Education Opinion

3rd Grade Innovators Go Broke, Get Rich, and Keep Trying

By Justin Minkel — December 18, 2013 7 min read
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Corporate espionage. Commercials aired at peak viewing times. Calamitous interest rates and obscene profit margins.

These things are more fun than “color the cat” multiplication worksheets, and they can teach more math, writing, reading, and Social Studies skills than the sleekest workbook.

My 3rd graders’ economics simulation taught them the skills that are hardest and most exciting to teach. Ingenuity. Design skills. Collaboration.

Along with these non-cognitive abilities, the kids learned plenty of conventional skills: addition, subtraction, multiplication, percents, and persuasive writing. They learned economic concepts like supply and demand, production costs and profit margins, and the role of advertising. They talked, thought, built, and laughed a lot, too.

Phase 1: Design

When I brought out the jumbo bags from Target, the kids gazed at their contents like ravenous wolves eyeing a flock of fat geese. Rectangles of maroon felt. Googly eyes. Sparkly pom-poms, tasseled pipe cleaners, and glitter foam.

The costs of these materials were listed on a price sheet, but first the kids had to figure out what they wanted to build. The design phase was wide open: anything they could dream up from these materials, then build and sell to their classmates.

Brainstorming began. Impassioned arguments, principled persuasion, and plenty of laughter. In the end, the six “companies” had come up with six designs for products: bird-shaped sticker books, jeweled photo frames, beaded jewelry, paper masks, a toy iPhone and...uh, oh. Another, rival toy iPhone.

Phase 2: Production

If you can dream it, you can build it. It’s not easy, though.

First, the kids had to work with their budget of $800 in our class currency to figure out what materials they would need. They hit plenty of math standards when trying to talk through problems like the following: “OK, we need two googly eyes for each bird sticker book, and we can get five googly eyes for $1. We can make three birds out of a sheet of glitter foam, and the foam is $15 a sheet. So how many birds will we be able to make?”

They multiplied, added, subtracted, and did a little division. For some companies, it got more complicated when they went over budget. The bank, run by my student Josie but owned by me, would gladly give out loans...at 10% interest. Compounded weekly. Ouch.

The building began. Some teams went with more of a craftsman/craftswoman approach, where each student completed, say, an entire iPhone with shiny stickers for the keyboard. Others did an assembly line, with one student folding the construction paper for the iPhone, another drawing in the screen, and a third adding the stickers.

The finished products ranged in cost from $20 per item to about $120. The kids had to figure out a price point that was cheap enough other kids would buy it but high enough to cover their product costs and leave them a profit.

Our moment of corporate espionage came when James sneaked over to eavesdrop on the rival company “Let’s Go iPhones” so his company could undercut their price. Laughter and outrage accompanied his skullduggery. The lawsuit is pending.

Phase 3: Advertising

Technology gave a big edge to the companies that went the digital route. After creating a visual ad in PowerPoint, the ad could be posted on the class website for just $5 a week, while the printed fliers were $2 each.

The printed ads went up in the school bathrooms and cafeteria, which led to a minor crisis when my saintly principal explained to me that my little experiment had resulted in an unexpected consequence: kids in other classes who saw the ads were bringing $25 cash to school in hopes of procuring an actual iPhone. Oops.

Some kids wrote scripts for radio ads, which I would read aloud right after morning announcements for $3 a minute. Two teams filmed commercials with Flip cameras, which I would then plug into our interactive whiteboard and show the class, at $10 for a 30-second spot.

There’s nothing wrong with old-school persuasive writing like opinion pieces on school uniforms or letters to the principal about why nine recess periods a day makes so much more sense than a single recess. But in this case, the kids were pairing digital images with words and making strategic decisions about whether the cost of advertising would pay off in greater sales. The effectiveness of their print, digital, and filmed ads had a direct effect on their profit-hungry ambitions.

Final Phase: Market Day

Each child had $200 to spend, with a personal checkbook stapled together of play checks printed from a template I found online. They also had actual check registers, donated by my local bank, to record their purchases.

Once the teams had arranged their product displays, two kids from each company minded the store while the other two went shopping. Shoppers wrote out checks and pocketed their jewelry, penguin-shaped sticker books, and iPhones. Shopkeepers recorded the day’s take.

Most companies realized quickly that they had set their prices too low. They were barely covering their product costs. When you added in their advertising budgets--and, in two cases, the $220 they owed the bank for a $200 loan--they ended market day in the red.

Let’s Go iPhones had charged $104 for their snazzy phone, way above their competitor’s simpler $25 version, but they still sold out their stock. At the end of the day, they were one of two companies that had made a profit. The other four companies all had a negative balance.

Productive Failure

In his book Engaging Students, Phillip Schlechty explores the idea of “productive failure.” I didn’t fully understand the concept until my students began reflecting on our economics simulation.

The four companies that lost money weren’t gloomy the way kids who just got back a D- on a worksheet might be. The two teams that ended in the black weren’t smug and satisfied the way kids who get an A+ on a test might be. All six companies immediately began reflecting on what they’d done well, what mistakes they made, and how they could do better next time.

That’s what you want out of an assessment. It’s not the end of the learning, but the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.

The kids had the chance to apply their math skills to a project with simulated consequences. If you mess up a multiplication problem on a worksheet, it doesn’t really matter. If you mess up multiplying the number of googly eyes you need to produce 20 bird sticker books, you have a problem--a bunch of blind birds that won’t sell, or else a bunch of googly eyes you paid for but don’t need.

Beyond these applied skills, the kids were able to engage in some of the abilities that matter most for success in higher education, a career, and leading a rich and meaningful life.

Innovation and ingenuity: the ability to sit down with a bunch of random materials and make something useful and visually appealing out of them.

Design skills: to consider color and contrast, symmetry and embellishment, to build a product that appeals to our senses. (There’s a reason why iProducts have led to people feeling more of a connection to their devices than their pets.)

Collaboration: the ability to disagree with teammates yet come to a compromise, to justify your own opinions but listen to other viewpoints, too.

We do kids a disservice when we imply that all human knowledge can be reduced to four options neatly labeled A, B, C, and D. In this project, there were thousands of possible products the kids might choose to design. They made several hundred choices in the course of the one-week simulation, ranging from the decision to take out a loan to whether they went with a filmed commercial or printed flier.

The project was so complex that “failure” could be productive. If a company lost money, it was a fundamentally different kind of failure than blowing a multiple choice question with only four possible answers. The students in that company had engaged their mathematical, visual, and communication skills in a complicated experiment, and they had made some mistakes along the way. What mattered was what they learned from those mistakes.

I don’t know which of these talented eight- and nine-year olds will go on to careers in visual design, economics, business, or advertising. But the abilities they tapped to invent, imagine, write, think, and solve multi-faceted challenges will hold them in good stead whatever they choose to do, whatever the world looks like when they graduate college in 2024.

Not a bad outcome from a $50 trip to Target for glitter felt and googly eyes.

Note: I talked about this project on a recent radio program about the role of “failure” in education; click the following link to hear the program: Teacher’s Aid on BAM Radio Network

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.