Training argumentation and critical thinking skills in a role-play about forests

How can students develop skills such as argumentation and critical thinking? The Umeå University is investigating the topic using the Forest Lab learning materials around forest use and forest protection

By Teresia Borgman

Action competence is all about knowledge and abilities such as critical thinking and argumentation. According to the Swedish National Agency for Education, action competence develops when students are given the opportunity to set different perspectives and interests against each other, as well as reflect on different positions and norms. To help students train these abilities in a debate where different interests and opinions about forests are highlighted, MULTIPLIERS project partner Umeå University developed a role-play activity for the Forest Lab learning materials, created by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in collaboration with local teachers.

One of the participants in the project is Lina Varg, PhD student at the Department of Science and Mathematics Education at Umeå University, who contributed to develop the activity. “MULTIPLIERS is about students being able to participate in the development of society and the conviction that teaching should be enriched by encounters with different external actors’ perspectives and interests, new tools and approaches. The aim is to increase the students’ readiness to act, and in the long run also impact their families and the surrounding society”, said Varg.

”The debate in the Forest Lab’s role-play seemed very appreciated by the students and made them see different perspectives”, added Varg. ”There was a great focus on winning the debate, but argumentation can also be about training the ability to reach consensus, agree and take into account different interests. Issues that are sometimes a little neglected in today’s society, for example among politicians and in social media”.

Photo: Jenny Hellgren
Photo: Jenny Hellgren

The role-playing game provided new perspectives

One of the students who participated in the role-play is Segen Merhawi, who is in the first year of the Natural Science program at Örnsköldsviks gymnasium. Her class worked on the role-playing game in their biology course. The students were assigned different roles, such as Sami people representatives, private forest owners, forest companies, authorities and the general public.

First, they worked to seek information, take a stand and formulate arguments on a number of issues based on their role. It was also possible to practice both source criticism and source trust. The various groups then met for a debate.

”I played a 71-year-old man who was Sami,” said Merhawi, who thought it was good to use the role play to look at forest issues from a different perspective. ”If we had just discussed, many of us would probably have thought the same thing and there would have been no debate”.

Merhawi comes from Eritrea where there are not as much forests as in Sweden. She, therefore, had no previous relationship with forests. ”After the debate, I realised how broad forest issues are and that forests are part of our lives in Sweden. I realized that forests contribute to both the economy and people’s experiences, and that it is important that we take care of forests with consideration of several different perspectives.”

Learning the democratic process

Helen Forsgren is a teacher in Segen Merhawi’s class at Örnsköldsviks gymnasium and one of the textbook authors behind Forest Lab. During the academic year, she herself has tried using the Forest Lab in biology courses on ecology and sustainability.

”Many of the students thought it was a good way to understand that there are different arguments on the issue. It gives them the opportunity to learn the democratic process, and they understand that there are different positions on the same issue. It helps them meet and understand people who think differently than themselves,” said Forsgren.

She can see that the students become aware that there are different perspectives, where some argue based on an economic value while others argue on the basis of ecological or social values.

”I hope that this will contribute to the students in the future feeling more comfortable in conversations and ethical dilemmas where they need to take different actors into account, and also that they develop the skills to make good decisions,” concluded Forsgren.

”The Multipliers project, like the Forest Lab materials, aims to deal with issues that affect the whole of society and are locally relevant. The students get to practice critical thinking and argumentation.”

Lina Varg, who studied the Forest Lab’s role-play within the framework of MULTIPLIERS

Photo: Umeå University

”It was fun – but also a bit difficult – to debate and put yourself in other people’s perspectives.”

Segen Merhawi, a student at Örnsköldsviks gymnasium, who worked with Forest Lab’s role-play in biology class.

Photo: Helen Forsgren

”The fact that young people acquire knowledge so that they want to get involved, be active and become involved in a democratic society is what is collectively called action competence.”

Helen Forsgren, teacher at Örnsköldsviks gymnasium and author of teaching materials in Forest Lab.

Photo: Segen Merhawi

This article was originally published in Swedish on the Forest Lab website.