Acting out the BIG PICTURE: using geeky scripted role plays at GCSE and A Level

Jen Thornton, Head of History at Loreto Grammar School, shares her solution to teaching ‘the big picture’. She describes her approach and then shares her scripts with us so everyone can use them. Onebighistorydepartment!

As an NQT back in 2006, I was blessed to work with a brilliant History department, and there is one thing I took away from that year which is still a constant feature of my lessons: ‘the big picture’. It usually took the form of a quick teacher led recap: where are we up to in this unit? What have we done so far and what are we about to do, and how does it all hang together? How does what we’ve done so far help us understand our enquiry question, and what else do we still need to know? I found that whenever I neglected this big picture, in a rush to start an ‘exciting’ activity or just to get pupils to ‘crack on’ to avoid behaviour issues, their understanding was never as strong. So: big picture, every lesson. A bit predictable, but it worked.

There’s always a tension in History, I think, between the desire to keep an element of mystery and surprise, and the need to give this big picture to help students build up a really solid picture of what they’re studying and what they need to focus on. We have to balance this. At its most basic, it was my frequent mentions of Charles I’s eventual execution with Y12 as we embarked on our study of the 1620s. ‘Spoilers!’ became the frequent groan from my students; and I did have to emphasise that we had to be careful not to use too much foresight and end up over-egging the early conflicts between Charles and Parliament. But with a reminder of what was coming up, students were able to focus on what mattered about the period.

Of course, I knew it would be useful for students to have something more solid to work from than my seemingly random mentions of ‘what’s next.’ Knowledge organisers and notes obviously can play a role here and I’ve experimented with these, but I wanted some scope for creativity and (controversial word approaching), ‘fun’! I was massively inspired by a colleague who is a passionate medievalist; trawling through our shared resources, I discovered a scripted role play designed for Y7 about the princes in the Tower. It was funny, clear, and pretty geeky in terms of specific knowledge- definitely ‘knowledge rich’ ahead of its time. I did it with two classes and they loved it, but more importantly they then wrote some incredible assessments about Richard III. Right, I thought- if Y7 can handle this, what can Year 10 do? What about Year 13?

My first effort was a unit-wide ‘big picture’ role play on the new AQA GCSE Elizabethan England unit. Although the course begins in 1568, the students really did need a decent big picture here, so I made the role play begin in Mary’s reign and end in 1603. It was an ambitious labour of love and I was quite nervous about how it would go down with my studious but quiet Year 11 class- was I overwhelming them with too much content at once? I’d say there was definitely an element of that, and they made me laugh as they conscientiously tried to read their scripts and watch their friends perform at the same time, but the real value of the lesson was in later weeks when we could refer back to particular characters and locations. ‘Remember when Sally was shut in the stationery cupboard? Sally, remind us who were you in the role play again? Can anyone remember why they thought shutting her in the cupboard was a good idea? Wait, but who was horrified by it?’

The same cupboard became Carisbrooke Castle a few weeks later for Year 13. They were about to get stuck into the insanely complex year of 1647 and keeping track of the changing allegiances of that post-civil war period can be pretty headache inducing. So I tried another role play. While some sixth formers had to be all but dragged to the ‘stage’ kicking and screaming, most of them got into it, and again the benefits were clear in later weeks when characters and reactions could be recapped quickly and effectively.
Overall I’ve been really pleased with these role plays- they more than repay the time put in to writing them. There’s still work to do; I’ve started creating a more structured reflection activity as a follow-up for one role play and will do the same with the rest. I also want to think about how (or whether) to use this tool with more sensitive topics such as Nazi Germany and race relations in the USA; my scripts are supposed to be cheesy and pretty silly in places, and I think that for these topics I might stick to some more ‘conventional’ big picture stuff like living graphs.

My top tips for scripted role plays? Go deep with the knowledge to make them meaningful. Give roles out based on your knowledge of students and their capabilities and strengths. Fully embrace it as they do the role play- any trace of embarrassment on your part and the activity will die with a whimper! And then in the weeks that follow, follow it up with tons of good questioning.

Oh, and as with all History stuff I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here. Ian Dawson’s website is a big source of inspiration and I know Richard Kennett has written about scripted roleplay for 1066 at GCSE. Kate Brennan’s scripts inspired so many people and you can read her article in Teaching History here. Long live the History dressing up box!

You can find Jen’s scripts here:

1646-9 role play

The reign of Elizabeth I scripted drama 

If you would like to share ideas and resources via this blog, please send a message to, follow @histassoc and Historical Association on Facebook. 


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