Urban challenges and resilient cities: A teachers’ guide
teaching tips
Challenge 7

Dealing with social exclusion and inequality

Poverty can lead to social exclusion. Being socially excluded means you don’t have access to basic opportunities and resources that other groups take for granted — and that are basic aspects of community life. These include housing, health care, education and various means of civic engagement.

Use the activities below to design a teaching session on social exclusion and inequality. 

10 minutes


Count me in!


Explain to your students that one of Europe’s biggest social challenges has to do with economic inequality and social exclusion. In the EU, some 80 million people are at risk of poverty — meaning they don’t have enough income or other resources for a standard of living considered acceptable in their society. In addition, there are 14 million young people who are not attending school, working or training for employment. These problems have worsened since the financial crisis of 2008 and the long economic recession that has followed. In 2012, unemployment in the EU stood at 12 percent overall and over 20 percent among young people.


Describe how social exclusion can also afflict certain groups within society, including racial and ethnic minorities, people with physical disabilities, elderly and young people, and women. When social exclusion means being locked out of the job market, the problem is compounded, leading to even greater marginalisation.

Statistics show that in Europe, foreign-born residents are far more likely to be unemployed than those born in the country. In addition, jobless rates are even higher among non-EU migrants than among those who have migrated from another EU state. Women migrants are more likely to be unemployed than male migrants.

60 minutes


Heads or tails?


The day before the activity, ask each student to bring five coins to class (euro cents would do). The game takes around an hour, depending on the amount of discussion. It comprises successive, single-elimination rounds of coin tossing, each round lasting two minutes.


Before starting, ask your students how they think the distribution of coins will change during the course of the game. Could someone be more skilled in tossing coins? Point out this is not a skill-based activity. If everyone is equally skilled in playing the game, will this preserve the uniform distribution of coins among players (i.e. with everyone retaining their five coins)? Does it mean no one will get more coins? Is that your prediction? Test the hypotheses by playing the game.


In each round, students find a partner with coins. One of them calls out a bet of one to three coins, predicting the result of each toss (heads or tails). The winner takes the coin(s) from the loser. Once a student has lost all five of their coins, they are out of the game. Eliminated students may observe from the sidelines and try to figure out if there are better strategies than others for winning.

The winners in each match look for another person to play against in the subsequent round. After each two-minute round, someone should make a tally of the number of people with 0, 1–4, 5–9, 10–15, and 16+ coins.


Post the results on the board. Are they surprising?

20 minutes

Let’s talk!

Just my luck


Ask the students to consider the importance of skill in the coin-tossing game. Winners should be asked to explain how they won.


Ask the class to discuss the following questions:

  • What is the role of individual skill, action, effort and intention? (These things have no bearing on whether a person wins or loses.)
  • Does the skewed distribution (i.e. many losers and few winners) resemble any other distribution they are aware of?

Discuss how the game relates to conditions in the real world that give rise to inequality. Consider how modifying the rules might change the outcomes. Use the following questions to guide the discussion:

  • What would happen if some players started the game with a different number of coins? Someone with 10 coins, for example, who bets and loses three, would still have a relatively large pool of resources. However, if someone with three coins bets three and loses, they lose everything and are out of the game. An initial advantage goes a long way towards success, whereas an initial disadvantage leaves students behind rather quickly. When a player is behind in the game it is very difficult to gain coins. In the real world, instead of coins, people start with — or without — inherited wealth (property, money in the bank etc.), social and family connections, education and so on. These confer advantages in the game of life.
  • What would happen if bankrupt players could borrow coins to get back into the game? In the real world, people (and organisations) differ not only in terms of their wealth and income, but also with respect to their access to credit (loans). Some people (or businesses) have easier access than others, thus can cope better with misfortune.
  • What would happen if some players could pool their resources and play as a group? In the real world, we are connected to groups of relatives, friends and acquaintances who have economic and non-economic resources that can help, or maybe hinder us. What do you see as the benefits of cooperative arrangements?
  • What would have happened if a wealth or inheritance tax had been imposed between rounds? Suppose winners had to turn over 20 percent of what they won to those at the bottom of the distribution pile? What would be the result? (The game could go on with more people involved.) Most societies limit inequality by imposing taxes on the accumulation and transmission of wealth, while this game made no such provision. Why do you suppose most societies have such limits? What are the risks of too much inequality? How did those of you who went bankrupt feel? Apathetic? Angry? Ready to stage a revolution? In the real world, if such feelings are left to simmer, the costs of maintaining social control may be very high. How is “too much” defined? Who by? By what processes?
  • How much does the coin toss simulation mimic and differ from the rules of life? What about the role of talent and determination in the real world? Is it irrelevant, as this game suggests?


Turning the tables


The game depends on luck only and is designed this way in order to highlight the importance of rules that are easily overlooked in the complexities of real life. We should not conclude that talent and individual effort make no difference in the real world, only that they are not the only factors. A person’s fortune also depends on rules, social status, and advantages given at birth. The principles of cumulative advantage and cumulative disadvantage constrain an individual’s life chances and help to explain stratification processes and outcomes. This is another reason why many societies limit the amount of inequality that they allow to develop, because there is no telling who will be hit, for example, by the closing of a factory, layoffs, a catastrophic illness, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, and so forth.


Students should also be encouraged to think about the kind of society they want to live in. One where inequalities in terms of wealth and income continue to grow? Or one where all members of society feel that the distribution of wealth and income is reasonably just? One where public policies or the rules of the game intensify the trend towards greater inequality? Or one where public policies limit such trends?


Would your students be willing to work politically to achieve the kind of society in which they want to live? If they are not, those in the top 10 or 20 percent of the distribution pile will carry the day, continuing to change inheritance, income tax and social service policies to benefit themselves and thereby furthering the trend towards inequality in our society.          


Share the case studies with your students and discuss ideas for community-friendly business solutions and municipal projects.

case study

Budapest’s Teleki Square: Participatory planning for the use of public space

PDF | 462 Kb

case study

Goldfinger: Upscaling through mobilisation

PDF | 823 Kb