How props can cause a poor discussion

This post at Active Learning in Political Science describes a discussion on inequality that followed the unequal distribution of chocolate to students reflecting unequal GDPs among countries:

The students then led a discussion about how the students felt, whether the wealthy students were obligated to give up some of their chocolate, and how they would convince the wealthy students to do so. Violence entered the conversation (jokingly) at one point. Eventually the discussion turned to the real-world implications, and the chocolate was widely shared.

Use of a prop like chocolate has advantageous qualities, such as raising the interest level of students and the uniqueness of the discussion, which likely fosters the potential for learning. But the simulation itself clouded or removed many of the features of inequality necessary for a quality discussion of global inequality and aid:

  1. A discussion of inequality among students in the same room diverts attention from impediments to sharing that real countries face: it is nearly costless to pass chocolate to the person next to you, but there is a substantial cost to packaging and shipping goods across the world.
  2. Presumably none of the students had the negative features of a regime like North Korea that would raise questions about whether direct aid might be more harmful than beneficial.
  3. The method of production of the chocolate in the simulation bears no relationsip to the method of production for GDP, chocolate, or any good in the real world: countries do not “receive” goods or wealth independent of mechanisms related to the country’s natural resources, education or skill level of the population, political choices, history, etc.
  4. The parameters of the simulation ensured that the total amount of chocolate was static, so that the producion of more chocolate was not an option for the students.

The problem with simulations such as this is that the focus is placed on the simulated instead of the real.