Education Opinion

Three Models for a Changing World: Micro-Society: Restructuring Schools To Restructure Society

By George H. Richmond — November 28, 1990 10 min read

I was only a spectator this fall when the Public Television Service aired its two-hour documentary, “Learning in America: Schools That Work.” But I had, while watching it, that special sense of pleasure any author feels when he learns his work has made a difference. The Micro-Society School of Lowell, Mass., was one of four schools profiled on the show. Roger Mudd, the host, called it “the only school of its kind in the world.”

I had conceived the organizing idea behind this innovative school more than two decades ago, while teaching 5th grade in Brooklyn, N.Y. Watching my students’ learning habits and social interactions then-with status determined as much by muscle, looks, or clothing as by brains or abilities--I had wondered whether injecting into classes a truer sense of what the world would be like after school might not change both the way students thought about learning and how they viewed one another.

I found that it did. And my book on what I learned through the experiment caught the eye in 1981 of officials in Lowell, who were then seeking to frame a successful desegregation plan around the magnet-school concept.

As the P.B.S. documentary showed, Lowell’s use of the micro-society approach has transformed one city school into an exciting and vital place to be, one where teachers and students love to come to work and the normal drudgery of schooling magically evaporates.

Though Lowell’s magnet may at present be the only functioning school of its kind in the world, interest in the micro-society concept has begun to catch on elsewhere. Educators and business interests in Baltimore, Yonkers, N.Y., and as far afield as Budapest, Hungary, seem intrigued with the model and its potential applications.

The reason, I think, is that micro-society offers a means of restructuring schools that can also help restructure society. Learning is made relevant, interactive, and empowering.

In Budapest, for example, educators have expressed an interest in micro-society as a possible way of preparing students for roles in market-driven economies, and for entry into jobs in the country’s nascent but growing private sector. They also are seeking ways to help influence the evolution of democratic institutions and practices. And in this respect, micro-society offers them a model of concreteness.

Put simply, a micro-society school is one in which students build a society in miniature. This entails adding markets, property, small businesses, government agencies, and cultural organizations to the pot we call school. Children create and run these enterprises and, in so doing, learn to use money and other financial instruments to buy, sell, save, and invest. They also establish legal institutions and a body of laws, sometimes by conducting a “constitutional convention,” sometimes by maintaining ongoing civic institutions, like courts and a legislature, where classroom rule-making occurs. In a micro-society setting, work, being productive, generating savings, investing capital, making and marketing goods and services, forming corporations and partnerships, and deal-making are part of the core of a student’s school experience, starting as early as the 1st grade.

Such a program can be fashioned in many ways to accomplish a variety of objectives. At minimum, it can be adapted to the needs of an existing school that wishes merely to enhance its curriculum by increasing the number of opportunities students have to apply what they have been taught in academic courses; it adds a “living core” to a curriculum students may find dry, remote to their experience, abstract, and forgettable. At maximum, it can serve, as in Lowell, as the concept around which an entire school or a small community can be organized.

In a micro-society school, students publish newspapers, magazines, and books. They produce materials for sale to younger or less advanced students. They apply math skills and concepts in their own classroom business enterprises, which may range from banks, architectural firms, and real-estate-development agencies to retail shops, stock exchanges, art galleries, and theaters. Social studies come alive as students invent and conduct affairs in their own legislative, executive, and judicial institutions. Computer technology becomes real to a student who must generate business records and financial data for management or tax purposes, or who operates a word- and data-processing company. Science also gains more meaning for students engineering products, developing environmental-protection enterprises, caring for animals and plants, or publishing their findings in a (class-run) science journal.

Students, particularly adolescents, need a place where they can influence, shape, and develop their environment. And a micro-society gives them opportunities to try out the roles adults play in the larger society. The classroom’s society in miniature is also a place where they can forge a positive self-image, in a context that approximates the internal and external pressures adults face in the real world. Micro-society can serve these students as a laboratory for personal and social development, as well as a center for economic and political advancement.

I knew, back in 1967, that I was on to something revolutionary when my introduction of micro-society concepts in my 5th-grade classroom transformed one shy, frail student into the class banker. His talent had given him power--and, eventually, status among his peers. Later, when this same boy asked to employ the class tough-guy as his debt collector, I knew that a commercial as well as social revolution had begun.

How does a micro-society come to be? There are a number of ways. I prefer to start by engaging students in designing, printing, and establishing a school currency. As part of this core activity, they study the concept of money, its economic functions, and begin to think critically about the psychological uses and abuses money can inspire. I then create a simple market for goods, usually a store, flea market, or weekly auction where students sell things they make or bring to school from home. They use their earnings to buy goods from other sellers. A store is critical to generating confidence in the school’s currency and is an important source of raw materials and equipment for the businesses students develop.

Each class defines jobs in the school, or in its miniature society, that need doing. Duties are enumerated. Wages are set. Openings are posted on a bulletin board. Interviews are held and students are hired from among those who apply. The income these workers earn can be used to buy materials or goods sold in the store or to buy products made by peers. Initially, teachers make all hiring decisions. Eventually, students develop independent centers of authority and make many of those decisions.

Early in the evolution of the program, I engage students in discussions about work. I believe it’s important for them to value work and to understand what it is and is not, how it gets done, what factors determine the price assigned to labor, how people qualify and compete for jobs, and what non-monetary factors can contribute to the desirability of one job in comparison to others.

Once a monetary system is functioning, I introduce Micro-Economy, a real-estate simulation. Micro-Economy introduces a land economy into a school. Physically, shelf space around the classroom perimeter or in common hallways becomes real estate. Real estate can be created in basements, on tables, in vacant rooms, or on a computer. As Micro-Economy unfolds, properties are sold to students or to student-run corporations. The owners build model structures on their land holdings. The kind, scale, quality, and technical content of these models vary with students’ age and academic preparation and the resources available. As in the familiar board game Monopoly, increases in property value entitle owners to charge higher rent to individuals or “corporations” that “occupy” the property.

As Micro-Economy progresses, students absorb the basic principles and concepts underlying land development. They operate financial institutions, make land improvements, devise contracts, develop laws governing the sale and disposition of real estate, and explore related bodies of experience and knowledge. They also organize businesses related to land development and improvement--and in so doing create employment for their peers.

When dispute arise, students use institutions to resolve differences peacefully and equitably. Among these are courts. For courts to function, there must be law and disorder. Students are encouraged to impose order, and generally do so by creating a legal system.

I favor approaching this task by enlisting students in discussions of what the world would be like without rules. I ask them to imagine a game, a family, or a school without rules. Following this discussion, I ask students to articulate the rules governing a major sport, or those that are operative in their families. When I am convinced they appreciate the role rules play in any social grouping, we begin defining rules for their micro-society.

Some of my colleagues prefer a gradual or “common law” path to law-making. This takes time. If time is short, the development of a legal system can be accelerated by holding a constitutional convention to create legislative, law-enforcement, and other legal bodies.

In a constitutional convention students define how government will function and what powers each branch will have in relation to the others. Included among these are taxing and spending powers. Initially, these institutions take a primitive form. But as events unfold in the curriculum’s “living core,” they evolve and mature. The degree of sophistication they reach depends on the cognitive and emotional abilities of the students, on adult influence, and on the issues and concerns that arise. It also depends on the resourcefulness and contributions students, parents, faculty members, and other adults in the community bring to the school.

In Lowell, where the school day is divided into “academy programs” (or basic curricular offerings) and “micro” activities, the academic classes ready students for placement exams in four curriculum strands: publishing, economy, citizenship and government, and science and technology. Each strand has examinations students must pass. At stake are certain jobs in the micro-society. For instance, to hold a position as a judge, lawyer, or legislator, students must pass an oral and written bar examination. To start a business, they must take a course and pass the business-development, accounting, and economics exam. To be a tax collector, they must score 90 percent on a test of tax law and arithmetic, and demonstrate basic computer literacy.

Each teacher in the Lowell school specializes in one of these curriculum strands. All of the teachers work in inter-disciplinary units and cooperative curriculum groups. During preparation periods and bi-monthly workshops, they communicate with colleagues in other clusters and with people outside the school--legislators, business leaders, media consultants, and others who may help improve the content and effectiveness of the program.

Though exciting and challenging, the teacher’s work in this type of program is not easy. At home on weekends and after school, Lowell teachers write and develop the lessons that connect the “living core” to the prescribed curriculum. But they are aided, too, in their efforts by the enthusiastic participation of parents and townspeople. Because of the excellent results the Lowell program has shown in terms of test scores and other barometers of success, there has been a high level of involvement by local business and civic leaders.

A micro-society program can be extremely useful, I believe, in addressing a number of themes or purposes important to the larger society. The Lowell school was organized to bring about voluntary integration of the school system. In Yonkers, the micro-society program being planned will be geared to promoting citizenship for a new immigrant population. In Eastern Europe, the hoped-for contribution involves the building of a private sector and democratic institutions. And in Baltimore, the central impetus is the desire by employers to educate a competent future work force, together with the minority community’s desire to speed economic development among the poor and create from the city’s underclass a new and vibrant professional class.

In each case, the content of the model will be determined by the ingredients local players bring to the venture.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Three Models for a Changing World: Micro-Society: Restructuring Schools To Restructure Society