What I learned in 3rd grade

Have you ever wondered how your subject is taught to students at a lower grade level?

When we think about these unseen colleagues in our elementary and middle schools, we usually don’t get past our aggravation with them.

Middle school English teachers wonder: Why didn’t anyone teach these kids how to use punctuation? High school civics teachers ask each other: Have these students ever learned anything about the Bill of Rights? I’m sure college professors wonder why high school graduates can’t do research beyond Google.

If we can set aside the blame game — and realize that our students won’t necessarily remember everything we taught them either — we can learn a lot from elementary and middle school teachers.

I’ve been fortunate over the past year to collaborate with Kellie Friend, an outstanding 3rd grade teacher in my district who is a state leader in implementing the elementary econ standards.

You might be wondering: What could 3rd graders possibly learn about economics? The answer is: Quite a lot.

In preparation for our joint presentation at the Council for Economic Education Annual Conference this week, Kellie invited me into her classroom last week to co-teach a lesson. The topic was scarcity, which is a fundamental economic principle. Human wants are unlimited but productive resources are scarce – or limited – so we are never able to satisfy everyone’s wants. As a result, we must make difficult choices about how to use resources to best fulfill our wants.

This is a challenging concept for high school students, who are used to thinking that only fossil fuels and endangered species are scarce, so I knew it would be even more difficult for an 8 year old to understand.

Kellie’s lesson involved placing each student in a group with an envelope of resources and a list of wants. The children had to use the resources — construction paper and paper clips — to make food (paper links), clothing (for paper dolls), education (tiny books) and paper houses. The catch was that some groups had additional resources, including more paper, scissors, a marker and a glue stick, while others had barely any paper and just one paperclip.

The children with very limited resources quickly became frustrated, and Kellie had to skillfully calm a few children who thought it was terribly unfair. The children with greater resources worked diligently at their tasks, but they also grew frustrated that they didn’t have more, especially since sharing the scissors meant it took a long time to make anything.

It was fun for me to watch the 3rd graders gradually internalize the point of the lesson. In the debriefing, we asked the children with the fewest resources what would have been enough.

One boy answered, “If we just had one pair of scissors and one marker.”

Then we asked the children whose envelopes had contained scissors and markers how much would have been enough. “One pair of scissors, one glue stick and one marker for everyone in my group,” one of them told me.

Slowly, the 8 year olds seemed to grasp that when you get more, you want even more, which is why it is impossible to satisfy people’s wants, even in a land of plenty.

There were so many lessons embedded in that one activity. The children had to work collaboratively, and they had to read the instructions and figure out what to do for themselves. They had to manage frustration and do some creative problem-solving, like figuring out how to make a chain of paper links with only one paperclip (and no glue, staples or tape). They learned economics too, and Kellie’s students will be better equipped to understand challenging issues about resource use as they grow up.

I learned as much as they did. I realized how much teachers can learn from each other, if we take the time to get outside of our own classrooms, departments and even schools.

Kellie has great strategies for helping kids understand economics. She also has great strategies for keeping children focused, for engaging everyone in a class discussion, and for helping students who are feeling frustrated or sad. She knew at all times what each child was doing, and she seemed to almost magically know what they needed.

Her lesson gave me ideas for improving the way I structure activities and helping students transition between parts of a lesson, and she helped me think about how high school teachers can simplify concepts for our struggling students.

Kellie says I have helped her as well by showing her how these concepts will develop — what these students will be expected to know about scarcity and decision making when they take econ in high school — and by helping her expand her own knowledge of economics.

It’s been a great cross-training exercise for both of us, and it’s made us both better at what we do. I wish all of my colleagues could have the same opportunity.