The Prisoner Educator’s Dilemma
a true story by Dr. Franklin Rubenstein
The state of Maryland had a policy of securing jobs in the private sector for all of the juveniles that passed through their juvenile justice system. This was not an easy task, because the vast majority of the youths were only able to keep their jobs for just a few days. Once they lost their jobs, the juveniles were much more likely to go back to drug dealing or other ways of making money. The Superintendent asked a consultant to develop a curriculum to deal with this problem. The consultant found that the youths did not understand the basics of the informal contract that any job entails. They did not see anything wrong with coming in late, cursing the boss if he or she complained about their work, loafing whenever the opportunity arose, threatening other employees, etc. In addition, they had no realistic concept of the role of a supervisor (separate from giving them a hard time).
After many dead ends, the consultant set up an exercise where the youths were divided into groups which would function as companies. The companies were given a production task, creating the tallest building possible out of a length of aluminum foil. Motivation was established by announcing a prize for the tallest building. The companies would compete for the prize. Some youths were assigned the roles of company presidents (bosses) and the remainder of the youths were the workers.
Unknown to the presidents, certain youths were coached ahead of time to be lazy and uncooperative – to exhibit the same behaviors that would cause many of the youths to be fired from their real jobs. After about fifteen minutes the exercise had to be stopped because the presidents were so frustrated and angry that they were threatening to beat up the poorly performing workers. After tempers had cooled, the experience was discussed by all involved. It was apparent that reversing the role of some of the youths (that is, making them the boss) gave them insight into the legitimate role of the boss. They felt the frustration that real bosses feel when workers don’t perform, and they stated that if it were a real company, they would have fired all the poorly performing workers.
Since the exercise could lead to violence and required a great deal of supervision, the consultant turned the concept into a board game. Players were in the role of managers of a store similar to Target or Wal-Mart. Each player had several employees (fictitious instead of real people), some of whom are good employees, and some of whom are bad employees who come in late, stay out the first day of the big sale when they are needed most, are rude to customers, etc. These are the same behaviors that the youths were likely to display when they started their real jobs. The only way to win the game was to fire the bad employees, which the players did with enthusiasm. The board game was a huge success; the youths began to understand that any normal person in the boss’s job would fire bad employees. They developed respect for the boss and learned what they had to do to keep their jobs.
When faced with the need to teach a skill which is very difficult to teach using traditional methods, a board game can sometimes do wonders. Here the key was reversing the roles of the youths from real life. . . making them the bosses instead of the subordinate roles in which they would start their careers. If you don’t have an existing game that suits your needs, with a little guided role-playing, you can help your students understand what's happening on the other side of the desk. Games are the perfect solution because they can safely give students rewards that emulate what happens in the real world. The concept of role reversal can work for school (kids play the teacher and deal with disruptive students) or home (kids play the parent and deal with misbehaving children).
Dr. Franklin D. Rubenstein is the founder and president of Franklin Learning Systems, and is the designer of You’re the Boss®, the game referenced in the article. He received an A.B. from Cornell University, and M.B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford University. He has experience as a line executive in industry, as a consultant to major corporations, and in teaching management and organizational behavior at New York University. Franklin Learning Systems publishes a range of educational and therapeutic games covering issues from friendship to impulse control to grief to teamwork and leadership, for kids and adults alike. Contact them at www.franklinlearning.com.