Inspired Ideas
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Inspired Ideas

Making the Global Economy Relevant for Students

By Martha Sevetson Rush, Educator

Most American teenagers live, attend school, work, and socialize within a relatively small area — whether it’s in a rural community, a suburb, or a neighborhood within a big city. It’s hard for them to imagine that their lives intersect in any meaningful way with the lives of people in far away places like Colombia, China, and Ghana.

When they read or hear about the “global economy”, it sounds like a theoretical concept — not something that is affecting them here and now. They don’t realize that the global economy is, in fact, the very water they are swimming in. It’s the coffee and soft drinks they are drinking, the T-shirts and trainers they are wearing, and the phones that are buzzing in their pockets.

It is also the jobs of their future.

“When today’s students enter the world of work, they will be working with the world itself. As the UN states, they will ‘work for international companies, be involved in international trade; collaborate with peers around the world on multinational ventures; tackle global problems (such as disasters, disease, and climate change); collaborate with employees from a variety of cultures; and compete with peers around the world for jobs and markets.’” (OECD, 2018)

Helping our students grasp that their lives, their decisions, and their future prosperity are intertwined with the lives of consumers and workers all over the globe is a huge challenge — but it’s essential if we want to prepare them to live, work, and thrive in the 21st century economy.

Exploring the Global Economy with Your Students

So how can we help students grasp that their lives are already part of the global economy — and will only become more so in the future? How do we make these lessons engaging to them?

Product Investigation

A good way to begin is by having students investigate where some of their favorite products come from. This can start easily in the classroom or at home with a quick check of product labels: Where did your shirt come from? Where did your shoes come from? Where was your calculator manufactured?

Then students can move on to a web-based investigation of the origins of different agricultural products as well as well-known brands. Challenge students to find out:

  • Where do bananas come from?
  • Where do avocados come from?
  • Where are Nestle chocolates made?
  • Where are Barbie dolls made?
  • Where are Etch-A-Sketches made?
  • Where are RayBan sunglasses made?
  • Where are Huffy bicycles made?
  • Where are Converse All-Stars made?

Trade Game

Engaging students in a trade simulation can help them understand the deeper question of why we are part of the global economy. One simple trade simulation starts by giving each student a low-cost “gift bag” containing an item, like a small piece of candy, a pencil, stickers, or a toy. The key is to differentiate the items, so one student gets a Tootsie Roll while another gets a peppermint candy or a lollipop.

After students have opened and rated their own gift bags on a scale of 1 (I don’t like it) to 10 (It’s my lucky day), give them the opportunity to trade, but only within a small group of 5–6.

Explain that students are not required to trade, but they may trade if both students involved in the trade would be more satisfied with the other’s gift.

Following a few minutes of trading, ask students to again rate their gift bags on a scale of 1 to 10, then ask students to report if their ratings have stayed the same, increased, or decreased. (Some will increase based on voluntary exchange, while others will stay the same. Some may decrease, if students now feel more dissatisfied with what they have — but they were unable to make a trade.)

Finally, give students the opportunity to engage in “global trade” — trade with anyone in the class. Then repeat the reflection and report out activities. Ask students questions for debriefing:

  • If you engaged in trade, why did you trade?
  • If you did not engage in trade, why not?
  • Did voluntary trade improve your overall well-being?

This activity helps students realize that people trade because it benefits them — they give up something they value less in exchange for something they value more. A more sophisticated trade simulation, available free from the International Monetary Fund, has students buy items within their own “country” with macaroni and beans as currency, then allows them to engage in global trade after participating in currency exchange. This simulation helps students understand how currency trading works and how exchange rates are set.


Once students have developed a basic understanding of trade, engage them in a discussion or debate on trade-related issues. There are a number of popular strategies for classroom discussions, including socratic seminars, fishbowl discussions, and structured academic controversy. Whichever style of discussion you prefer, it’s important to start with a shared primary or secondary source, so that students are basing their arguments on factual content rather than on uninformed opinions.

The Global Center for International Development at Harvard has a free interactive simulation that helps students visualize the magnitude of global trade.

Select a second source based on your topic of focus, for example:

  • Does globalization increase damage to the environment?
  • Is free trade fair to producers in developing nations?
  • Does free trade reduce wages and employment in developed nations?

Connect Personally

The most engaging way to build students’ understanding of the global economy is to connect them directly with peers in different nations. There are a variety of organizations and resources that help foster virtual exchanges, so that students can talk frankly with teenagers in Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa — and understand that these teenagers are very much like them and have similar goals.

Through free virtual exchanges, students learn what American products are popular in other nations, and they realize that young people in other nations are seeking admissions to the same colleges, working in the same industries, and wrestling with the same global issues.

The Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms program helps teachers learn protocols for implementing these programs. The Jacobs Innovation Challenge partners student teams with students in other nations to collaborate on entrepreneurial ventures.

Other organizations that foster exchange include Gridpals, Global SchoolNet, PenPal schools, and many many more.

Although our students live, study and work in insular communities, our transformative classrooms can help them realize their place in the global economy.

Martha Sevetson Rush has taught social studies at Mounds View High School in Arden Hills, Minnesota, for 25 years. She currently teaches AP Micro/Macroeconomics, Psychology and AP Psychology, and she is an AP consultant and member of the AP Micro Test Development Committee. In addition to teaching, Martha has written two books and writes curriculum for a variety of organizations. Martha holds a Masters in Education Entrepreneurship from the University of Pennsylvania School of Education, a Masters in History from the University of Minnesota, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Michigan. She was recognized as a Fulbright Teacher for Global Classrooms in 2021.


“Teaching for Global Competence in a Rapidly Changing World: Read Online.” Oecd,



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