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The Tribe Has Spoken: Extreme Learning at Work in Giovanini Commons


To watch a video of game theory in action, click here.

Walking down the hallway last spring toward the Giovanini Commons, Finance Professor Barry Keating’s MBA students began hearing the melodic sounds of a rain forest. Turning the corner into their meeting room, they saw nautical netting draped from the ceiling. Tropical foliage and sea shells littered the floor while a miniature waterfall cascaded in the background. The space in the basement of the Mendoza College of Business had been transformed to the set of the TV show, Survivor. The curious students gathered as Professor Keating set the stage for the lesson: an application of game theory used in the show’s “challenges,” or the competitions between contestants featured in each episode.

As Professor Keating explained the rules, the students separated into four teams or “tribes.” Placed between the tribes was a collection of 21 objects—sea shells, in this instance. Taking turns, each team had to decide whether to take one, two or three shells. The team who took the last shell would win.

The competition was repeated three times. During its first match, the eventual winning team managed to figure out the “trick” to this game: reverse induction, or starting with the desired solution and calculating backwards. In this case, that meant leaving the opposing team with the number of shells in a divisor of four. In fact, the team going second actually could win every time if they played correctly. The winning team managed to figure this out early enough to apply this principle in both of its matches. The runner-up team discovered the secret midway through the second match, but it was too late.

While the students were the main players in Keating’s game-theory exercise, there was another participant at work as well, which was the Commons itself. The Giovanini Commons acts as a business lab and provides the opportunity for the same kind of hands-on experimentation with business concepts as found in other disciplines. While students usually take at least one course in high school or college that involves a laboratory exercise—dissecting a frog, mixing chemicals or making the volcano erupt—most business students would be hard-pressed to recall a “lab” associated with their courses. But the use of labs recognizes that learning advances through experimentation. In that regard, business classes are no different.

Two of the major factors in learning are process—lectures, discussions and other activities—and environment. Typically, the environment heavily influences the process. Traditional rooms have the tiered seating, affixed desks and modular symmetry directed toward the front of the room. This environment presupposes that the method of teaching in the room will primarily be lecture and one-way communication.

In contrast, the premise of the Commons is to have the process dictate the environment. For example, in Keating’s exercise, the process involved playing Survivor in order to teach students a lesson in game theory. The environment was then adjusted to accommodate the game, rather than having the environment constrain how the game was played.

Its flexible space allows the Commons to accommodate a wide range of classroom possibilities. Just about everything is on wheels, including desks, chairs, whiteboards and even walls, so that the configuration of the space can be completely transformed in the stride of the activity. There are no tiers, so the usual instructor pulpit is eliminated, which leaves the faculty less restricted.

In the case of the Survivor game, the Common’s role was to make the game visually accessible to the students and cognitively stimulating. The hope is that the students will remember participating in this Survivor simulation to learn game theory, and that the lesson will resonate longer.

The educational experience provided by the Commons “lab” reintroduces the type of learning we experienced during our first five years of life, when we typically took in information at a greater rate than at any other point in time. Our natural tendencies to explore, touch, attempt, observe, listen and experiment were allowed to guide us with minimal barriers. The Commons provides opportunity for classroom exercises that court more of the senses and allows learning through experimentation. The Commons is not a set of classrooms. It is a lab. It is a palette. It is a blank canvas. It is a part of a modern business school.


By: Matthew Fulcher (ND ’95, MNA ’02), Facility Manager, Giovanini Commons

Date: October 24, 2006


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