A brief history lesson…
In the 19th century, the British were desperate to even their trade imbalance with China. China had silk, spices, porcelain and tea, while the Europeans had only rough wool and silver. Silver was flowing out of Europe and damaging the British pound. This seemed destined to give China a massive economic advantage, until the British began exporting opium into China. As opium addiction ravaged the populace, the silver flow reversed and soon China was desperately trying to ban the drug. Britain wouldn’t allow its lucrative trade to disappear and the Opium Wars ensued. This led to massive indemnities against China, the opening of its ports, the surrender of its lands, and the start of modern Chinese history.
But the real question: How do you make this history meaningful to a ten year-old? Trade imbalance? Currency valuations? Drug addiction? How do you make these concepts resonate with the Pokemon, Harry Potter crew?
My answer: A game. A card game, to be precise, customized to our learning objectives.
I’ve always made games for facts practice and a few for reading. I don’t know why it didn’t dawn on me, having grown up with Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego, to make one for social studies. Until now. InDesign plus Google Images plus Wikipedia, multiplied by a two-sided color copier, all over a paper cutter equals “Trade!” the new game by Mr. AB.
Students trade and draw cards, in a Yahtzee-like pursuit of a full complement of goods. I make the learning explicit; they are trading for the very same resources we’re studying. Porcelain is worth 30 while wool is worth 10. Pictures and descriptions on each card. Round 1, learn the game in an even-handed round, then switch to uneven hands that replicate the experience of the game. Round 2, China has all the luxury goods, Britain and America have only silver, wool, and guns. Draw enough to forestall total stalemate, but not so much to prevent the salutary suffering. How much is China willing to trade? Not much. How does that make you feel? Frustrated, like we’re always going to lose. Check. Round 3, introduce the opium to the Western hands. The rules recapitulate the history. Opium must be exchanged for silver, the "trade" cannot be denied. China sees their advantage disappear instantly. They’re angry as Britain and America laughingly force them to trade away their precious goods. What would you do to get rid of the opium? Anything. War? Sure. Check.
Debriefing afterwards is a walk in the park. The learning is already there, we’re just putting labels on it. The labels stick because the experience, the game, makes the ideas so vivid. It’s not abstract and distant. It didn’t just happen to the Qing Dynasty, it happened to them. They were there. They were China, they were Britain.
It’s uncannily effective. It feels a little wrong. Like teaching by trickery. Teaching should not be this easy, learning should not be this fun.