Leaving the Room Open to Unexpected Learning

Several weeks ago while playing a few rounds of the prisoner’s dilemma I came across an opportunity to learn from my students.  The game went in this way: Students were to play one round of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (rat out your partner in order to win more, or cooperate to reduce a prison sentence).

A pair of women in the corner simultaneously cooperated.  For those unfamiliar with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the standard of the game is for both people to rat out their partners.  Sometimes people do cooperate but normally they don’t.

We discussed the gave at some length and then I began the standard social scientific move to iterated repeat games.  I asked the students to play 9 rounds of the game. After 9 rounds the two african american women were still cooperating though they had never talked before in class prior to this game.

Here is where it got interesting.  I explained that in general we should expect people to cooperate some but not all the time.  The students nodded along.  The two women in the corner looked at me quizzically. So I knew there were potentially different explanations for why cooperation and defection were good or bad strategies.  So I asked the students: “ladies, why were you constantly cooperating?” Another student, a while male, tried to explain to them how they were being irrational.  That they needed to realize that they weren’t maximizing their opportunities.

And one of the pair said, “You people don’t really know what it is to grow up in an environment where security really is a problem.” She said: “In my part of town you don’t cheat people or rat them out.  You can’t, no matter how much money you might get from it, because you don’t know if the person you cheat is going to show up and shoot up your mom’s house, or kill your brother.”

The classroom recoiled in horror.

I could have shut this down.  Clearly we had entered a space in which the student offered up a lived experience to question the theoretical conclusions. A lived experience that ran close to being socially, economically, and racially charged.

It is at these moments that we must decide whether to let it ride or to embrace it and try to dig deeper into it.  At once, here were two women presenting the room with an entirely different perspective.  One that most had never been privy to.  The learning was shifting immediately beyond the theoretical importance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, to understanding a diversity of perspectives, to how to think about who was in the room, to try to consider what truth and the imperatives of action really dictated.

I was reminded that active learning isn’t always planned learning.  Control is the purpose of the rules in a game, but what exactly we are trying to control is the question.

My challenge to reader is to consider the way in which control is leveraged in active learning, and to question just how much we really need and for what purpose.

My thoughts keep going back to that awkward silence and the exasperation of the male student toward the continued cooperation of the two females. It was such an eerie and powerful thing to say….so much so that I’m not even certain what we learned exactly, and I suspect that this is the point of exposure to new perspectives.  Not so much that we come out with clear conclusions, but that we throw them into a controlled disarray.

One thought on “Leaving the Room Open to Unexpected Learning

Leave a Reply