“Life is not fair”. Different people ascribe varied meanings to the statement. In return one often hears, “Deal with it”, and those who respond this way are more likely to be in a position that society deems as privileged.
In our most recent workshop for the Values module we explored social inequality through a devious exercise orchestrated by our multi-talented lecturer. The class was divided between four tables, approximately nine students per table, and on each table was a numbered envelope. We were given a group task “…to create a resource for new students studying at the University of Dundee, using only the materials in the envelope”. The groups were numbered 1 to 4, and it was revealed that we would be receiving marks out of ten for our efforts at the end of the class. There was a noticeable silence when this was revealed because I imagine most of the class would perhaps not want to be put in the position of appearing superior to the others based on a score out of ten. At least not consciously…
Half way through the exercise, as each group revealed their concepts, it became apparent that we had received different materials in each envelope. Groups 1and 2 had similar resources, group 3 had noticeably less, and group 4 the least of all. To put that more specifically, group 2 had ten sheets of coloured paper, sticky tape, paperclips, coloured pens, post it notes, paper clips, letter clips, pencils and pens. Group 4 had one pencil, a few paper clips and some post it notes. The presentations were performed in numerical order and the feedback changed from overwhelmingly positive and supportive, to negative and unhelpful, presented with disappointment bordering on anger (such range!). The negative feedback given to groups 3 and 4 took the whole class aback. My group (number 2) ,received moderate praise, so we quickly disregarded this and carried on creating our design. We didn’t need to worry about the others. ‘They will come up with a creative idea and put themselves back in the good books’, I thought.
While the groups were constructing and discussing ideas, Derek Day-Lewis was engaging with each group, again in numerical order, feedback and support going from positive, through middling and negative, to none. The activity at each table reflected the mood of each group. Group 1 abuzz with ideas and group 4 quietly hoping that it was all over. When we finally presented our finished products the marks out of ten awarded were:
- Group 1 – 9/10
- Group 2 -7/10
- Group 3 – 4/10
- Group whatever – ?
Once it was revealed that, in fact, it was all a wind up, the release of tension in the room was obvious. The students in group 4 who were neglected and disregarded, seemed disappointed in themselves. Groups 1 and 2 appeared to be performing well, and so went about the task with gusto. Group 1 were being praised for their creativity because they had the resources to design something more effective. Group 4 felt excluded because they did not have the same resources and were being judged negatively on their performance because of that. Once the workshop was finished, the positive effect it had on group 1 was obvious. Despite the knowledge that it was an example of inequality, they were happily chatting with ‘Mr Olivier’ once everyone else had left. Hopefully group 4 weren’t too upset.
The exercise showed how teacher behaviour towards pupils affects performance, and how important inclusion is in making the classroom learning environment one of equality. The task also highlighted some of the problems of inequality in society; those with the most resources received a positive response, those with fewest resources a negative response. Ideas of equality change over time and between different political ideals, like communism and democracy. I look forward to exploring more about the issues that underpin social inequality.