Good Trade: An African Civilization Lesson Using S'mores
I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, because if you’re teaching Lesson 8: Good Trade to a group of students, it’s an activity that brings things to life. As with the rest of the curriculum, it’s good for kids and adults. And it’s based on a fancy economics term called “comparative advantage.” (Look it up if you like, but don’t feel obligated.)
First, some context:
I created The Black Experience in America: The Course in the summer of 2020. It started as a way to explain race in society to our two sons, but over time the project took on a greater purpose. I learned a lot in creating it, and found that the structure and topics are just as valuable for adults as they are for kids.
Part of what I wanted to do with The Course is move the exploration of the Black experience beyond slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, which in my opinion are overemphasized in a lot of educational settings. Too often Black history is taught as though Africa were a blank slate before the transatlantic slave trade, nothing much happened between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and little happened after.
Of course, that’s nonsense. That’s why in Cycle 2 of The Course (Titled “How We Got Here), I spend three lessons (Forgetting, Good Trade, Bad Trade) on what was happening in South, East and West Africa before the slave trade. And, so that students have an economic context for the slave trade, I first teach about trade in general; what it’s good for, and how it’s supposed to work.
That brings us back to the pivotal lesson in this part of Cycle 2: Good Trade. It gets into how the East African Swahili Coast connected Asia to Africa for the exchange of goods and ideas. But before that, I explain the potential value of trade through a game I made up, called The S’mores Game.
The goal of The S’mores Game is to show how societies with different resources and skills can benefit from trading openly and fairly with each other. Here’s how it works:
The Rules of The S’mores Game
To play, you ideally need at least three participants and an instructor (Broker). If there are more than three participants, divide them into three teams. It’s great if there can be equal numbers of people on each team, but it’s not necessary.
The three teams represent three tribes: The Marshmalians, the Grammarlys, and the Chocolateers.
The goal in the game is for each tribe to produce as many s’mores as possible. (Important note: The goal of each tribe is not to produce more s’mores than other tribes; it’s for that tribe to produce as many s’more as possible.)
Each tribe has a specialty. the Marshmalians are very good at producing marshmallows. The Grammarlys are very good at producing graham crackers. And the Chocolateers are very good at producing chocolate. It takes one marshmallow, one graham cracker (broken in half) and one chocolate to make a s’more.
The game takes place over three rounds. Each round consists of the tribes:
(1) deciding what to produce that round. Each round, a tribe can produce 12 units of their specialty or 4 units of something else. For example, the Marshmalians can produce 12 marshmallows, or 4 graham crackers or 4 chocolates.
(2) producing their units, and announcing to the game instructor what they’ve made.
(3) trading with each other or with the Broker (game instructor). When trading the Broker takes two of one resource and gives a tribe one of the resource of the tribe’s choice in return.
After three rounds, each tribe gathers its resources and makes as many s’mores as possible. How many did each team make?
Winning The S’mores Game
So. How do you “win” the game? The lesson here is that the only way to win is if each tribe trades openly and fairly, and specializes in its strength. An example of the best-case scenario: In round one, each tribe produces 12 of its specialty item and trades 6 each to the other two tribes. In round two, they do the same. Each tribe will then have 12 units of the other tribes’ specialties. Then in round three, they produce their specialty item and keep it all. In this scenario, each tribe is able to make 12 s’mores.
The Lesson of The S’mores Game
When I led students through it, they didn’t come close to getting 12 s’mores. Each team was able to make 6. They were a little too focused on getting by without relying on anyone else, and they weren’t communicating with each other to try to find the best outcomes for everyone. In other words, they didn’t respect each other’s economies and resources, establish trust, or forge a trade agreement.
Of course, The S’mores Game presents an oversimplified trade scenario. But there are truths embedded in it. And those truths help illuminate what was so bad about the transatlantic slave trade — not only in terms of morality, but also in terms of economic interaction, respect and trust between societies. You can’t have good trade when you’re trading something that can’t be replaced — human life — for things like guns and rum that are entirely consumable.
Download the full curriculum for free! Go to forttmedia.com.
The Course Online: An Update
Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on the third lesson in The Course that I’m bringing online: Lesson 16, Multiculturalism. So far dozens adults have signed up for one or both of the lessons at classes.forttmedia.com in the first few weeks, and I’m happy to say the feedback has been strongly positive. My goal is to have that next lesson available shortly, with a lot more to come. In the meantime, as we look ahead to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in exactly two weeks, consider purchasing the Civil Rights lesson now to add to the weekend observances, and maybe giving the lesson as a gift to others:
And, as I mentioned above, I’ve made it easy for you to purchase a lesson as a gift:
New: Buy a $5 lesson in The Course for someone else! Fully-paid access to an interactive lesson will go to the email address of your choice. This is a great option for introducing kids to the lessons.