Empathy and Role-Play

Jonathan Duveen and Joan Solomon

Department of Educational Studies, Oxford Universi& 15 Norham Gardens, Oxford, England

The special goal of role-play-acquiring an empathy with characters in other times or other places-is considered one of the prime objectives of all good history teaching (Booth. 1986; Culpin, 1984). Booth writes of historical empathy that “this trying out in our oan minds is central to our activity as historians.” Ellington, Adinall, and Percival (1981) and Solomon (1993b) argue that in STS studies (Science, Technology, and Society), role-play enables students to see contemporary social issues from different perspectives.

We have shown (Solomon, Duveen, Scott, & McCarthy, 1992) that students find role-piay memorable and can use it to construct a more realistic understanding of the nature of science. Christofi and Davies (1991) claim that drama is highly rated by British students and assert that it produces an improvement in the understanding of scientific “concepts and ideas tvhich is s~ident in pupils’ examination work.”

The difficulty is that complete empathic understanding with long-dead characters is bound to be unattainable. How could any of us, even the most historically knowledgeable. “set under the skin of” people bom into another age and living all their days in another culturs’? Knight (1989), influenced perhaps by the rigorous attention to content demanded by the new British National Cumculurn, goes so far as to suggest that empathy is an unhelpful idea. ciring Carey’s work on children’s misunderstandings of adult concepts (Carey, 1985) to claini hou unlikely the occurrence of tme student empathy must be.

Perhaps the most valuable approach to children’s understanding of ths history ot science is that presented by Honey (1992) drawing upon the work of Dickinson, Lee. and Ro-ers (1983) and Ashby and Lee (1987). Honey reviews five levels of historical understanding in the context of science, running through “Everyday empathy” at level 3, and “Restricted historicd cmpathy” at levei 4, to “Contextual historical empathy” at level 5. At this final leve1 Ashby and Lee (1987, p. 81) write that pupils will “attenipt to íit in what is to bc understood into a \vider picture.” Honey (1992) comments thus:

If thcse are real stazes in developnient of historical understandin: then npprscicition iii rhs contest of cvents in ihe history of science is very iniportant. The deel priisntof pupils understanding and the major changes in science itself both present challenges in teaching

the nature of science.

For American or British science students between the ages of L4 and 16, contextual historical empathy is better considered as a guide rather than a goal. The Bntish schools inspectorate took empathy in this instrumental sense when they wrote that it encouraged students “to imagine oneself within a certain situation and thus feel sympathy and understanding for the situation” (Department of Education and Sciences, 1983, p. 74). In the same spirit, Culpin (1984, p. 25) wrote that “A piece of empathic work is certainly a creative response . . . but it is not an act of untrammelled fantasy; it is, at best, a meticulous piece of historical work.”

The question for teachers is what strategy to use. Should they describe the various attitudes toward the theory of natural selection in lecture mode, which does so little to encourage student creativity? Or should they let the students try to role-play contemporary people such as Thomas Huxley, Captain FitzRoy, Charles Danvin, and Bishop Wilberforce? Those who decide upon the latter strategy will need rnatenals designed to promote both student creativity and the develop- ment of proper scientific and historical understanding.


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