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 the learning experience 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 may feel bad for the back row students, some of them may realize that they have a good habit of choosing a front row seat. As a general strategy, they put themselves in a position to be engaged in the lesson being taught, regardless of what it is about or what game will be played.  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.   (Or maybe the instructor wants to spark a debate about work ethic, social mobility, immigration, etc. …um, yeah, no.)

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.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on November 25, 2014, in Instructional Design, Learning, Metaphors and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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