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Lessons Learned: Helping Students Experience the Global Marketplace

This blog series features the NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellows, a cohort of educators who participated in a year-long supported learning experience to build global competency skills, culminating in international field study.

By Eileen Sheehy

2014 Global Learning Fellow and educator at Billings West High School in Billings, MT

Photo: Eileen Sheehy (right) with fellow 2014 NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow, Kathleen Sims, in Beijing, China.

Download Eileen Sheehy’s free global lesson plan designed for grades 9-12, “Chinese Marketplace Trade, Exchange, Values: A Simulation” on BetterLesson.com.

Getting to know a command economy

China may be a communist nation, but reading about command economies will mislead students about the nature of the Chinese marketplace. Of all the things I saw, tasted, smelled and experienced in China, the most interesting were my interactions with the marketplace. I found the Chinese marketplace to be competitive, noisy, aggressive and psychologically intricate. I wanted to recreate the feeling of that vibrant element of Chinese life for my students.

Where prices are mere “suggestions”

Our Chinese guide told us on the first day that laws in China were only “suggestions.” That was doubly true of prices in China. Even at places like the Subway at the base of the Great Wall, you could, and probably should, bargain for a better price than the one shown on the posted menu. Trying to figure out what should be paid for goods and services without the American certainty that the posted price is the fair price, and the price that everyone will pay, opened up game that involved skills students might read about in Faulkner’s Snopes stories, but ones we do not practice regularly in school.  

What Chinese capitalism really means

No one is going to understand the Chinese economy, macro or micro, unless they first understand that communism, too, is only a suggestion. The raw forces that drive a bargain are the real meat of the Chinese economy. In my interactions with Chinese merchants, I felt the power of the U.S. economy. At home, I carefully weigh my needs against my dollars when I buy something, and the dollars are usually just numbers on my credit card bill. In China, my transactions were all in cash, and it was evident that the merchants could quickly assess what 100 yuan meant to each American they bargained with. It was also evident that 100 yuan meant something different to the merchants than it meant to me. To really understand economic interconnectedness, it is not enough to know the exchange rate of currencies and the relationship of those exchange rates to the relative strength of different nation’s economies.  

Teaching students to experience market forces

Through the unit I created, Chinese Marketplace Trade, Exchange, Values: A Simulation, I want my students to experience market forces. I want them to experience something approximating Chinese capitalism, but I also want to deepen students’ understanding of the abstractions interwoven into markets. A marketplace is concrete. The determination of what items a seller thinks will sell, the desire of the buyer to buy at a given price, the deal struck between buyer and seller – all of these are concrete understandings a student can experience firsthand. In the interconnected world economy, students need to examine how these concrete transactions ground important theoretical aspects of economics. 

A second, and related goal, is to provide an opportunity to experience the value of the U.S. dollar in relation to the yuan. By giving the students dollars, the value of which they have experience with, and forcing them to buy with yuan, students will learn firsthand the art of moving in your head between currencies, and at the same time, between economies. The capitalism I experienced in the Chinese marketplace was fiercely competitive, almost like gambling, especially where the psychology of the sale was concerned. I want my students to evaluate the value of the dollar versus the value of the Chinese yuan in a practical way, but I also want them to delve into the psychology of sales in a dog-eat-dog marketplace. I want students to research items that typically sell in a Chinese market, deepening their cultural connections; to make decisions about what will sell and how to sell it, increasing their understanding of free market capitalism; and I want them to evaluate the experience of selling and buying in this kind of marketplace. Finally, I want them to reflect on their experience, both the emotional experience of deal-making, and the differences and similarities of Chinese and American market ideologies.

I designed Chinese Marketplace for these reasons. But I really hope it will be fun!

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