Let’s be criminals! Guest post by Felia Allum

allumFelia Allum (University of Bath)

As a teacher, who researches organised crime in Italy and Europe, I wanted to re-invigorate my teaching approach and reach out more effectively to my students. In previous years, my undergraduate unit ‘Organised crime and democracy in Italy’ has always been very popular with students because of the nature of the topic, it always attracts and indeed, there is now a buoyant community of academics researching this topic.

When I taught this unit I sought to teach my students about the different cultural and economic conditions that surround Italian mafias and organised crime generally, to understand why individuals become mafiosi, what decisions do they make and why? What cultural values shape their world view? What economic activities do they undertake and why? Why do mafiosi seek out politicians and businessmen? But, this form of teaching was very teacher-led with me at the centre, giving out my wisdom. It worked but it was safe and only those highly motivated and enthusiastic students really understood the different debates that I was pressing.

Now, I wanted to make sure that all students had to become involved with the material. But how should I do this? Should I record all my lectures so my students can see me on video rather than in the flesh? Should I mix up lectures and seminars using Skype discussions, video, Twitter and chat rooms or should I go back to the drawing board to find another interesting and effective way of teaching organised crime?

I went back to the drawing board and (re)discovered ‘role plays’.

Role-play as a teaching method and tool is neither old or new, it is just different. I have used role-plays, in the past, in order to try and transmit information to students. But, they have always been teacher-controlled, in other words, I would decide and I would organise the activity from beginning to end; it was a teacher-led, teacher controlled activity where students seemed rather like ‘puppets’ than active and directly involved students; they would do what I wanted them to do I hoped that overall they would learn something by enacting various roles and adopting a different perspective. It was fun, engaging and different to the normal, dry and formal power-point seminar presentations but not really challenging or enabling students to go deeper into the academic literature and apply their theoretical understanding to real life issues.

But, there was something in the role-play method that intrigued me… So, I started to do some reading and started to discuss it with colleagues that used role-play and simulation.

Then, it occurred to me that there was much more potential in role-play activities: what if I took more of a back seat and let students take ownership of the learning and teaching objectives and overall process.  Surely this would stimulate deeper student engagement with all those challenging issues. I could still be there, advising, offering resource material, making suggestions, answering questions, but ultimately, students would rule! They would run and manage the whole role play exercise from beginning to end. And, that is what I wanted. In other words, students would write out their role play and would act it out with the rest of the class. Working out what and how much support to give to enable this to happen was my next challenge.

I did not abandon them. Before students got to research and develop their role play scenarios, I organised two preparatory games that would establish mafia clans. Once students had pulled out of a hat their different roles (boss, foot soldier etc.), they then had to join a mafia clan: (1) students had to create their character and had to do this by studying independently what kind of criminal they wanted to be and (2) students formed into small mafia clans via a recruitment game. I provided the context and explain where and how these groups developed, the students made the decisions.

At the end of these shorter games, four clans were established, clans were made up 4-5 members with different roles; the boss and his wife ruled. Each clan would create and lead a role play, they would have 2 hours to their role play This was a completely student-led activity. In the end, students played out four role plays based on four important aspects of mafia clans and their activities: inter-clan rivalries, extortion, drug trafficking and political relations. Students were given specific issues and problems that they needed to research and then they would play out the problem (their decisions guided by their research of the academic literature) and the other clans would react and respond according to the roles and values they had established for themselves. I came to see it as students giving a lecture because through their role play they presented and analysed important concepts, issues and ideas.

This was not without some challenges! I awarded points for authenticity of the clan’s decisions and actions. This served the double purpose of formative feedback and in driving the play by providing a means for the clans to buy resources for their activities. Declaring how points were gained in advance of play was necessary but I had to be careful not to award points for a single clan attribute as this skewed the play and potentially other authentic actions could be ignored. Another challenge was in deciding what resources should be on offer to the clans, their longevity across several role plays and whether they should be limited thus forcing clans to compete for them.

To pick out three major advantages I see to this form of teaching. Firstly, and as I lived and followed the various role play scenarios, it seemed to me that this was another and much more active way for students to present ideas and explain the academic literature rather than just listening to a lecture. It was certainly a fun way of learning. By becoming an insider, students took full ownership of the content and the game. This meant that students became emotional involved and all turned up to the game play sessions, even at 9.15 on a Monday morning under the rain!. Students cared.

Secondly, students learned more in this active and engaging way. It became familiar and relevant rather than distant and removed from their everyday reality. At the beginning one of the students suggested that i was teaching them to become criminals…. this would be a simple and inadequate way of understanding what this exercise is about. Because, everything is based on the academic literature, and students have to get into character, from the moment they enter the class room to the moment they leave they become themselves again. It is interesting to note that one of the groups became much more emotional involved and took some of the different scenarios very personally, not really seeing it as a game….

Lastly, the debriefing sessions after each game were fundamental and key to the whole learning process. Without it, perhaps the games would have had no relevance. But, a well structured debrief by the teacher was a way of stimulating student reflection on and thus highlight all the important questions and issues that were addressed during the game.

To sum up, I was challenged throughout the games with unexpected play and outcomes so had to think on my feet however this made each session a fresh and stimulating experience. Students engaged in researching and playing out their roles and scenarios with an infectious enthusiasm such that I am very much looking forward to this unit next year.