Last week in AP Macro, my students did one of my favorite activities: Econoland.

Econoland is a simple simulation that lets students act out the Circular Flow Diagram, one of the fundamental concepts in macroeconomics. (I didn’t create it — you can get it in this book from the Council on Economic Education.)

Some students play households, who have resources to sell, like pieces of wood (land), googly eyes (labor) and screws (capital). Others are firms. They start with a fistful of $100 bills, and they need to buy resources and produce “econos” (i.e. puffballs), which they do by turning in a full trio of resources to me.

When you listen in, the “resource market” and “product market” sound like chaotic open-air markets.

“Who has land? I need land.”
“We’re out of screws.”
“I’ll sell you a puffball for $200.”
“I’ve only got $100.”
“Well, I’ve got to break even.”

I’ve been using this activity for 15 years, and I know it’s helped hundreds of teenage students make sense of a complicated diagram that is otherwise pretty mind-numbing to look at. (We refer back to it over and over during the semester.)

But this time, I tried something a little different. After the verbal debriefing, I asked them to answer on an anonymous Google form: What questions do you still have?

Their responses were surprising, and ran the gamut from revealing utter confusion to showing a high level of thoughtful reflection on the activity.

Here are a few questions showing that not everyone understood the point of Econoland:

“What is the difference between resource and product markets?”
“What exactly are the resources?”
“What do the arrows (in the diagram) mean, exactly?”

Those questions were a good reminder that I have to explain — and explain again — the meaning behind every simulation. It’s not effective if they don’t get it.

These questions were the opposite, though, a sign that they really were getting it:

“Where is the government in the circular flow model?”
“What happens in real life when products cannot be sold for profit, and cheaper manufacturing techniques cannot be found?”
“How do businesses and others figure out how many resources to get, how much to sell, the price, etc.? How do they find the perfect balance?”
“Is it smarter to just keep the money you have, if you’re a business, so you won’t end up with less?”

Those are perfect questions to lead us into learning about the differences between market, command and mixed economies, as well as basic supply and demand — all on the agenda for this week.

The last question — why not just keep your money? — led to a fun conversation today about where businesses get money in the first place (banks, investors, venture capitalists) and why those sources want a return on their investment.

When you’ve been teaching something as long as I have, it’s easy to forget the simple things students don’t know. Getting them to voice their confusion is also challenging, since it feels embarrassing to them.

The anonymous form seemed to work. Students are comfortable with the technology, and a dozen or so students were comfortable just writing: I don’t have any questions.

It’s a good day when you think of something that makes a good lesson work even better.