also have some fun.

          Over the past decade many writers have emphasized the increasing importance of imagination and creativity for the future. In his seminal work A Whole New Mind, Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink argues that to prepare for the “Conceptual Age” we must “master aptitudes that are high concept and high touch (61).”  He identifies six of the aptitudes or “senses,” all of which have seats in our right brain. Creativity relates to most of these, but especially three: Design, Play, and Meaning. Of the first he states: “Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is … beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.” (65) Also, the much acclaimed Ken Robinson has written two books stressing the importance of creativity: Out of Our Minds, Learning to Be Creative (Capstone Publishing, 2001) and The Element (Viking Adult, 2009).[1]

          To pursue the objective of cultivating creativity, I fashioned a Creative Role Play Requirement for students in my course on Ancient/Medieval History. For many years I employed role-playing as a teaching format; however, I used only the group, not individual, role-playing. For example an entire class acted out the debate between the American revolutionaries and the British in the early 1770’s, the British Civil War of the 17th century, or the beginnings of the French Revolution.

          I had never asked an individual student to role-play an individual historical character alone. With this requirement I did. I prepared a list of 25 ancient Greek characters, specific ones like Pericles and Plato, but also others like a soldier at Thermopylae and an Athenian speaking in the assembly. Gender was irrelevant; however, I did include characters like the wife of Socrates and the wife of Alexander to increase the number of female options. The student had to speak for two to four minutes before the entire class and had the following options: 1. Pretend you are the person and speak in the first person. 2. Pretend you are the person’s friend (or enemy) and tell the class about the person. 3. Write a poem or story about the person and read it to the class. I stressed that this was not a research exercise, although outside research was certainly welcomed. The heart of it was the student’s ability to take the ample information in the textbook about the person and apply a healthy dose of imagination. My evaluation criteria included: creativity, expression, content, and use of allotted time.

          I was pleased with the results. The students seemed to enjoy these exercises and learned much. As the oracle at Delphi, Claire did a great job in placing herself in a trance and spouting off nonsense leading to her advice for the future. Matt played a fully bold and arrogant Alexander the Great, and Mike distinguished himself as the tough and laconic Spartan. As the wife of Socrates, Kathryn revealed her distress over her ever-wandering husband:

One day, two days, three days,

Oh, how I lose track,

These days are so long,

I wish he could come home,

Just once before

I lose him for good.

 Chris in his poignant poem about a soldier at Thermopylae ended with:

We died for king and country

We died to save our seed

But we shall live immortal

On the glory of our deed.

           Finally there was Kathryn Y, who did an outstanding job in portraying Pallas Athena. Three years later I was very proud to see her playing the Featherduster in our school’s production of Beauty and the Beast. A few days after the production, I congratulated her on the performance. She smiled coyly and startled me by saying, “Well, you know, Dr. Zilian, it all started with your role play exercise freshman year. That’s what sparked my interest in acting.” For a teacher, this was praise that money could not buy.


[1] See also Bruce D. Taylor, Not for Art’s Sake Only, Arts Education and 21st Century Skills, Education Week, February 2, 2011; David Burns, “Creativity: The Path to Economic Recovery,” Education Week, May 13, 2009.

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