The study of the economy is never one of the highlights when teaching history. However, there comes a time when the teacher and the class are stuck in a bog of economic terminology and jargon. This is that time. Currently the A-level modules – the Tudors and Germany 1918-1945 – are covering economic and financial issues. It is a topic that has traditionally seen less “buy-in” from both students and myself; it must be something in dealing with numbers, rather than actual people. However, the economic focus in the new A-level History specification has increased: it is provided more space in the Tudors module, and a grasp of the economy is essential for anyone trying to understand Weimar Germany and the rise of the Nazi Party.

There is continual debate about the best way to approach and teach the topic: outline the basic stats/facts, or try something different? This year I tried to start off by attempting the second option; one that links back to one of my own favourite – or at least memorable – experiences of being a pupil back at secondary school. This is the example of the ‘Trading Game’ by Christian Aid. The premise is fairly straightforward: split the class into different groups and get them to cut out the most paper shapes as possible. Simple, right?

The Trading Game: the shapes & values

However, here is where the difficult part comes in: each group is given different resources in their beginner pact. One lucky group gets all of the equipment needed to draw out and cut up the shapes (scissors, rulers, protractor, compass, set-square, etc), whilst other groups are given paper but nothing of use to help them cut it up. The unbalance is essential to the game, to help raise awareness about the disparities between nations and regions when trading with one another. The groups must trade with one another in order to make a profit: the lucky group may have all the materials, but they have a limited supply of paper, whilst the disadvantaged groups have lots of paper but a lack of equipment. The most skilled negotiators could potentially obtain the best deals, whilst careless groups could easily be out-witted.

The actual activity was basically madness: different groups trying out different tactics, and various paper shapes coming to me for inspection and for a price. The game actively encourages the teacher to mix-up the dynamics, and there are several ways to do this:

  • Supply materials to groups: such as scissors to an disadvantaged group
  • Give aid: in the form of money of resources
  • Create a new resource: bring in coloured paper to provide a new resource for a group to tap into.
  • Apply tariffs: to stop certain groups from succeeding.
  • Strife and unrest: bring in workers’ strikes and confiscate equipment, such as scissors, until the issue is resolved.

I found these scenarios very useful, particularly in attempting to tease the groups. However, as the game rules and guidelines state there are close real-world parallels to each of these. There was also the added intrigue of certain students going rogue, with scissors being stolen from a table. Although this wasn’t specified in the rules there are, again, clear parallels to the real world; however, perhaps the piratical groups would become outsiders due to their extreme, illegal actions (as it turned out, this rogue group ended bottom in terms of profits earned during the game).

The crazed voices of the Wall Street stock market

So, what was its overall value in the classroom? This is arguable. Perhaps it was minimal: after all, the groups were competing with one another in an attempt to win, which created a generally chaotic atmosphere. Therefore, it could be questioned as to what actual learning took place. However, perhaps a better estimation will take place in the weeks ahead when ploughing through more material to do with the Tudor economy and the Weimar economy: we will return to key terms, such as ‘tariffs’ and ‘subsidies’, and perhaps the students have had more experience of these things “in action.”

Ultimately, I believe there is value in the game: it provides a lesson in the inequality and injustices of the worldwide economic system we live under. Yes, there are losers and winners, and yes, much of it is unfair. But that is the reality of life in Germany in the 1920s: those who had behaved and did the right thing in saving throughout their lives faced the prospect of having their savings wiped out during the hyperinflation crisis of 1923. These people struggled, whilst others during the same period turned their debt into profit by making quick decisions. So, I will attempt the game again in the future – perhaps with a clearer idea as to what I’m doing – in the hope that it will provide a basic underpinning and eye-opener for students when tackling the economy in the study of history.