Exploring privilege versus luck – a classroom game analogy

What’s the difference between being “lucky” versus being “privileged?”  The two terms may be similar in their meanings, but feel very different in their emotional and moral implications. The latter term is showing up increasingly in social and political commentary.  Given the current headlines in the U.S. and the imminent holiday of American Thanksgiving  – a holiday that is all about expressing gratitude – it’s helpful to explore the nuances of these words.

We’re going to do that by unpacking and re-packing a classroom exercise.

A friend posted a link to a simple classroom game which was designed to help students understand the concept of “privilege.” Here’s the link (ht AmyP) …and here’s the exercise in a nutshell:

Throw the paper in the bin - dont tell I put some adhesive on the outer edge of mine

EXERCISE SUMMARY:  Students must throw a crumbled up piece of paper into a bin while staying seated in their chairs. The students in the front row have an advantage but usually don’t realize it… at least until the students in the back row protest their disadvantage. Debrief. 

According to the link, the moral of the story is for the students in the front row to advocate for the back row.

Advocate for what, though?  If it’s advocacy for a single, giant front row then that makes for a terrible classroom design doesn’t it?

The obvious lesson for an instructional designer or classroom facilitator is to consider changing the chair configuration and/or the rules of the game.  Cue the debates on government structures, policies, taxation, etc.

Wait, stay with me on this.

For example, there can be a reasonable discussion about whether it makes sense to reconfigure the seating as a circle or a U-shape with the bin in the middle… or even as series of small table “pods”  (typically better configurations from an instructional design and facilitation point of view, just sayin’) with separate bins for each table.

The debate on chair configuration will require an analysis of the total demand vs. the capacity per classroom and the number of available classrooms. Seating in rows allows you to fit more students into each classroom, but with less overall participation.  Indeed, autocratic and hierarchical systems are often more efficient with quantity of results but less effective in terms of quality of results.

Or we could change the rules a bit and give students turns where they each can sit in the front row?  Does that completely kill the analogy? Hmmm… or do we descend into a quarrel over whether to adjust the seats to account for the length of each student’s arm? ..or the amount of previous paper-throwing practice they’ve had?  I’m not sure how fun that would be… though maybe that’s the point:  In a world of individual differences, at what point do we consider individual advantages as being “fair?”

Note also that in the original version of the game there is an unacknowledged anti-lesson about habits, choices and effort… because although those front row students feel bad for the back row students, some of them will realize that they have a good habit of choosing a front row seat so they can be engaged in the lesson regardless of what it is about.  Apart from the student who came late and could only find a front row seat (lucky day for them!), students in the front row likely made an effort to be there. As an instructional designer, I try to avoid creating anti-lessons.

How about we preserve every aspect of the game – the same seat configuration and rules – but randomly shuffle and re-assign students to seats for each round of the game?  That eliminates the habits/choices/effort anti-lesson. Of course, it also turns the front row into less of a “privilege” and more of an instance of “luck.”

With that in mind, what exactly is the difference between “luck” and “privilege?”  Is it just about the line between “fair” and “unfair,” or is there something else? ..and where does “effort” factor into it?  What are the implications for an individual with advantages resulting from any or all of those things?

I leave you, the reader, to think about that… and if you’re celebrating it, Happy Thanksgiving.


Photo essay: In China, down by the river

China is a place of visual delights and olfactory offenses.

Particularly when it comes to rivers —  murky and polluted by day, sparkling and glowing by night — the traditional Chinese penchant for over-the-top, bright colorful displays comes to play in the evening hours, washing away the grim grayish green realities of unchecked rapid industrialization.

01 - Yangtze Smogeye View

Yangtze river, smog’s eye view

Here are some views from three of the cities that I visited last month:  Shanghai, Suzhou, and Zhenyuan… each a special place, each with its own approach to lighting up the night.

Let’s start with sparkling Shanghai, looking at Pudong from the Bund side:

02 - Bund side view of Pudong over Huangpu

Make way for the magical Huangpu river disco boat!

Make way for the magical Huangpu river disco boat!

…and here’s a panorama showing the two sides of the Huangpu river facing each other. Note the dimly lit romantic Bund promenade, with the comparatively subdued (but in any other city, bright and fabulous) up-lighting on colonial era buildings.  London ain’t got nothing on this.

05 - Bund looking across both sides of the Huangpu river

These pictures are taken on an iPhone instead of a “real” camera and so the night time shots are grainy and overexposed. That said, it’s nice to be able to snap a picture in the spur of the moment in order to capture the overall atmosphere of a place. For Shanghai at night, it’s all about the city lights bouncing off plate glass, marble floors, plastic lanterns, crystal chandeliers, taxi cab doors, wine glasses, retail shop windows, and blinking roller skate wheels.  These next two pictures show the nocturnal borrowed views that show up everywhere this city, with windows framing collages of scintillation.

Chandelier Reflections Bund

Humble Bartenders Borrowed View of Pudong

All of these electric lights require lots of electricity, which in turn requires lots of coal-fired plants. The same river that sparkles at night also provides an easy avenue for a non-stop (really, non-stop… literally, all day long) parade of boats carrying loads of coal, ore, and everything else needed to keep those turbines turning and high rises rising.

07 - Pudong Looming over Huangpu

06 - Huangpu Coal Boat Parade I

07 - Huangpu Coal Boat Parade II

While I was there, the official smog index reached somewhere in the orange-to-red “unhealthy” zone… at times my eyes hurt when walking around outside. At least it’s better than having, say, over 16,000 dead pigs mysteriously float down the river for the better part of a month. But hey, who’s counting?

Smog Flag

In complete contrast to the flash and frenzy of Shanghai, the placid canals of Suzhou offer a more relaxed and soothing atmosphere, apropos of one of China’s most famous scholar towns.  During the day, it looks like this:

Suzhou Canal 1

Suzhou Canal 2

Suzhou Canal 3

At night, it looks like this:

Suzhou Night Canal 1

Suzhou Night Canal 2

A series of tyrannical emperors helped nurture the heritage of Suzhou by having the masses dig out the Grand Canal, one of the greatest civil engineering projects in world history. The city did very well with its canal system providing easy transport of people and products… although sometimes the visiting people decided to sack the city, here and there. In the last century, single tyrant almost wiped out Suzhou’s heritage by having the masses launch the Cultural Revolution, one of the most violently self-destructive moments in world history. All of that history and turmoil translated into a deeper meaning for this place, and a beautiful patina on its walls.

Suzhou’s stone and clay brick construction readily reveals centuries of flooding, wear, tear and war. I could stare at these buildings for hours, reading the stories imprinted onto them, noting the traces of prior occupants and different uses that accumulated over time.

Suzhou Building Stories Rustic Wall 1 Suzhou Building Stories Rustic Wall 2

Here’s what Pingjiang Road road looks like from water level, in the early evening. Crouching down on the river steps had a bonus effect: I could avoid the pervasive smells of nearby food vendors, their shellfish and fried tofu searing my guallo nostrils.

Crouching Canal Hidden Boatman

Onwards to Guizhou province, to the remote town of Zhenyuan,a former nexus of the southern Silk Road.  This yin-yang shaped city is home to unique blend of local and not-so-local cultures, the religiously eclectic temples of Black Dragon Cave, the crumbling edge of the Miao Southern Great Wall, and many dramatic views of the Wuyang river cutting through the limestone karst landscape.

Looking Downstream

Zhenyuan also provides a fine example of how the rest of China can live well, outside the bustling metropolises. The Wuyang river defines the life of this town, by day…

Black Dragon Cave - Riverfront View

Riverfront Bridge

…and by night:

Evening Riverside Panorama

Boats Under Bridge

“Less is more,” said Mies van der Rohe. “Could we get some more rotating colors in those LED bulbs?” said Zhenyuan.

The ridiculous amount of lighting on the riverfront of Zhenyuan Old Town – these photos barely capture the sheer luminescent fervor – creates a vibrant, welcoming and festive feeling. Music and laughter echo along the shores well into the night… and it’s not even a weekend night, just an ordinary working evening. It’s not unlike the vibe of the Christmas season (or Winter Holiday, if you prefer), except all year long and in a more casually civic spirit.

Here are some square dancers – a group of locals doing open-air aerobics in a manner that resembles a flash mob.

Zhenyuan - Evening Riverside Scene

You can find groups of people doing this everywhere in China, often under highway underpasses within the bigger cities. In Zhenyuan, the electro pop tunes of the square dancers combine with the din of street vendors and restaurants serving up shellfish and fried tofu.

What’s the price of all this?  Once again, tragedy of the commons be damned, or should I say, dammed. The flow of the Wuyang river slows to a halt in Zhenyuan, where it accumulates into a mirror-like sheen of algae, and gives off the musky scent of rotting wood planks… but I guess the downstream hydroelectric dam is better than having yet another coal plant.

stagnant river

China’s network of rivers – the winding watery dragons that give this land its powerful fertility, productivity and central control – provide views into the opportunities and challenges of its past, present and future. Where Shanghai is glitzy and glamorous, Suzhou is subdued and solemn.  As for Zhenyuan – a genuine gem of a town – I hope the ever-changing China can keep and nurture more places like it.

Quote du Jour: Simplify

The ability to simplify

means to eliminate the unnecessary

so that the necessary may speak.

- Hans Hofmann

Baby Bjorn at Gooseberry Falls Lake Superior Baby Bjorn at Lake Superior Baby Bjorn

Close the Gap – Creative Perseverance

A short and sweet video pep talk for aspiring creative types, by Ira Glass:

A creative person is often a sensitive person — a person who is keenly aware of all of their senses, all of their feelings and thoughts. This is because creativity is linked to a refinement of the senses.  Want to become more creative?  Start observing more carefully what you see, hear, touch, smell, taste and think.  It’s a process of improving discernment and mindfulness. Yet, this sensitivity comes with a risk:  To be able to produce great work, a creative person must not be so sensitive that they can’t tolerate the pain of initially producing crappy work.

(Corollary for Managers of Creatives:  To develop your team’s talent, you have to be patient and encourage them to persevere through disappointing output.) 

Tolerance of Pain

The Kalenjin tribe of Kenya dominate the world in long distance running competition. According to some authors, this tribe has been environmentally, culturally and genetically optimized for long distance running… optimized not just in physical skill, but also in mindset. The tribe has longstanding rite of passage which select for pain tolerance. If you can’t tolerate extreme pain, you’re kicked out of the tribe.

You'll have to knock a bunch of these down at first... and yeah, it's gonna hurt.

You’ll have to knock a bunch of these down at first… and yeah, it’s gonna hurt.

To become a strong athlete, a big part of it is learning to overcome physical pain.  If you can overcome that pain, you can stretch your goals and continually improve.

To become a talented creative, a big part of it is learning to overcome mental pain of disappointment in your own work. If you can overcome that pain, you can keep practicing and eventually produce something inspiring.

Ultimately, it’s about overcoming the false dichotomy of  being a strong versus a sensitive person  — be sensitive to the product and strong in the process.


The Zen of Exercise: Stop Counting Push-ups

“You can’t hire someone else to do your push-ups for you.”

- Jim Rohn

The best things in life cannot be bought with money, but even still, they are not free. The best things in life require effort.

Mindfulness, loving-kindness, sense of belongingness, physical fitness, and probably a few other “ness”‘es —  all of these require different forms of effort and mental discipline.

In the pursuit of improved physical fitness — and in an effort to “walk my own talk” — I make an effort to do at least one set of push-ups daily.  My goal is to do, at minimum every day, the same number of consecutive push-ups as my age in years.

The thing is, I’ve been holding steady at 30 push-ups for a while… and while 30 is a nice round number, it’s (ahem) short of my goal.

Perhaps it’s a deeply buried denial about the inevitable marching forward of years… or perhaps it has to do with getting too focused a number.

Breaking Past 30

Here and there I get up to 31 or 32 push-ups… but then I slip out of the routine for a bunch of days and then I’m back down to 30 push-ups.

Recently however, I noticed that I never slipped back to 29 push-ups.

Always… with my very last… bit of… energy… and… Captain… Kirk-like… strain…just… barely… made… it… to…  30.


Or much lower…. 20 push-ups if I was really tired.

Still, 20 is a suspiciously round number.


So the other day I stopped counting when I approached the number 25… and, by my reckoning, made it past 35…

..until I realized it, and then I stopped, exhausted.

“The knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.


Clearly, it is the second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties.

One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else when you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.

It is notoriously difficult to prize your attention away from these three things during the split second you have at your disposal. Hence most people’s failure, and their eventual disillusionment with this exhilarating and spectacular sport.”

- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Today I resumed counting and was up to 38.

Onwards and upwards.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 202 other followers

%d bloggers like this: