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Heads. Or Tails?

This is a simulation I’ve slightly adapted from Renzulli, Aldrich and Reynolds’ “It’s Up In The Air – Or Is It?”, where they use the game of “Heads or Tails?” to show “How social structures can constrain individual actions”.

They apply these ideas to an understanding of social inequality, while here I mainly want to concentrate on how the game can be used:

  • To help students understand the concepts of social structure (in particular) and social action.
  • As the building block for various applications across the Sociology Specification, both explicitly, in areas like social stratification and differentiation and implicitly, in relation to stuff  like family, education and crime.
  • Set Up

    To run the simulation, you will need:

  • Around a minimum of 10 – 12 students (include yourself if necessary), although the more students you have in the class the better because it will make it easier to see how patterns of economic inequality develop. If you only have a small number of students it’s probably worth a test run to see if it works for you. If you’re really “lacking the numbers” you could try to rope in any non-sociology students who happen to be around.
  • 5 coins for every student (such as 1p or 2p coins in the UK).
  • If you think your students are likely to cheat by introducing their own coins into the sim you can use something like plastic tokens instead. In this case you will only need one coin per student.

  • Display Board (such as a whiteboard) to show many coins each student has at the end of each round. Ideally this should be large enough for everyone to easily see how many coins each student holds.
  • Timer (optional) such as a kitchen timer that can be set to 1-minute intervals.
  • Playing the Game

    Draw a table on the display board that includes the student names and the number of rounds. I’ve indicated each student started with 5 coins but you may want to vary this once you’ve run the sim a few times.

    At the end of each round write in the appropriate box the number of coins each student holds:

    Each round should normally last 2 minutes although you can lower or increase this, depending on how play proceeds. The idea is to show students how economic inequality develops quite rapidly over time so it’s helpful to keep the rounds quite short.

    You will need to decide the exact number of rounds based on things like:

  • how long you want the sim to run (e.g. 5 x 2-minute rounds)
  • how many students are playing the game. A large number may require more rounds.
  • how many coins you allow students to stake on each coin flip. Allowing students to stake up to 3 coins on each flip, for example, speeds things up considerably because you will find some students rapidly accumulate “wealth” and others are rapidly “bankrupted”.
  • Start the timer and allow students to begin the game by issuing challenges to other students.

    Any student can challenge any other student to a game.

    Only players who still have coins can continue to play. No credit is allowed in this version (although it’s something you might want to incorporate sometimes, depending on how you’re using the game in your lesson).

    The challenged student flips a coin and the challenger calls “Head” or “Tails” while the coin is in the air. The challenged student must catch the coin and display it palm up (or in any other acceptable way). Flipped coins that are not caught cleanly (e.g. they fall on the floor) are invalid and must be flipped again. In this instance the challenger may change their call.

  • If the call is correct, the challenger wins that coin.
  • If the call is incorrect the challenger must give the student challenged a coin.
  • Consecutive challenges on the same student are allowed. However, the challenged student can decline 2nd or subsequent challenges.
  • A student who has been challenged and won / lost the coin flip may then challenge the challenger.
  • Variation If you are playing the “betting variation”, the challenger is allowed to stake up to 3 coins on the coin flip:

    If the call is correct, the challenged must give the challenger the number of coins staked.

    If the call is incorrect the challenger must give the challenged the number of coins staked.

    After each round ends, display each student’s coin haul in the appropriate box. This helps students see who is “winning” and who is “losing”. More importantly, after a few rounds it should become clear that some students are collecting a large number of the available coins while others have very few coins.

    After each round ends, display each student’s coin haul in the appropriate box. This helps students see who is “winning” and who is “losing”. More importantly, after a few rounds it should become clear that some students are collecting a large number of the available coins while others have very few coins.

    If a student loses all their coins they are declared “bankrupt” (place a “B” or “0” in their box) and must sit-out the rest of the game until it ends.

    You can end or extend the game for as many rounds as you like – if you get the feeling that 1 or 2 students are holding large numbers of coins you can simply end the game at the end of the current round.

    Learning Lessons?

    As I suggested at the start of this post, the simulation is just a simple game mechanic that can be used to sensitise students to ideas about structure and action in sociology and how these ideas may help move towards a deeper and more-nuanced understanding of areas like social inequality and differentiation. How you actually incorporate the information and experience embedded in the sim into your teaching is, of course, entirely up to you, but there are a couple of ideas I think are important and potentially useful:

    1. Structure and Action

    One application is as an introduction to concepts of structure and action, particularly if your students find these ideas complex and challenging.

  • A simple way to get students to understand the concept of social structure, for example, is to visualise it as “a set of rules that govern our permitted ways of acting”. In the context of the game, there was a very clear, prescriptive and limited set of rules that structured how participants were allowed to act.
  • In terms of social actions, we can see these, very loosely but sufficiently, as the “purposeful choices” the students could make within the game: who to challenge, whether to call “Heads” or “Tails” and so forth.
  • If you want to take things a little further the game allows you to explore the relationship between social structures and social actions. You can note, for example, how the structure of the game limited the students’ choice of actions. They could “purposefully act” but only in ways allowed by the rules. The structure of the game, in this respect, placed clear limits on their actions. You could then apply these ideas to various areas of the course (from family, through educational to legal structures) to explore how our behavioural choices are constrained – and even perhaps determined – by structural factors.

    A second area to explore, therefore, focuses on the outcome of the game. If the students “played by the rules” the result was an inevitable increase in economic inequality: the outcome, in other words, was determined by the structure of the game (a competitive one in which there had to be “winners” and “losers”). This suggests ways in which social structures determine the outcome of social actions that could again be applied across the Specification (does, for example, the structure of our education system determine its outcomes in terms of things like differential achievement?). While the actions of the players were clearly important and relevant to our understanding of the game’s outcome – if they refused to either “play the game” or “play by the rules”, for example, the outcome would have been very different – one “unintended outcome” of their participation was to create widespread economic inequality.

    A third dimension here, therefore, is to think about how social actions impact on social structures, something that introduces a reflexive element into the equation. The fact that, by our actions we create the social structures that, in turn, limit our behavioural choices. In this respect you could get your students to think about how the game could be made “fairer” by changing the rules (should, for example, the “richer students” be taxed at the end of each round and the coins taken from them redistributed to the “poorer students”?) or, more-radically, reimagining the game to produce a more-equal outcome that provided benefits for everyone.

    2. Social Inequality

    A second general application is to apply the lessons of the sim to an understanding of different types of inequality (cultural as well as economic, for example). It could, for example, have applications across the Sociology Specification, both explicitly, in areas like social stratification and differentiation and implicitly, in relation to areas like education and crime.

    In relation to forms of inequality, for example, the sim could be a starting-point for thinking about the causes of economic inequality. You could use a short “pre-questioning” session before playing the sim to get your students to generate explanations for economic inequality – why, for example, are “the rich, rich and the poor, poor?”. If your students haven’t done much prior work on economic inequality this is likely to produce a set of “common sense” explanations (usually some combination of individual talent / hard work to explain why people are wealthy and laziness / individual failings to explain why they’re not) that you can reference and explore after playing the sim.

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