When students explore units of study based on the colonial era, we want them to understand significant concepts rather than simply gather random facts. Concepts help to hold facts and knowledge together. A significant concept for young historians to explore involves examining how economic institutions, such as our customs and practices, have changed over time. Economic interaction among people is based on understanding how people of any time or place try to answer one central question: How will individuals/communities interact to acquire and exchange goods and services? How do we get what we want and need? Notice how the following section shows how economic systems developed over time. For the sake of showing the development, I'll indicate that each step in economic development is a PHASE.
What are the phases of economic development?
Phase 1: Subsistence Living/Barter & Trade
In our nation's past, individuals were independent in making goods and growing crops that they wanted or needed. Eventually, it made sense for individuals within a community to interact by bartering and trading with each other. The trade typically involved goods so that participants in the interaction could acquire what they wanted or needed. In the early colonial era, sometimes Europeans traded with Native Americans and sometimes they traded with each other. If an individual or family was living in an isolated location, they may have embraced subsistence living, which means an indevidual or family supported themselves.
Phase 2: Specialization and Community Interdependence: The Development of Trades
As communities developed, individuals recognized that it’s inefficient to be individually responsible for all goods and services. This led to interdependence, specialization of trades, specialization in the development of goods, and specialization in the growth of agriculture. Citizens created interdependent economic communities as they brought goods and services to the economic marketplace. NOTE: Within European colonies, specialization related to agriculture created demand for a labor force, which is one main reason that indentured servants and slaves can be viewed as "economic variables" within economic development. For further information…
Phase 3: Regional Development and Intercolonial Trade
Regionally, different goods and services were developed due to physical geography, local resources, and regional skill sets. Teachers often study the different regions with students. One way of examining colonial regions involves analyzing how they developed uniquely to participate in a larger North American marketplace. The nature of interdependence across the colonies developed as individuals/communities traded within the larger North American marketplace. NOTE: Slavery appeared early-on in the colonial era. While students see slavery as a the mistreatment of people, students should understand the economic reasons for slavery. Slavery, while viewed today as a shameful practice, developed in conjunction with the growth of regional economies (especially in the Southern colonies). Slavery resources can be used in a way to highlight its economic perspective and its human (or inhumane) perspective.
Phase 4: Mercantilism and the Triangle Trade
Mercantilism stipulates that in order to build economic strength, a nation must export more than it imports. To achieve this favorable balance of trade, the English passed regulatory laws exclusively benefitting the British economy. These laws created a trade system whereby colonists provided raw goods to Britain. Britain then used the raw goods to produce manufactured goods that were sold in European markets and back to the colonies. As suppliers of raw goods only, the colonies could not compete with Britain in manufacturing. English ships and merchants were always favored, excluding other countries from sharing in the British Empire’s wealth. To transport finished goods back to the colonies, ships made various stops which was known as the Triangle Trade. For further information…
Today: Free Trade
As a final evolution of economic interaction, the North American colonies began to desire greater economic freedom and the opportunity to trade freely throughout the world. They wanted out of the mercantilist system. (In the future, free trade for the newly established nation, the United States of America, is one result of the American Revolution.) Students will explore free trade and the market economy during their study of the American Revolution.
What does this look like with 5th graders?
As teachers, we are going to pull as many primary sources as possible. Primary sources are at the heart of history instruction. Here are some ways to use primary and secondary sources (including simulations) to help students understand economic change over time.
Questions to guide inquiry:
- How has economic interaction changed over time?
- How did people interact with each other to get what they wanted or needed? How and why did that develop and change over time?
- Phase 1: Subsistence Living/Barter & Trade - Students use this lesson from National Geographic on Trade in the 1600's to understand early barter and trade. This might be paired with a video on economics in Jamestown. Students might also play a version of this bartering game. Teachers facilitate a conversation that helps students see how people in this era of economic development depended on each other to get what they wanted and needed.
- Phase 2: Specialization and Community Interdependence, the Development of Trades - Students initially investigate these primary source newspapers and these ads for goods and services to find out what goods were traded in the colonial marketplace. Students divide into teams of two and investigate trades that developed within colonial communities and then participate in an economic meet-and-greet using this sheet. After finding out about the different trades, students might engage in learning about interdependency through a method similar to this one on the colonial workers web. Teachers facilitate a conversation that helps students see how this era is a change from the previous era. This era embraced a more complex form of economic interdependence. In addition, invite students to consider why this change in economic interdependence took place.
- Phase 2 Extension: Indentured Servitude and Slavery as Part of Economic Development - Students can investigate how indentured servants and slaves were connected to economics. Begin with exploring this indenture contract (a primary source) and then shift into this lesson on indentured servitude that comes from the Council on Economic Education. Extend the learning to look at this lesson on slavery's connection to the colonial economy. Teachers should facilitate a conversation that connects indentured servants and slavery to the changing colonial economy.
- Phase 3: Regional Development and Intercolonial Trade - Teachers frequently have information in their classrooms or on video that explains the unique trades for each region (South - tobacco, Middle - bread basket colonies, Northern - cod and timber). Learning about these unique aspects of economy allows students to consider how people in the colonies needed specific goods that came from different regions. This phase of economic development means that all of the colonial regions were interdependent. Teachers might facilitate a conversation that helps students see how today's economy involves the exchange of goods that come from different locations in the United States. When students make this connection to modern economic interdependence, they're transferring the concept to a modern example.
- Phase 4: Mercantilism and Triangle Trade - Students might engage in this mercantilism simulation. Students can then analyze this interactive map of the Triangle Trade and pair it with this primary source letter and this primary source legislative act. Last, students might engage in this consumer revolution imports lesson to see where we are today. Teachers facilitate a conversation that connects this phase with the expanded range for trade, which is the start of global trade.
- Analyze and gather evidence from primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources can include simulations. (When analyzing sources, students are either transferring and reapplying reading skills or incorporating analytical processes. See my blog post on Traditional Literacy and Visual Literacy for guidance on how to do this.)
- Analyze charts maps and graphs.
- Create timelines.
- Explain why economic institutions change over time.
- Describe how physical features influence the development of economic institutions.