The Role of Improvised Role Play: Learning and Teaching Professional Ethics in Accounting and Finance

Ann-Christine Frandsen*, Nicholas Bailey, Wafa Ben Khaled, James Brackley, Keith Hoskin, Elisavet Mantzari, Gabriela Rozenfeld, Madlen Sobkowiak, Ian Thomson, Idlan Zakaria

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Book/ReportOther report


Executive Summary:

Professional ethics in accounting and finance, or lack of it in practice, is today a major concern within and beyond the accounting and finance professions. This should be seen against the background of recent and ongoing financial scandals. Such scandals are not a new phenomenon, but the scale and scope of scandals across accounting and finance services and products are unprecedented. The collapse of cryptocurrency exchange firm, FTX in November 2022, and of Credit Suisse, which pleaded guilty to defrauding investors a month earlier, are just two examples in a long line of unethical professional practices. We have witnessed escalating debate, particularly since 2008, about unethical and even criminal professional choices and activities in leading financial institutions, including all of the Big Four accountancy firms and retail and investment banks such as Barclays, HSBC, RBS, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo. Bad advice and bad practice have surfaced, as exemplified by Carillion and Danske Bank. As Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, said in his speech at the Bank on 21 March 2017:

In a system where trust is fundamental it ought to be of grave concern that only 20% of UK citizens now think that banks are well-run, down from 90% in the late 1980s. The scale of these shortcomings is why the Bank of England has been pursuing a series of measures to convert ethical drift into ethical lift. (Carney, 2017, pp.2–3)

Professional training institutes and universities now integrate an ethical dimension into their qualifications and degrees, with the support of financial regulators, including the Bank of England. However, a key dilemma that all educators confront is whether and, if so, how ethics can be taught and learned effectively in institutional pedagogic settings. This is particularly relevant in higher education (HE) where we now have as an explicit learning objective a commitment to fostering critical and reflective understanding in our students. Given, too, that the current government is now planning to undertake the biggest overhaul of banking regulation in more than 30 years, we need to ask what lessons have been learned from the 2008 financial crisis? And perhaps more importantly, to what extent do current and future generations entering financial services have the ethical grounding that will be needed if and when a new de-regulation of the financial industry occurs?

This project investigated the potential for role play, a centuries-old learning and pedagogic device (Courtney, 1974; Wetmore, 2016), to help today’s students to ‘think otherwise’ when encouraged to develop ethical reasoning. We presented them with an opportunity to act out dilemmas and their possible resolution by playing each role engaged in a given dilemma or conflict situation. We provided them with an outline of events preceding each dilemma or conflict, but no scripted lines to follow in their role playing, nor any ‘right answer’ to the dilemma. In this way, we attempted to enable the students to experience dilemmas or conflicts as ‘lived and unpredictable events’. In such events, what each participant says in playing a particular role affects or shapes what may be said subsequently, and how the episode as a whole plays out.

We took this approach on the basis that this fluid, unfolding form of role play, in a set-up in which each student played each of the specified roles, might help them to both experience events from different perspectives, and potentially grow to appreciate the contingency of particular outcomes on who says what and when. This, we argue, is not only a valuable life skill, but also a significant kind of learning experience, specifically for future careers in which many similar situations will occur as students progress from trainee or entry-level professional to, in many cases, senior managerial and governance positions.

The project also explored a continuing role for role play as a learning device in a pedagogic world in which students learn from their first years of schooling that ‘real’ learning requires first learning to read, write and calculate, and that the ultimate proof of their quality is discovered by undertaking numerically graded written examinations and tests (Foucault, 1977, pp.180–181; Frandsen & Hoskin, 2023; Hoskin, 1993b; Hoskin & Macve, 1986). The unquestioned primacy of this form of ‘learning to learn’, as now experienced in almost all learning settings around the world, is at least destabilised through pedagogic alternatives like the form of role play we discuss in this report.

The project came about with the launch of a new MSc in Accounting and Finance in 2016/2017, which underlined the significance of professional integrity and ethical practice by making the only compulsory component a 20-credit module entitled Professional Integrity and the Reflective Practitioner (PIRP). In this context, we decided to explore the potential use of a role play initiative and developed a pilot role-play event involving collaboration between academics and professional role play facilitators. As we refined and extended the use of the role-play event over the next two years, we realised that we had a potentially significant research topic and were then able to develop our collaboration into the funded research agenda on which we report here. The research question framing our research was:

•How and to what extent can role play contribute to students’ thinking about, reflecting on, and acting out accounting and finance professional ethics?

Within this overall framing device, we developed the following objectives:

•To explore students’ attitudes to and reflections on professional ethics, both before and after the role play
•To explore the extent to which students experience role play as a significant learning activity within the module
•To explore the wider context of the module within which the role play sits, including the roles played by the academics and professional role play facilitators involved in the teaching and learning of ethics, both within and beyond the role play itself.

Material collected for the research project included an archive of module documentation, interviews both with student focus groups and with the academics and professional role play facilitators involved in the module, and a two-part survey of student attitudes to professional characteristics and workplace dilemmas. For the target students, a survey was administered both before and after the role-play event. For background and comparison purposes, a survey of professional characteristics was also administered to other MSc students before the role-play event took place.
The focus group interviews revealed that, at the level of students’ self-reporting on their role-play experiences, the role play did have a positive impact on their reflective thinking about professional ethics and led them to think differently about their future careers as professionals. One interesting finding was the extent to which the improvisational nature of the role play that we designed was recognised by students as helpful in producing unanticipated reflections on ethical issues and the complexity of professional dilemmas. This was particularly interesting, given that the experience of academics and role play facilitators was that students showed high levels of engagement and commitment to their role playing. The experience did appear to open a window to their will to learn, which allowed them, in interaction or even co-production with others, to see themselves differently, and triggered them to reflect ‘otherwise’.

In light of the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre’s research on the role of virtue ethics in developing ethical reasoning, including its research report on Ethics in Business and Finance (2017), we also undertook a preliminary review of our interview material to identify manifestations of forms of thinking and acting relating to virtue ethics (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). We did find evidence of students manifesting or articulating forms of ‘practical wisdom’, but given the small sample of observations, this evidence is only indicative of the practical wisdom of virtue ethics.
Overall, we have persuasive evidence of how improvised role play can encourage student reflections on ethical issues, yielding new insights into both themselves and their colleagues, and how reflection can re-shape judgements. Generally, we see the metaphor of ‘a door opening’ as conveying something of the flavour of the reflective comments that students shared with us. We find this a particularly striking finding, since in every academic year we have observed that students often begin by expressing uncertainty about the possible educational value of playing roles in scenarios to which there is no right answer and instead ‘you decide what’s right in the doing’. At the same time, a major development in our practice as teachers and facilitators has been oblique or indirect forms of support and encouragement: ‘an occasional nudge, a question, an observation, a whisper in the ear, guidance, being there for them’ (Facilitator B). We have observed a pattern where for many students initial doubt gives way to engagement and mutual encouragement.

At the same time, we did observe one recurrent issue, internal to the role playing, of students experiencing particularly acute personal dilemmas over what to do. This arose when there were significant power imbalances between different roles, and particularly when a student was playing the ‘inferior’ role and the ‘superior’, whether a line manager or top management, asked them to do something unethical. They would hesitate to ‘do the right thing’ ethically, and not infrequently acquiesced in doing what ‘the boss’ wanted them to do. As one focus group member put it, ‘What would I do if my boss asked me to do something illegal? I would probably reflect and know it was wrong, and then do what my boss told me.’ Although not the only solution expressed, this was not uncommon.

One final observation is that the timing of the role-play event within the module was almost certainly a significant factor contributing to its acceptance by students. It occurs late in the module, and from the outset the module prioritises group work. We run workshops every two weeks, in which the students prepare and work in groups. They then complete two forms of group assessment, requiring them to analyse a real-life case of serious ethical corporate failure, and then produce a poster of their findings and give a live presentation of these. Thus, by the time of the role play, students have ‘learned to learn’ that the style of learning (and teaching) is very different from other modules.

In addition, the contributions of the professional role play facilitators have been hugely influential, both in introducing role play in a session a week before the role-play event, and in setting up and managing the role-play event itself. They set up the role-play venue as a space for improvising and exploring, and also for experiencing uncertainty and the other through unscripted co-production of the role-play event with others. They then ensure that all facilitators follow their lead in making no judgement of the performances, with no written or oral formal examination and no numerical gradings: ‘Just bring yourself.’

While this is not the only way in which role play can be organised in a module or expert external inputs deployed, this particular set-up and approach has been, and is, an integral feature of the role-play experience we offer to our students. In the specific format we settled on at the outset, and still use, each role-play scenario requires a group of three participants to repeat the role play three times, with five minutes for each repetition. Therefore, each participant gets to play every role, in situations with in-built power imbalances. Some episodes are internal to a single company, while others may involve playing both internal and external roles. In either case, this format makes it possible to create an intimate and safe space for each student, while at the same time, given sufficient facilitators and a large enough space, enabling 50 or more groups to play out a particular scenario simultaneously, scaling up the role-play event to allow all students to participate.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherUniversity of Birmingham
Number of pages83
Publication statusPublished - 17 Apr 2023


  • Improvised Role Play
  • Thinking otherwise
  • Professional Ethics


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