This week I conducted a little experiment in my Introduction to Literature Class. Students were assigned to read “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin. After a general lecture on symbols and archetypes (and no discussion of the readings), I passed out a pop quiz over the two stories. The students were told to take the quiz, turning their quizzes face down when they were finished. It took them about 5-minutes to take the quiz.
When everyone was finished, I pointed out that on the right-hand corner of the back of each quiz was a number, 1 – 10, in either red or black. Correspondingly, I had a deck of playing cards in my hand that were 1-10 black, 1-10 red. I then told them I was going to give them three options (as follows):
Option 1 – Each student would turn in their test and receive the grade they had earned.
Option 2 – I would draw a card and whichever quiz matched the color and number would be the quiz I graded with everyone in the class receiving that grade.
Option 3 – I would draw a card and the quiz that matched the number and color would receive a 0. But everyone else in the class would receive a 100 on the quiz.
My stipulations were that whatever decision they made had to be unanimous. If they could not come to an agreement, we would just use Option 1. Before I opened the floor to discussion, I drew three columns on the board and took a preliminary vote.
Option 1 – 13 in favor
Option 2 – 0 in favor
Option 3 – 3 in favor
(I only had 16 students in class so I pulled the cards that correlated with a test that wasn’t taken.)
The students were then allowed to ask questions and discuss their decision.
Some of the questions they raised to me:
Do I drop the lowest quiz grade? No.
If they selected Option 2, would that single test be curved? No.
Could they pick whose test would count for Option 2? No.
Could they pick who would take the 0 for Option 3? No.
Could someone volunteer to take the 0 for Option 3? No.
The questions they posed to each other included:
Can everyone afford to take a 0 if we do Option 3? No.
Who is confident in their answers? About 6 of them.
An older student said that he wouldn’t feel right taking a grade he hadn’t earned. Another argued that Option 2 was the most fair thing to do because it made things equal for everyone. One student admitted that he hadn’t read anything and volunteered to a 0 because that’s probably what he got anyways.
I took a second vote.
Option 1: 7 in favor
Option 2: 1 in favor
Option 3: 8 in favor
The debate continued. One of the athletes repeated over and over that he knew he’d made a perfect score and didn’t want to risk it. The girl next to him argued that it was only a 1 in 16 chance he’d be chosen. He then asked how much the quiz counted. I told them it wasn’t going to cause anyone to fail. The students asked to take an informal vote before I took the final vote. The vote was now 14 in favor of Option 3, 2 in favor of Option 1. The two hold outs happened to be the oldest students in the class. Their younger peers argued the odds and the great opportunity. One girl offered to bring candy to whoever ended up with the 0.
I took the final vote.
Option 1 – 0
Option 2 – 0
Option 3 – 16
I fanned out the cards and had a student draw one. He held it up for the class to see. Cheers and sighs of relief followed as everyone checked their papers for Red 6. At first we thought that I had missed a dead card. Then a hand went up from the far side of the room.
He was the only student who did not speak the entire debate. The students asked him if he had read the story.
“I actually read them both last night and reviewed them this morning.”
Several people groaned.
“Why did you have us do this?” one of the older students asked me.
Several students pointed out the similarity to the stories. I told them that they had essentially selected a scapegoat–one person to be penalized for the good of the group. When I used that word some of them got defensive.
“You sound like you’re mad at us.”
I explained I wasn’t mad; I was surprised. I never thought they would do it even though it’s human nature. I brought up genocide, witch hunts, and the stories we’d read.
“You’re trying to make us feel bad.”
“You wanted us to pick 2 or 3.”
“You’re bringing up genocide to make us seem like bad people.”
“It’s just a silly quiz.”
“We were all in.”
I agreed that it was admirable that they all were willing to assume the risk for the perceived reward. But then I asked who really thought they would be chosen. No one looked at me as the Reading Skipping Martyr from earlier reminded me that he had volunteered. I asked if he still volunteer if it meant giving up his freedom so that others could be free.
“People I care about.”
I told him it didn’t work that way–you couldn’t chose who to save.
“No, I wouldn’t.”
He then argued that I should have put in a trick card that would have given them all a 100 with no sacrifice. I asked if that was the way the world worked.
No one had an answer.
Final Thought: I really believed they would end up with Option 1 by default because I thought there would be holdouts. It was interesting to watch people change their minds and the reasoning behind it. The final hold out was the older student who didn’t want a grade he didn’t earn. His reason for changing? “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” Many of the students did it just because it was something novel. They all still wanted me to grade their quizzes just so they could see what they would have made.
The irony in all of this is that when I graded the quizzes, there were two perfect scores: The Athlete and The Owner of the Quiz With Unlucky Red 6.