It’s in the bag

This week, I did an activity in my human rights class that I’ve been doing for a few years. It’s a quick and easy interactive exercise designed to kick off a discussion – the activity can be adapted for a variety of topics. In my human rights class I use it to gauge student beliefs about which rights are universal. I project a slide with a one-sentence description of five different rights – ranging from rights that are widely accepted as universal (right not to be tortured) to practices that are consistent with cultural relativist critiques of universal human rights (freedom to marry and female genital mutilation).

I place five bags (simple brown paper lunch bags work well) around the room, labeled with each right. I give students five small slipsBy ThatPeskyCommoner (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons of paper and tell them they can select anywhere from zero to five of these rights as “universal” by their understanding of the term. I give them a few minutes to get up and place their “ballots” in the bags, then ask for five volunteers to add up each tally. I write the results on the board and use this as a jumping off point to discuss universal human rights and cultural relativism.

This simple activity works well because it is quick, but it encourages students to think about what it means for something to be a universal right and it serves as a baseline for the rest of the class discussion. The variation in responses – I have never seen unanimous voting for any right nor have I ever hand zero votes for any right – is itself a good discussion starter that demonstrates that this is a contested topic. Near the end of class, I ask if anyone would have voted differently now. Typically a few would have changed their minds, and we can discuss what changed.

I could imagine the underlying format of this activity could be used for other concepts in other courses. And, in larger classes, easily adapted to use with a clicker-system. It likely would work best for concepts without right/wrong answers, because the benefit is in the follow-up discussion where students have an opportunity to share their thinking.