GCSE History. I’m teaching the end of apartheid in South Africa to a very mixed ability class. We have got as far as the introduction of sanctions. I have decided that this is a very difficult concept that some in my class will struggle to understand. In my view, the best way to help them is to let them experience what trading under sanctions might be like.
So, I create The Sanctions Game. I choose a dozen countries from around the world. I allocate each a natural resource, or some expertise – something they can trade. The amount of resource they have depends on its value. For example:
- Saudi Arabia: 5 x oil
- Ecuador: 30 x bananas
- South Africa: 10 x diamonds
- UK: 15 x banking expertise
- Belgium: 20 x chocolate
And so on. (I know the valuations are all out of kilter but bear with me, they were only illustrative.)
The class will be put into groups of 2-3 and each given a country. Each country will start with the goods or expertise it produces, plus a list of all the goods and expertise it needs. So the UK might need to acquire an oil, five bananas and two diamonds, while Ecuador needs an oil, a diamond and ten chocolates.
The groups will then try to trade what they have for what they want. I hope that the differing values will encourage the development of various exchange rates: surely South Africa won’t swap a diamond for only one chocolate? There’s also another layer of trickiness: Ecuador, for example, needs nothing the UK has, but the UK needs bananas from Ecuador? So the UK needs to find out what Ecuador wants and trading banking expertise for some of that, before returning to Ecuador to make the deal. Brilliant. The winning country will be the first to acquire all the items on its shopping list.
After one round to get the hang of it, we will start round two. This time, every country will get a secret instruction. For all bar South Africa, it will say, “DO NOT trade with South Africa.” South Africa’s will say, “If anyone won’t trade with you, try to do it in secret.” Then the game will begin again. And lo and behold, everyone will realise that sanctions make life very hard for the country on the end of them, but also impacts the countries imposing them.
I spend hours creating the game. I find pictures of every commodity, copy and paste them so I have the right number, cut them all out and put them in envelopes. This means 30 pictures of bananas, each individually snipped; 20 chocolates; five oils, and so on. I write out the rules and the secret instructions.
Once in class, I explain the game. Several times. The first round finishes in about five minutes as no-one bothers with exchange rates – they just get what they want without worrying about how much things are really worth. It takes ages to return all the goods to their original homes for round two. When that starts, it turns out that everyone is perfectly willing to deal openly with South Africa, despite their instructions.
I end up explaining sanctions to them myself. They have no problem with it. It wasn’t even that big a part of the course.
I had enjoyed thinking up and making the game, and in some ways I’m still quite proud of it; it sounds fun, doesn’t it? But I spent far, far too much preparation time on it. Card sorts are bad enough, though I do quite like them sometimes. This, though, was a card sort on steroids. Think of the other things I could have been doing instead.
I had massively overestimated the complexity of the concept at hand, and equally underestimated the ability of my students to get to grips with it. Yes, sanctions are a bit tricky to get hold of. But I think I must have realised that at about the same time as having a brilliant idea for a game, and married the two. As a result, the pupils picked up very little about sanctions, had the topic built up in their minds as Something Very Hard, and wasted valuable lesson time.
What I learned
- To focus first on what I am going to teach, not how I am going to teach it. These days I only think about the latter when I am secure in the former. In this instance, even if the game had worked, the students would have gained only a superficial understanding of the pros and cons of sanctions. Nothing about why they were introduced, when, who by, on what goods and with what results.
- To remember that good teaching doesn’t require massive creativity. It does require clear thought, good explanations and appropriate tasks.
- That fun comes in many guises. It’s perfectly possible to have enjoyable lessons without games. In this case, for example, through an informed debate about the effectiveness, fairness and morality of sanctions. Less immediately grabbing than a game, but ultimately far more satisfying.
- That pupils are more likely to remember what they think about. As a result of the Sanctions Game they would have remembered that they had lots of little tokens and had to buy stuff. The sanctions element – the whole point of the exercise – was too much of an afterthought.
You can read my other Worst Evers here:
My worst ever disciplinary decision
My worst ever assembly announcement
My worst ever form time