Sinking Ship Simulation: Who do we VALUE?

"Well in the real world not everyone can get everything and this kind of showed me that not all our decision making processes are fair."

Notes on our whiteboard from the students' brainstorming and decision making process.

Notes on our whiteboard from the students' brainstorming and decision making process.

How it Works:

Yesterday in Social Studies, we did our Sinking Ship simulation (idea credit: we first read about this here). We had the students in half groups (when half the class is with us and half the class is with a different teacher) so we only had 13 students at a time. For each group, we started by handing out “assignments” on folded slips of paper.

The different roles were:

migrant worker


someone who is currently unemployed







college student

taxi driver




We then asked our students to get in a circle and told them that they were on a sinking ship, and there were only FIVE spots in the lifeboat. They had to work together to decide as a group which five people should go in the lifeboat.

Students immediately started making arguments for why they should be on the lifeboat. The senator claimed that he should get on the boat because he is important. Another student countered, “Not on the lifeboat!” One of our favorite funny moments occurred when someone agreed with the “senator” that he should be on the boat and another student said quietly to himself, “It depends if he is a Democrat or a Republican.”

Why We Love this Simulation:

We love this simulation for so many reasons--

  • It is fascinating to watch the students work it out amongst themselves!

  • It’s also interesting to hear the arguments the students come up, and note which students give up immediately when they read their assignment and decide that their job isn’t “good” enough.

  • It is also very telling (and part of our debrief) to note when students laugh. Some laugh out loud when they read their role to their classmates and others start play acting their preconceived idea of that role. For example, the student who received “you are currently unemployed” said, “I just graduated from college. I don’t have a job and I live in my mother’s basement!” in a goofy voice as if he was acting out a role, and put labels on himself.

The Two Group's Decisions:

In the first group, the students worked collaboratively and ensured that everyone’s voice was heard (with some raised voices, but general agreement), while in the second group, one student took charge and made decisions for the group that were later challenged as “unfair.” The two groups also came to different conclusions about who should get a spot on the lifeboat. Their final choices for which "characters" should be on the lifeboat were:

Group One:

  1. Doctor

  2. Child

  3. Nurse

  4. Scientist

  5. College student

Group Two:

  1. Child

  2. Person who is currently unemployed

  3. Doctor

  4. Senator

  5. College student

Student Reflections:

"I thought it was unfair because it was based on stereotypes and generalization."

"One thing that did not go well was there was a lot of stereotypes of "taxi driver" and the "currently unemployed". This is bad because just because someone does not have a job does not mean they are not smart. Also people were saying things like how can a taxi driver help. This made us choose people whose jobs make more money, not on their basic humanity!"

"I can connect this to the real world with people who say people who have bad paying jobs aren’t smart. In this I felt stereotyped and I can connect that with the real world because people were using the same stereotypes."

Who would you choose to go on the lifeboat? Do you have other ideas for collaborative problem solving simulations? How else can we push our students to think critically about who is valued in our society and how different people or roles are valued?  We’d love to hear your ideas!


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