Prisoner’s Dilemma – A Game Theory Simulation

Back in the 1970’s I taught a high school social studies course called “War and Peace Studies.”

A recent email exchange reminded me of a simplified version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma that I created for use in the classroom.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a fundamental exercise in game theory and serves as a great catalyst for discussions about decision making, communications, ethics and responsibility.

First, the classic example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma from Wikipedia:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?  

How I adapted for classroom use

Students were divided into two separate locations. (Group A and Group B). Once divided, I managed the game – shuttling between the two rooms. Both groups were given the same goal – “To accumulate as many points as possible without helping or hindering the other group.” In practice, I found that the point incentive generally faded away as groups just focused on their perception of “winning.”

I ran a series of 10 decision rounds. During each 5 minute round both groups were told make a group decision about the choice one of two colors – red or blue. See results chart below. I did not specify how they were to arrive at the decision within their groups. When each group has completed their decision, I shared results back to each group. As the decision rounds accumulated,  players faced the results of cooperation and betrayal.

To add another dimension to the dilemma, periodically (after decision rounds 3 and 6) I invited each group to send a negotiator to a neutral location (usually just the hallway). This was the only communication allowed between the groups. Generally each group was divided over both the instruction to give their negotiator (“bluff ’em” vs “make a deal”) and how to interpret the negotiator’s “report.” Sometimes groups even became mistrustful of their own negotiator.

It usually took about 45-50 minutes to set the game up and go through a series of 7-10 rounds with some negotiation breaks. The homework assignment was to write a reflection “What did I learn about myself during the game?” Loads of great discussion the next day with many great applications to history, current events, group process and ethics.

For great prompts to foster student reflection, see my post “The Reflective Student: The Taxonomy of Reflection.


Feature image by Spencer Tamichi on Unsplash

Observing a Classroom? Watch the Students, Not the Teacher

Classroom Figures Lavern Kelley
As a rookie teacher, I frequently had sleepless Sunday nights, worried about my lesson plans for the week ahead. I would second guess my teaching by asking myself – "what will I be doing, why am I doing it, how do I know it would work?"

It took me years to realize I was focussed on the wrong person in my classroom – the teacher. The real question was – "what will the students be doing?" The learning wasn't "emanating" from the teacher. My job was to design a learning situation that will cause the students to reflect on themselves as learners.

I frequently guide teachers and administrators on reflective classroom walkthroughs with a focus on observing the students by a focusing on two essential questions: 

  1. "What kinds of thinking did student need to use in the lesson segment we just saw?"  
  2. "What choice did students (appear to) have in making decisions about the product, process or evaluation of the learning?"

Think of it as roving Socratic seminar. For more on the process see my post: "Teacher-Led Professional Development: Eleven Reasons Why You Should be Using Classroom Walk Throughs"

I just returned from a week of guiding teachers and administrator on classroom walkthroughs. As I browsed through their evaluations, I was reminded of the power of reflective CWT's. 

Teachers' comments:

  • You're right – it's not about what I'm doing, it's about what the kids will be able to do.
  • I'm going to work harder to encourage my students to take ownership of their learning. 
  • It really made me think about the variety of ways students can demonstrate their thinking. 
  • I'm going to give students more chances to reflect on their learning. 
  • Today reaffirms my asking kids to think outside the box.

Principals' comments:

  • I really enjoyed the risk-free learning environment that makes me think and gives me the chance to network. We are so stressed for time and results that we don't have time to think deeply.
  • This will change my conversations with teacher, I now have a better idea how to get them to reflect honestly on their work. I also have learned how to better dissect a learning activity and see its components.
  • As I go into classrooms, I will have a better understanding about what "engagement" really looks like.


Interested in more reflective and teacher-centered staff development? See my posts:

Lesson Study: Reflective PD That Works

The Reflective Teacher: The Taxonomy of Reflection

A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer 


Image: Flickr/cliff1066™
Folk Art: Classroom with Three Figures by Lavern Kelley

Test Prep – The Steroids of Student Achievement

As a life-long NYS educator, the NY Times article “Warning Signs Long Ignored on New York’s School Tests” came as no surprise. I’ve been posting on the impact of NCLB-driven standardized testing for years.

While business leaders and politicians lauded the success of the corporate-inspired standards movements, teachers knew that the impressive gains in student achievement were an illusion. As the NY TImes piece reports, for the last decade, a generation of NY students has been force-fed a steady diet of test prep designed to ready them for predictable tests.

“The fast rise… of New York’s passing rates resulted from the effect of policies, decisions and missed red flags that stretched back more that 10 years … The process involved the direct warnings from experts that went unheeded by the state and [NY] city administration that trumpeted gains in student performance… It involved the state’s decision to create short, predictable exams… making coaching easy…” NY TImes October 11, 2010

NCLB sanctions have closed failing schools that had persisted for years as “drop-out factories.” But we’ve paid a high price for accountability as measured by standardized tests. School were re-tooled to serve the needs of the test. Scarce funds were diverted to vendors who peddled programs guaranteed to improve student achievement. Creative teachers were mandated to drop the “fluff”  and teach to the test, while lecture-driven teachers droned on affirmed that it was the best way to ensure student success. Instructional time was devoted to what was tested – reading and math – so students were routinely pulled from art and music for “remediation.” A triage mentality set in among administrators who thought it wisest to focus disproportionate resources to student on the cusp of meeting standards to the detriment of other performance levels.

Of course the ones who suffered most were the students. They were forced to spend long hours engaged in an extended exercise in remembering what they were told, then practice it at their desk (or as homework) in preparation for the opportunity to give it back on the test (generally in the same form they had received it). Instead of exploring their interests, students served largely to produce performance statistics that educators could slice into measurable demographic sub groups.

While NCLB began with the admirable goal of narrowing demographic performance gaps and putting an end to sorting kids on the “bell curve,” test policy has set a course that defines student achievement in manner largely out of step with the skills our students will actually need to successful. Ironically, while our students spend endless hours prepping for predictable tests, the demand for routine skills has largely disappeared from the workplace. Anyone know of a meaningful and rewarding career that looks like filling out a worksheet?

Our kids are inheriting a world with a host of problems that will require some out-of-the-box solutions. Their success will be contingent on their ability to function independently in ever-changing situations as fluid, adaptable, and reflective thinkers. Our classrooms should be refocused on student creativity. But for now our education policy is still aimed at NCLB’s quixotic goal of all students reaching proficiency on standardized tests. Unless we institute more genuine assessments, our measures of student achievement will be as inspiring as a steroid-tarnished home run record.
Image Flickr / Jason

What Happens in Schools When Life Has become an Open-book Test?

I grew up in an era of top-down information flow – book publishers, newspapers, magazines, network TV, radio. I was accustomed to someone else making decisions about what I should read, watch and listen to. They created information, I consumed it. Other than writing an occasional letter to the editor, it never occurred to me that I had anything to add to the dialogue – even then someone else decided if my letter would get published. Information came to me according to their schedule. My only option, was deciding what to pay attention to.

School was just a continuation of the informational flow that dominated the rest of my life. Teachers, like their mass media counterparts, defined what was important for me to know and scheduled when I should learn it. I spent hours listening to teachers talk, and then practiced what teachers told me at my desk.  Later, I gave the information back to the teacher on a test – usually in the same form I received it.

A few teachers fostered my critical thinking skills, but at best I was merely asked to assess the positions of competing “authorities.” Great debates texts chose the issues and confined the discourse to re-runs of classic loggerheads such as the Federalists vs anti-Federalists.

I had some skepticism for my informational landscape, but I was quite comfortable with the experts curating my information. What could be more reassuring than Walter Cronkite claiming “… and that’s the way it is.” He reminded me of my favorite teachers.

Fast forward to a digital age which has fractured the information flow – fragmenting it into ever smaller pieces: LP record > CD >  single song download > ringtone. Now we are armed with gadgets that allow us to re-assemble the info bits; by-passing the curatorial function that had been served by the legacy mass media. Who needs a Walter Cronkite? I can be my own editor, reviewer, researcher and entertainment director. I don’t simply consume information – I am a content producer. I blog, I tweet, I review my Amazon purchases, I make sure my Facebook friends know “what’s on my mind.” Forget that much of what I post / tweet about are links to the mainstream media, if they can’t survive, they’ll have to come up with a new business model!

What happens in schools when life has become an open-book test? 

The legacy mass media aren’t the only ones struggling to adjust to the transformation of information. Today, students feel in charge of information – their landscape is explored with an expectation of choice, functionality and control that redefines our traditional notions of learning and literacy. Unlike newspapers, schools aren’t quite yet an endangered species – at least until someone figures who will watch the kids all day. But schools run a greater risk of becoming irrelevant to students.

It’s time to redefine to the information flow in schools. Educators must realize that they cannot simply dispense information to students. They will lose the battle of competition for student attention span. Instead they must teach students how to effectively use the information that fills their lives – how to better access it, critically evaluate it, store it, analyze and share it. 

Students are adrift in a sea of text without context. As the barriers to content creation have dropped, old media (for all its flaws) has been replaced by pointless mashups, self-promoting pundits, and manufactured celebrity. The web may have given us access and convenience, but it’s an artificial world where rants draws more attention than thoughtful discussion. Responsible general interest media are being replaced by a balkanized web where civil discourse is rapidly becoming less civil. 

Schools can become thoughtfully-designed learning environments where students can investigate information and be given a chance to reflect (with their peers) on what they learned and how they see themselves progressing as learners. That can be done with a variety of technologies – even pencil and paper. A social network is already sitting in the classroom that can interact with information and each other without the need to go online. 

Teachers shouldn’t feel in competition with all information permeating their students lives. Instead, they should realize that they can help their students become more skillful curators of their unique digital worlds. Most importantly, they can assist students in becoming more purposeful in their information choices. Despite their claims of multi-tasking, students will someday realize that infinite amounts of information competes for their finite attention. Their ability to critically filter out unwanted “informational noise” may eventually emerge as the most important new literacy.  

Image source: Open book on table
Date 21 March 2016, 04:41:37
Author: Creigpat

Teacher-Led PD: 11 Reasons Why You Should be Using Classroom Walk Throughs

I frequently conduct large-group workshops for an entire school or district. I use a variety of methods (like audience response systems) to create engaging events that model the practices I am promoting. The workshops resonate well with teachers and I am often asked to come back and “do some more.”

My reply is typically something like, “I’m done talking … it’s time to take this training into the classroom – that’s where the teaching is going on. Besides, you need to build your local capacity.” Over the last 3 years I have developed a classroom walk through (CWT) approach that works. When I return to a school my goal is to serve as a catalyst for dialogue that can be self-sustaining (read – no consultant required).

During my return visit I typically lead groups of teachers on brief CWTs in an effort to try to identify the instructional elements that we addressed in our large-group session. For example, if my large group session was on fostering higher-level thinking skills, then our CWT focuses on trying to see if the CWT visitors can answer the question, “What kinds of thinking did student need to use in the lesson segment we just saw?” If the large group session addressed fostering student engagement, then my walk-through reflection might be “What choice did students (appear to) have in making decisions about the product, process or evaluation of the learning?”

If the large group is “the lecture,” the CWT is the “lab.”

The specifics of CWTs are tailored to the school, but  here’s a few of protocols I generally use:

1. CWT groups are kept small  – usually only 2 visitors per classroom. (I guide larger groups of teachers, who break into smaller teams to visit classrooms.)

2. Individual CWT visits usually last 10 minutes or less. No note taking or elaborate checklists to fill out. Just watch and listen with a focus on the learning. The real insights occur when we later process our different perspective about what we thought we saw during the CWT.

3. We rotate a pool of subs (or use planning time) to free up teachers for a series CWT sessions that total about 1-2 hours.

4. Teachers are asked in advance if they want to join the CWT and / or be willing to “host” a visit. No “gotchas” or surprises allowed!

5. All teachers are told in advance that we are not doing CWTs to “evaluate them or their lesson.” Our purpose is to use a brief slice of their lesson as a catalyst for a discussion about learning. I ask teachers who did CWTs to get back to the host teachers later in the day to follow up and assure them that our dialogue was about learning, not “their” teaching.

Eleven Reasons Why You Should be Using Classroom Walk Throughs

1. Staff development should look like what you want to foster in the classroom
CWTs can be conducted like roving Socratic seminars – engaging participants in observation, reflection, and discussion. Isn’t that the perspective we want to foster in our students? – thoughtful learners who are reflecting on their progress. 

2. CWTs relies on local resources not consultants
Typical PD takes place in the isolation from the students. Herd the teachers into a large lecture hall and let some consultant talk at them. Too often the consultant is viewed as a person with a PowerPoint from somewhere else who wants to sell you the solution to your problem. CWTs can be lead by teachers and move the discussion to the reality of the classroom. More importantly, instead of treating teachers as a passive PD audience they are active participants in staff development. 

3. CWTs break through teacher isolation
When I first started teaching 38 years ago, my department chair handed me my class lists and keys and said “Don’t let the kids out ’till the bell rings.” From that day I was on my own and for years I worked in isolation from other adults. Mentoring programs have made great strides with novice teachers since then, but can’t more experienced teachers also benefit from thoughtful discussion and collaboration? 

4. CWTs change the dialogue
Let’s face it, our teachers’ lounges are often dominated with complaints about problem students, annoying parents and the unpopular “reform-du jour” from district office. CWT fosters a different discussion. Teacher gain greater respect for their peers. Conversations move in a positive direction – observing, for example, how that problem student behaves in another classroom setting.

5. CWTs clarify your school’s vision of teaching and learning
We spend all this time crafting a school mission (or is it vision?) statement. Let’s see if it holds up in action. Are students given responsibility for their learning, or are they asked to simply follow instructions? If we believe in life-long learning, then how do the educators dialogue to improve our craft?

6. CWTs foster a K-12 conversation
I often lead K-12 teachers on CWTs at different school levels  – for example, take high school teachers on a CWT of their feeder elementary and middle school (or vice versa). As one high school teacher said to me as we walked out of a fifth grade classroom, “I didn’t realize what these 5th graders are capable of – I think I need to ‘ramp’ it up a bit at the high school.”

7. CWTs are naturally differentiated
Teachers bring a variety of background knowledge and experiences drawn from different disciplines and grade levels. Our discussion are enriched by their varied perspectives and teachers are free to take away the ideas that resonate with them.

8. We can all learn from each other
During a follow up debriefing, a math teacher remarked to our CWT group that she felt stuck in her approach – it was always foundations first, then have students practice with a series of problems. She asked, “how can you reverse the order and use problems to generate foundation understanding?” The PE teacher replied “when I coach the wrestling team, I put students into a new position and ask them to wrestle their way out of it. In doing so, they discover their own understanding of movement, that I later reinforce with techniques that work from that wrestling position.”

9. It models life-long learning to the students
We ask teachers to explain in advance that teachers will be visiting classroom to improve their skills. As one student once remarked to me, “Still learning to teach? Just kidding – it’s cool to see that you teachers keep working on it!” 

10. CWT’s are cost-effective PD
No travel, materials, software, hardware required. With practice, you don’t need the services of an outside consultant. Many of my clients have felt our CWTs were such powerful experiences, that they later continue the CWTs with teachers serving as facilitators.

11. This is PD that is equally valuable for  administrators
All my observation about the value of CWTs apply equally well for training administrators. I have led principals (and other admin) on CWTs and found principals to be eager to refocus their thinking away from the traditional evaluation of teachers to more fundamental reflections on the varied dimensions of learning. 

If you’ve read this far,  you might also like a few other posts:

Lesson Study: Teacher-Led PD That Works  

A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer

The Reflective Teacher: The Taxonomy of Reflection