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Education Role-playing experiment at Vancouver school aims to nurture critical thinking

Parents, who only learned about the experiment after the first day of school, have been asked by teachers not to tell their children that they are role-playing.

Every educator wants to encourage critical thinking, but few are doing it in quite the extreme way that one Vancouver public school rolled out to Grade 7 students this week.

Each student has been assigned a number, they are being referred to as "followers" and arbitrarily rewarded or demoted – and teachers are asking parents not to tell their children that they are role-playing.

Parents only learned after the first day of school that a team of teachers at Norma Rose Point School, in West Point Grey, exposed the 12- and 13-year-olds to a teaching unit that involves drama and role-playing, and plan to keep it up for the next four to six weeks.

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Teachers address students by a number and assign them to so-called district factions. The teachers, according to a letter sent to parents Tuesday afternoon, represent "The Establishment – a controlling body that runs 'district workshops,' does random 'screening' or evaluations and arbitrarily demotes/promotes within the factions."

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, said students were not welcomed into the classroom this week in the "usual way."

It stated that among the goals of the exercise, referred to as process drama, are team building and encouraging students to raise questions and problem solve.

"While we understand this may have been alarming or 'off putting' for some students, we were aiming to create some level of discomfort as we set the stage for what is to come," the letter stated. "We appreciate your trust and support as we embark on a journey of putting education on trial!"

An official at the Vancouver School Board said its educators support experiential learning that allows for deep inquiry and critical thinking.

Norma Rose Point School tends to use a variety of non-traditional teaching methods, and children get deeply involved in their lessons, said Ellen Roberts, the board's director of instruction.

"They're ready. I think little kids come into school full of questions and wonder. You want that to continue into high school. You want them to continue asking questions and not become passive learners. You want them to be actively learning and asking questions," Ms. Roberts said.

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The idea of assigning numbers to students and deeming them as followers doesn't sit well with at least one parent.

"I think it's appalling. It's like they're running an experiment on the children without having asked for parental consent first, without informing them they would be exposing children to stressful situations," said one father, who asked his name not be used.

The father has a child in a younger grade at the school, but he became aware of the situation through another parent with a Grade 7 student. He said he does not understand why the children are not being informed.

"It's very stressful for the children. They will not be able to understand that this is an experiment because they are not being told," he said. "They think this is how things are going to be from now on."

The school board's Ms. Roberts said the role-playing unit employed by the Grade 7 teachers is appropriate because it allows the students to think critically and ask questions. Schools don't require approval from the board on experiential learning projects, as long as they are following the provincial curriculum.

She acknowledged that the timing of the process-drama unit could have been delayed until parents and students were more familiar with the teachers. But she said that the idea of keeping the role-play a secret from the students will drive a more authentic response in the classroom and allow pupils to figure it out by asking questions.

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"It's outside of the box, there's no question. Not everyone would do this, but not every teacher would be able to," Ms. Roberts said. "For the kids, there's nothing wrong with it. It was an interesting way of getting students to think, to have them to do role play."

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