You know you’re supposed to put your cart into a designated area in the parking lot, but you’d rather not take the effort since you’re in a hurry. And after all, one cart doesn’t make a difference! However, if we all take this mindset, soon the parking lot is impossible to park in, carts are slamming into cars, and businesses are raising prices to pay for all of the broken carts.
Tragedy Of The Commons
This is an example of the situation known as “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
In “The Tragedy Of The Commons,” there is a public resource that is unregulated. To keep this resource useful, people must make some sort of personal sacrifice. However, there’s no immediate reward for making this sacrifice and there’s no immediate punishment for not making the sacrifice.
People simply use the resource without making the sacrifice and once enough people make this choice, the resource becomes useless.
The original example was a common grassy field where people could let their cattle graze. Naturally, you would want to take advantage of this free resource, however, you must also hold back and allow the grass to regrow. The tragedy is that too few people make this sacrifice, resulting in a destroyed public field.
I love this problem because it:
- sets up a moral dilemma.
- is an authentic problem that relates easily to classroom issues.
- introduces classroom expectations of students.
- integrates with the tools of depth and complexity and the content imperatives.
A quick search for “the tragedy of the commons activities” will yield several versions of this.
The most common involve goldfish crackers. Students get into groups of four and pretend that they are fishing from a communal lake. You’d put 10 goldfish in the middle. There is no talking allowed. Although they share the same commons, students are not “working together” – just as in the original tragedy of the commmons situation.
You’d act as the facilitator. Explain that there will be turns for the groups to “go fishing” in their communal lake. I called these turns “seasons.” During each season, students must take one fish from the lake, but may take up to three to sell later for a profit. Pause while the students silently take their fish.
At the end of the round, reveal that the number of fish remaining will double, representing reproduction. You’d run around and give out the appropriate number of fish. Then you repeat the situation for the next season. Everyone must take one fish to survive, but up to three if they’d like.
Do you see the lovely conundrum?
Groups who only took one fish each will now go from 6 fish to 12 fish. Groups left with fewer fish will find themselves in a bind as the seasons pass. Even if they restrain themselves, they’ll be left with barely enough fish to get by. Some groups may have over-fished to the point that their village starves after a few seasons.
What interests me most is the discussion students have after this activity. Plus you can take these ideas and abstract them to deal with other parallel situations.
Questions To Ask
There are great opportunities for higher-order questions here. Add a prompt from depth and complexity to focus students’ thinking:
- How did your group overcome ⚖️ ethical problem* did your group have to overcome?
- Create a system of 🚦 rules to keep the lake from being over-fished.
- Does your system promote rewards or punishment? Which do you think is better?
- Identify a classroom situation that ⏸️ parallels this fishing ⚖️ problem.
And so on! Lots to think about.
Apply To Your Classroom
Our classrooms are full of their own “Tragedies Of The Commons.” Some include:
- using up the tissues
- losing or drying out classroom markers
- wasting sheets of paper
- breaking or losing playground equipment
Invite your student to work together to set up systems to “solve” these tragedies. You’ll be developing leaders, problem solvers, and better citizens.
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