Role-Playing Teaching: IATEFL speech transcript



Hi and hello. My name is Monika Bigaj-Kisała and I’m a teacher of English, a worshipper of two cats, a socially awkward extrovert and a gamer. But first and foremost I am a storyteller and during the next 45 minutes I will take you on the journey where I will share my stories and you will spin yours, with superheroes, coffee and the Great Cthulhu.

Brene Brown says we all are born storytellers and by the end of our meeting I want you to discover your potential as a super-hero of your own story.

21 years ago I was 15, waiting for my diploma for reaching the finals of the regional English language contest, which was quite a big deal at that time. Fun fact, I had started learning English properly only two years before. I started attending English classes when I was 11 and for 2 years I had classes with an Ukrainian teacher who would start with lessons focused only on pronunciation drills like “hit-lit-wit” to be followed the next year by translation of English jokes. No grammar, no communication. Then we got a less unusual teacher and she would start with Present Simple and the verb “to be”, and pretty soon she discovered I actually know some English and can communicate quite decently, although I had no appropriate education. So she started to hone my skills and two years later I turned out to be a pretty good student.

The reason behind my linguistic abilities wasn’t a great teacher, nor was my natural talent. The two aspects responsible for improving my English were Cartoon Network and computer games. I spent my free time watching cartoons in English and that helped me develop my receptive skills, but playing games – Elvira, King’s Quests, Alone in the Dark – was what made me produce. I had to understand the meaning and act accordingly. There were no online games as it was ages before the Internet and in order to get a game you had to catch a dinosaur and ride it to the nearest game dealer, but still, games were communication. A game ordered me to do something, I had to understand and react, and the game judged whether my understanding was correct.

But then I didn’t appreciate the educational approach of the games, I only found it a source of fun.

One of the things that have set me on the quest of finding Holy Grail of the RPG in TEFL was the tedious environment of the coursebook-oriented curriculum. After years of using the same scheme of lessons, I started to dream of a course where changes would be part of its curriculum. And what gives RPGs such allure is certainly their variety – declaring actions (as acting out is not really a necessity), following the plot and building a story is similar everywhere, differences are in the worlds – and those are aplenty.

Jerzy Szeja explains that narrative Role Playing requires a person leading the game (GM: Game Master) and at least one player who impersonates a character (PC: Player’s Character). The world is described in a particular system of a narrative RPG along with the rules and mechanics.

RPG may be compared to children’s games where participants play different roles (e.g. cops and thieves), but a GM is the person who makes all the difference with outlining the proper plot and acting out other interactive characters.

The basic semiotic model of communication in RPG, looks rather simple:

GM describes the setting and NPCs actions.

PCs declare actions (sometimes after discussion to decide the way of behaviour).

GM describes the result of the actions (often based on mechanics).

And the whole cycle repeats itself.


Warren Buffet said once that we need to learn communication, as this is a vital skill and yet schools tend to underestimate it. Someone who can’t communicate and share ideas simply wastes own potential.

RPGs boost communication by emphasizing cooperation and social relations and they help us grow and develop. Jane McGonigal said a very simple thing – it is difficult to ask someone for help, but it’s easier to ask someone to join the game. Moreover, if you focus on the game, you take your attention off the potential mistakes you make, which eventually makes you more confident. David Patterson introduced the term spotlight theory proving that games can take your mind off the trauma (as the game Snow World is used to alleviate the injuries of the people suffering from burns).

In RPG, you start communication even before you start playing as you create your character. And the good thing about the character creation is that it can be done as an individual or a whole group activity (which is a good idea if students decide to play a group of friends straight away). 

Naturally, the higher their proficiency level, the more complex questions you may ask, because this part helps you assess your students’/players’ linguistic skills. Starting with basic “daily routine” questions, moving through tell me about your childhood you may end up with the passive (Have you ever been snatched?) or reported speech (How did your parents react when you moved out?). Something that is essentially a grammar revision and a vocabulary assessment turns out to be a completely new exercise.

During character creation it’s important to create not only a character itself, but also relationships between all players (sure, you may start with everyone creating their own PC and then trying to build up a team, but it’s way easier to start as a bunch of friends). This requires pairwork and work in smaller groups to settle the relationships and common areas.

Relationships may be varied: some people may want to play siblings, couples, best friends, colleagues, neighbours, old flames etc. The more the merrier, as various levels of friendship will allow students to practise communication using various registers (you don’t talk to your brother the same way you chat with your neighbour after all, right?).

To prove the point I want to tell you about my very first class I taught, 14 years ago – they were 12 and I naively thought them to be troublemakers, but they were fun to teach and I always liked good fun. Once, we decided to translate a funny sketch by Kabaret Potem and act it out, only female characters were played by the boys and male characters were played by the girls.

They loved it, especially once they got their costumes. They created names and background stories for their characters and actually enjoyed acting them out even when we finished our presentation. In fact, they would respond to their fictional names months after that. But apart from this fun, they joined their characters with speaking English only and were more eager to use English acting out.


Our brain weighs around 1300 grams which makes it seven times heavier than a hamster. It burns around 330 calories a day just being there, and if you want to burn such amount of energy in a traditional manner you have to jog for 30 minutes.

Roy Baumeister says that each day we have limited amount of willpower used by our brains on learning, decision making or resisting temptation. The brain gets weary with constant repetition, lack of challenge, same old things. However, games help alleviate the tiredness of the brain as they keep it entertained. We can take much more if we believe it’s fun.

In Tom Sawyer Mark Twain shows us a perfect example of one task from two perspectives. Tom is supposed to paint a fence and finds this task wholly tiresome, but he manages to present this activity as a responsibility given only to particular, trustworthy and artistic people. As a result his friends pay him actual money so that they can partake in this challenging quest. Tom relents and for the rest of the day relaxes while observing his friends doing his work for him. And this is exactly how we work, identifying learning with tiredness and entertainment with relaxation. Games may actually teach us and cheat our brains into believing we are only having fun.

One of the best things about RPGs is that you can practice various situations, scenarios and events, but ultimately you never know where the adventure will take you, what will happen and what choices you will have to make. The process of making decisions lies mostly on the players, and this is also something that makes their educational process uncommon. The freedom of choice within a particular system makes our brain work, ready for the challenge and thus, learning better, faster and happier.

This is creativity. But creativity is also needed when you spin the stories to make your students interested, when you play silly with young learners, have inappropriate jokes with older students and share somewhat funny innuendos with teens. Each time you enter a classroom you assume a different role, building a little story about your mood, the topic of the lesson, the idea behind it.

We all teach more than a foreign language, we teach ideals, even if sometimes we think we’re overburdened with paperwork and parents’ or government’s expectations. But preaching never works, we know it, so we spin stories, trying to convey the meaning that the world isn’t that bad… even though it’s full of conflicts, but problem solving is also something we teach.


Trying to achieve a goal that is contrary to the goals of your teammates leads to arguments. In order to avoid such chaos during the game, we need mechanics, a set of rules, and a die, to make sure the element of chance is here, as it is absolutely necessary in the game.

You experienced examples of characters’ communication and you could see that even if a simple chat or negotiation was fairly easy to act out, there were problems with finding a fast and easy conflict solution. In order to make it short and simple (my favourite KISS rule) we may simply roll a die and determine the success by the higher number rolled.

While this idea may sound good enough, it still seems rather unfair, especially when one character is an Experienced Lawyer (who spent years manipulating people), and the other is an Edgy Teenager (who simply goes with I know better attitude). Now, this exactly is the reason why RPGs use a tool called Character Sheet with basic traits and skills listed and “graded”. Usually all players start with the same number of XP (experience points) to divide among traits, skills and abilities according to their characters’ background, profession etc. Then the roll may be modified by a point assigned to the particular attribute, so Experienced Lawyer, having higher social skills, will have an advantage over Edgy Teenager.

Chaos management is also the reason we need a Game Master. Game Master is the person who holds the strings, who’s behind the curtain, who’s – that’s my favourite comparison – a Merlin to the group of new knights of the Round Table… and that’s exactly who a teacher is, at least to my mind: a person who sets goals and makes students reach them, but only by encouragement, not by direct giving them the Holy Grail of knowledge.

I will try to show you seven aspects which actually make teacher a Game Master:


Just like a GM before a session (a meeting where people partake in an RPG adventure), you need to pick a set-up, a theme and general idea for a lesson. You choose the areas your students will roam in pursuit of their goal (e.g. understanding the beauty of Present Perfect), and you decide on the goal itself by determining a lesson aim.


As Gail Godwin said, good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths pure theatre. It’s exactly the same with game-mastering. You need to prepare stages of the lesson/session along with some props, like music, handouts, multimedia tools etc. We want the participants, be they players or students, to have fun, enjoy and – yes, why not? – admire the adventure we’ve planned for them.

Team building

One of the universal truths of the world is simple: you must gather your party before venturing forth. It’s important in RPGs where you usually create a team of heroes embarking on the same quest (and yes, there are games for one player only, just like 1-to-1 classes), but creating a relationship with fellow students is also vital in a classroom environment. And while not all teachers find team building as their responsibility, having a proper team to teach is way funnier and more pleasant – and RPGs may teach you how to make people cooperate.


Role-Playing Games are designed to have fun with friends, but since one of the main characteristics of games is a clearly stated set of rules understood and accepted by all participants, there must be someone to observe the rules, interpret them and make players act accordingly. Isn’t it just like a teacher in a classroom full of enthusiastic students who have fun until the first disagreement?


Both in a classroom environment and in an RPG session there are certain misunderstandings that are bound to happen sooner or later. An adult player may sulk after an unlucky dice-roll just like a little pupil who’s failed his first test. We have arguments between students, accusations of cheating, various moods affecting the whole lesson – and it’s surprisingly similar during an adventure. It’s a teacher, or a GM, who has to smooth things out and teach what the compromise is.


I’ve already said that my favourite parallel of a teacher’s (or Game Master’s, to be honest) role is the one of Merlin. He is the one to set things in motion, picture the Holy Grail as the ultimate goal and suggest the idea of the Round Table Knighthood. But he doesn’t participate in the quests himself – he occasionally helps those in need, but mostly he’s behind the curtain, glad to observe the adventure unfold and only sometimes enjoying an episodic role.


Role-Playing Games are designed to bring fun, and playing them should be fun not only for the players, but also for the Game Master. Just like teaching – although most students don’t find it overly exciting. As you see – there are so many things a teacher and a game master have in common that actual incorporating RPGs into our lessons will not change much in our approach to educational process itself, but it may be a huge change to our students, who will find it way easier to enjoy their lessons.


I want to show you that RPGs may be an opportunity for us all to be superheroes, knights, wizards and creators. If I were to find the best depiction of a teacher in literature, I’d, once again, go for Merlin. He finds Arthur and shows him his destiny, he leads him to Excalibur, gives him the idea of the Round Table and then sends him and his knights on quests. But the important thing is that he never takes part in their adventures, as quests must be undertaken by the heroes themselves, as only by the perilous adventures can they become proper knights of legends. When we gamemaster – and when we teach – we need to remember we are just a part of our students’ story.

But in our stories – we can be anyone we want to be.


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