Active Learning on

Role-playing Unemployment in the 1930s


This activity has been developed and used by Geoff Lyon who teaches in Ormskirk. It’s genuine role-play, offering students the chance to play roles and develop a sense of the nature of unemployment in the 1930s through the experience. By basing the activity on individuals, not an undifferentiated mass called ‘the unemployed’ Geoff is increasing the likelihood that students will care about the topic because they care about the individuals they have been and met in the role-play. If students care more they are likely to put more effort into the more bread and butter activity of note-taking and essay-writing. A couple of the roles are also based on members of Geoff’s family, another good way of creating interest. Even A level students are surprised when they discover that their teacher has parents, grandparents and a life outside the classroom that doesn’t involve marking.

Another important point emerges in Geoff’s section on students’ reactions where he notes students’ realisation that ‘people did (and do) act from a varying balance of reasoning and emotion.’ This is an important element of historical explanation but one that’s often difficult for students to appreciate if solely reliant on ‘objective’ textbooks.

Here is Geoff’s description of the activity.

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A formatted version of this activity should print from your browser (omitting this support section).

Or, a WORD version of this activity can be downloaded, click here.

This activity is based on the ’Role-play’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.

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I use this simulation at ‘A’ Level when teaching Edexcel’s Unit on ‘Conflict, Depression and Opportunity: British Society between the Wars, 1919-39’. However, for KS3 and KS4 teachers who attempt to give the lie to Farmer and Knight’s dismissal of this period as “not the most interesting” (‘Active History In Key Stages 3 and 4’, p. 118), I expect it would also work with younger learners.

The aims are to:

  1. give learners an insight into the human experience of the search for employment and to increase awareness of the fact that that the impersonal statistics refer to lots of individual real persons.
  2. increase understanding of who did and did not obtain employment and why (linking this to our textbook’ section on ‘Who were the unemployed?’).

Setting Up

Create role cards for 'Employers' and 'Job-Seekers' (to use an anachronistic term!).

Suggested role-cards are shown below - customise them and/or alter numbers as appropriate for your teaching group.



Vacancy for a shop assistant


Vacancy for a cotton spinner


Vacancy for a mechanic in a cotton mill


Vacancy for a farm labourer


Vacancy for general labourer


Vacancy for apprentice electrician



24. Single, but engaged. Just lost his job as a coal-miner.


60. Married with two grown-up children who live away. Has a persistent cough and has been out of work for two years.


50. Married to Stanley. Has always been a housewife, but her husband lost his coal-miner’s job two years ago.


51. Married to Bessie. Lost his job as a coal-miner two years ago. Has grown rather unkempt in appearance.


33. Single, still lives with his mum. Has lost his job as a warehouse worker. Is ‘simple-minded’.


28. Married and his wife is pregnant. A trained mechanic who has just lost his job working in a railway company’s workshops.


32. Married with five children. Lost his job operating pit winding gear eighteen months ago. Well-known as a local (and militant) trade-unionist.


29. Married to Mary, with four children. Has been at sea for years. Went to school with the farm-manager at Quinn’s farm.


26. Married to George. Nearly died after giving birth to fourth child, and is still ‘weak’.


40. Newly widowed on death of her husband, a colliery railway worker. Housewife and mother of Harry (16) and Mabel (14).


16. Has recently-widowed mother ( Charlotte, 40) and sister (Mabel, 14) to support.


16. Leaving school, where she has greatly impressed. Parents in their late 30s, both unemployed.


18. Just laid off after completing apprenticeship as an electrician at Mayne’s colliery.


35. Former soldier, lost left leg in Great War. Has since been ‘kept’ by his wife, but she has just lost own job.

The Activity

If literary or artistic references are made in teaching the unit, the activity can be ‘set’ in an appropriate town (e.g. Wigan – George Orwell; Blackburn – William Woodruff; Salford – Walter Greenwood and L.S. Lowry).

Each learner is given a role-card as an ‘Employer’ or ‘Job-seeker’

  • Each Employer has to fill his vacancy as he deems most appropriate
  • Each Job-seeker has to try to obtain a suitable job, though depending on numbers not all will be successful

On receiving their role-cards, learners should be encouraged to consider what sort of employee or job would be suitable for them and why.

Employers should be positioned around the room, then Job-seekers have a few minutes (ten is usually plenty) to go round and plead with/persuade Employers to give them the job.

By the end of the given time-period Employers must have decided who they are going to employ to fill their vacancy and be prepared to give their reasons.


1. The debriefing should focus chiefly on the issue of who did or did not obtain a job and why. What was the impact (if any) of factors such as age, sex, marital status (especially of women), mental/physical incapacity, length of time unemployed (and therefore smartness of appearance?), the cost of employing different types of people, feeling sorry for individuals? (Are there parallels or links to today, e.g. ‘ageism’ against older workers, ‘glass ceilings’ restricting women?)

If an ‘Employer’ has slipped out of role and given a job to a friend in real life a good teaching point can still be made, namely that that is typical of what really happened. If one obtained a job it was often as a result of ‘connections’, not what you knew but who you knew (cf. Sam Grundy’s influence at the city bus depot in Greenwood’s ‘Love On The Dole’; cf. ‘George Lloyd’ and ‘Quinn’s Farm’ in the simulation).

2. What would be the consequences (in terms of morale and economic well-being) for those who failed to obtain a job? (This leads from causes to consequences of unemployment.)

3. What else could the unemployed do? (Turn to charity? Turn to crime?) What should they do?

4. How realistic was the simulation? What did it ‘get in’ or ‘leave out’? (Seasonal factors? Wage rates? Attitudes to women and work?) Were the jobs and job-seekers plausible? (They should be as some were inspired by actual people and events!) How could the simulation be made more authentic?


Different groups of students react differently to the simulation, but most appreciate the opportunity for the sort of active learning that they have enjoyed at KS3 and 4. The debriefing and review helps to bring home to them more than the obvious points about the variety and the genuine plight of the unemployed. It is often noticed, for example, that boys as Employers tend to apply criteria more rigidly (‘We want a strong, co-operative man’), whilst girls as Employers tend to be more flexible and caring and ready to look at the bigger picture. Why, and who is right? Pupils usually realise that there were pressures on Employers to be hard-nosed and, for example, to replace newly-qualified apprentices when they became eligible for full wages. In debriefing all can recognise that people did (and do) act from a varying balance of reasoning and emotion. The importance of chance/ good or bad luck in what happened to an individual also often makes an impression on pupils – some Jobseekers rightly complain they had no chance.

Ideas for Follow Up

Older learners might discuss Harry and Sally Hardcastle’s responses to their moral dilemmas arising from unemployment in ‘Love On The Dole’. Clips from the film [starring Deborah Kerr] based on the play based on the novel can be useful. The film and/or novel can be discussed as historical evidence for the period. Is Greenwood’s novel (biographical in nature) more or less reliable than William Woodruff’s autobiography ‘The Road To Nab End’ (which reads suspiciously like a novel)?


  1. How often have you used this kind of activity before with this class? Does the frequency of use affect its effectiveness and, if so, what effects will this have on your overall course planning?
  2. What are the advantages and problems of using this style of activity with A level students?
  3. What was the impact of this activity on learning? e.g. awareness of generalizations, understanding of attitudes, motivation to read and effectiveness of reading? [discuss with students]
  4. Did you make the right choices about which students played which parts? Did you learn anything about individual students that would have been harder to learn from more standard activities?

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Setting Up

The Activity



Ideas for Follow Up