Pedagogical Reflections: Role Playing and Cases

By Julian Dierkes

Beyond my research on Mongolia, I also seek out opportunities for teaching and other kinds of engagement.

Overall, Mongolian teaching methods I have observed remain fairly traditional, that is a respected instructor lecturing a large audience of relative passive learners. Planning of workshop and other activities has thus always left me slightly nervous how Mongolian audiences might respond to more involved formats like group discussions, design workshops, pair-and-share, etc. In a recent project we specifically experimented with case-based teaching and simulations. Participants were very engaged and also expressed significant satisfaction with such formats.

Fairly Traditionalist Pedagogy Dominates Schools, Universities and Beyond

Mongolian teaching methods seem relatively traditional in most settings. By that I mean that a respected instructor faces audiences that are passively listening to information dispensed by the instructor. Most teaching situations are structured around this relationship described as Frontalunterricht in German, and captured by an understanding of “lecturing” in English. In pedagogical discourse, this is sometimes described using the metaphor of learners as empty vessels that are filled by the information and learning offered by a teacher.

In giving lectures or offering other kinds of instruction, I have thus found myself faced by audiences that are looking at me in the apparent expectation of a dispensation of wisdom or knowledge. That generally leaves very little opportunity for me to learn from audiences, or their active engagement with subject matter or application of such matter to a different or similar local context.

This conception of a hierarchical and one-way relationship between the person at the lectern and the audience is also quite visible in politics. Most campaign events that I’ve seen in the six national elections that I’ve been in Mongolia for are structured around a podium where candidates sit, stand, and speak, and voters or supporters to listen and applaud the speech. I have seen only some few examples of campaign situations where candidates have listened to anything that voters had to say.

Desire for Active Learning

The prevalence of a lecturing teaching and interaction methodology has made me somewhat uncertain in planning some activities with Mongolian groups. If participants have largely been used to such lecturing, how will they respond to different styles of teaching and interaction?

Windfall Profits Tax

Some years ago, Mendee and I had developed a teaching case focused on the Windfall Profits Tax that existed from 2006 to 2009. Originally, we had developed this as a pedagogical experiment for the Master of Arts Asia Pacific Policy Studies at UBC (MAAPPS). While case-based teaching has been used in business schools for a long time, policy programs have been slower to adopt such methods.

The Windfall Profits Tax seemed to offer an attractive topic as it can be described in the context of a simulated parliamentary hearing, the basic information does not take a great deal of background knowledge, and we have been able to interview some of the key players in the passage of the Tax in development of the case materials.

While I have used the case regularly in my teaching at UBC, we had not used it in engaging Mongolians until the Fall of 2017 even though we have been seeking to do this for some years.

Case-Based Teaching with Young Party Activists

The opportunity to experiment with case-based teaching presented itself in the connections that the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Mongolia office has not only to the MPP, but to its youth organization (Нийгмийн Ардчилал монголын залуучуудын холбоо – НАмзх) in particular. In contributing to a change in Mongolia’s political culture toward the development of more substantive stances by the political parties, the opportunity to conduct policy simulations with younger party cadres seemed very attractive.

Over the course of a week, we travelled to three Eastern aimags, Dornod, Sukhbaatar, and Khentii in October 2017. With the terrific logistical support from FES and НАМЗХ we were able to assemble participant groups in the aimag centres drawn from the youth organization membership, but not only in the aimag centres, but from the countryside as well.

Practical Experience

Put shortly, our participants were certainly eager to engage and participated very actively in the simulations we organized for them. Our biggest fear ahead of the first session was that we would get passive groups starting at us and unwilling to engage. Our experience could hardly have been further from that fear.

Nature of our experience:

  • Total participants 20-40
  • Groups of 3-7 participants
  • All-day sessions divided into two separate simulations, with coffee and lunch breaks
  • Description of overall aims and content of activity sent ahead, but no pre-workshop homework

Some lessons:

  • Always need a strong local organizational partner to ensure attendance
  • Almost as soon as our introductions/instructions were concluded, participants jumped into lively action
  • Flip charts were very useful in getting groups to produce a position that they could present to others
  • Some small groups were dominated by individuals (through force of personality or expertise)
  • Role playing came easily to participants, including laughter about overacting in their roles. But participants also added to the “reality” of situation. At different events, groups concluded discussions with the national anthem, for example, or ceremoniously signed an MoU they had concluded.

  • Participants seemed to enjoy playing a more distant to their own experience role more than a role that was more similar to their experience. In a group of junior government officials or politicians, the liveliest discussion seemed to come from the group that was assigned the role of company in discussions around mining policy.


While one might fear that Mongolians have been conditioned by dominant pedagogies to remain relatively passive in learning situations, that fear is unfounded when more active learning is expected.

So, as you plan similar activities, do look for more interactive formats and do not be scared by the initial passive faces you might face in the more formal settings that will also be included in a workshop format.


The particular experience I’m reflecting on here centrally involved Mendee and Byambajav who were instrumental in the origins of this blog, of course. Below, they sit in the back supervising participants at a workshop and probably whispering snarky remarks like the two old dudes in the Muppets.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots and tweets @jdierkes
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