Maybe it was my own personal experiences in high school that jaded my opinion of the fascinating world of communism, socialism, and capitalism. I vaguely remember drone voices muttering things like, “private ownership of industry,” “classless society,” and “economic competition.” Although, when I was a freshman, those phrases only served to wake me from my third period nap.

I was less than a week into my full-time student teaching at my cooperating high school. I couldn’t afford to turn my freshman away so early in my teaching experience, especially if I expected it to be a successful month. As I scoured the internet, racked my brain, and flipped through my cooperating teacher’s lesson plans, searching for a way to teach my freshmen about Marx’s Theory of Communism; something caught my eye.

It was a lesson that used the game Rock, Paper, Scissors to teach how capitalism breeds socialism and how socialism eventually leads to communism. I like games! And I know freshmen like games! After scanning the procedures, materials, and goals of the plan, I was hooked. I began writing my lesson plan, making revisions to fit my audience and teaching style, and I also talked with my cooperating teacher to see if he had any tips from past experiences.

As excited as I was about the lesson, I could not have foretold the feeling of complete and utter satisfaction that coursed through my body as I watched my freshmen not only having fun, but fully engaged in a deep conversation with each other about topics I dreaded so much as a freshman myself.  I would find out days later, while reading their essays, that they actually got it!  They understood the facets of communism, socialism, and capitalism and why Vladimir Lenin wanted a communist Russia.  Not bad for my first time!

However, the glory was not all mine. Here is a summary of how the lesson works.

I gave all but three students three Hershey Kisses each (the actual lesson called for paper tokens, but I felt like it needed to be “worth it” for the students). I conspicuously gave the remaining three students ten Hershey Kisses. I listened as the “that’s not fair” and “why do they get more?” comments flooded the room, taking note of their complaints, while those with more candy gloated. The students then competed with each other in Rock, Paper, Scissors, with the loser having to give up a Hershey Kiss to the victor. Once a student ran out of candy, they were instructed to sit down and watch. Again, I took note of their complaints as this happened. The remaining students continued playing until only a few students had candy left.

At that point, I stopped the game. I asked the students several questions regarding their experiences: How did you feel at the start of the game? How did you feel when you ran out of candy and had to sit down? What tactics could you have used to get back into the game? (Steal, bargain, buy someone off, lie) Was the game fair? What could the teacher have done to make it fair and should he do it? Once again I took note of their responses.

As a class, we then discussed the communist theory of Karl Marx, aided by a flow chart that showed side-by-side the key points of capitalism, class struggle, workers revolt, socialism, and communism with the events of our Rock, Paper, Scissors game. For example, the box for capitalism had three points: private ownership of industry (students started with their own candy), freedom of competition (students played rock, paper, scissors), and results in unequal economic classes (some students won, most lost). The class struggle was played out in the students’ complaints and the workers’ revolt through their responses about how they could have gotten back into the game, and arguments about the game’s fairness.

As we approached socialism, I informed the class, that I, being the government, had decided to collect all the candy and redistribute it equally. Those with empty hands rejoiced while those who had been incessantly staring at their candy, unable to eat it, voiced their complaints. I asked them how they felt now, and if the action was fair. We then proceeded to the box on socialism: government ownership of industry (teacher collected candy), goal is to bring economic equality (teacher redistributed candy equally), and aims for a classless society (students now all have the same amount of candy).

I then asked the class if they wished to play again. Only a few brave souls were interested. This led us to our final box, communism: goal of classless society achieved (students would refuse to play game again and choose to share candy) and no government needed (teacher would no longer need to supervise).

We closed with an open discussion to clarify points and tie it directly to Lenin and the Soviet Union. I finally allowed the kids to eat their candy, with my own satisfaction that it was 45 minutes well spent!

In my opinion, when teaching history, it is essential to bring history to life. Make it tangible and apply it to something kids can relate to. History is fun, and if you as the teacher, buy into that and create an environment that brings history to life, your students will buy into it too! My freshmen did and it has made my student teaching experience that much easier!

Communist theory of Karl Marx. [Lesson plan]. History alive! The rise and fall of the Soviet Union. (1995). Palo Alto, CA: Teachers’ Curriculum Institute.

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27 Responses to “Rock, Paper, Scissors: How NOT to Bore Your Students with a Lecture on Communism, Socialism, and Capitalism!”

  1. grace says:

    this is a really good idea and i like you wrote down the complaints so that you can keep track of them during the time where you had them recall their senses. I think that every teacher should have at least some form of games in their class.

  2. Chelsea says:

    This sounds good. I’m an English teacher beginning a unit on Mao’s Last Dancer with yr 10s. I need to introduce the concept of communism in China so they have the contextual understanding. But I need to somehow convey what happens when the high ‘ideals’ of communism become corrupted i.e. the strict control, the violence and reliance upon threats and reprisals, the extreme poverty of some (so, clearly not equal distribution) and the extreme hatred of the West. Any ideas how I can extend the paper scissors rock activity to show this?

    • Erik says:

      Are we not forced to play an economic game of some sort when we are born? And, as far as trading vs. rock, paper, scissors is concerned you’d have to possess something of value at the outset in order to engage in trade. Or the students could trade their labor for a fraction of one of the chocolates for a period of time. How many periods do you think the “have-nots” would labor for next to nothing before they pushed one of the “haves” down and took their candy?

      You say there is no limited pool of resources in the free market… but neither are there infinite resources.

      I know that’s deep; especially after I just pushed you down and took your candy.

  3. Devin says:

    I’m going to share what I just posted on tomwoods.com after learning about this game, before some economically ignorant teacher forces their students to play this idiotic game.

    This reminds me of the Murray Rothbard Quote,
    “It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.”

    Of course equating Rock, Paper Scissors to the Free Market is ridiculous. Firstly, the market system is based on the fact that people with different subjective preferences engage in voluntary mutually beneficial exchange. How does a game of chance that all actors are FORCED to play at all capture the nature of a market system?

    Secondly, there is no limited pool of resources in a market system. These students are all trading with the same candy. This game highlights the beliefs of Mercantilism: that resources are limited so it is in an actor’s (or state’s) best interest to gobble them up. In a free market, someone that wanted more candy would have to produce goods that everyone else valued more high than the candy, but that actor valued lower, say brownies. The producer of brownies might end up with all the candy, and you might believe him to be wealthier, but everyone is now in a better position (has more utility) than before. Even though one actor has all of the candy, the entire economy is now wealthier.

    This game would only capture the market economy if instead of playing rock paper scissors, the students had to engage in trade for the candy. A few students that offered goods that the rest of the class placed a high value on might still end up with all of the candy, but this is only because they have made the candy economy and everyone in it better off by supplying these goods.

  4. zack says:

    I like the concept, but this model is not capitalism. A better model would be to use 3-4 types of candy and give each kid a different amount, then let them trade freely for 15 minutes. Encourage the kids to eat the candy or save it, and for every two pieces they save they get another piece at the end of the round. Use a deck of cards to randomly assign “skills” (parallels trades) – for example, one person can give out stickers in exchange for candy, or someone can convert an unpopular candy into more popular candy with the instructor at a 3:1 ratio. In a real capitalist system, people exchange in ways that are mutually beneficial.

  5. nnta says:

    I hope you also discuss with your students the limits of this game.

    For one thing there is no new wealth produced, it’s a zero-sum game. All of the economic systems include production of wealth (indeed production is a significant part of human activity).

    That alone would drastically change the dynamics of the game, and it’s only scratching the surface of the issues of comparing this game to the real world, or even the complex economic theories it contains.

    This game largely seems designed to lead to a particular emotional response and impression upon students about the ideas it attempts to portray, which seems loosely connected to the theories it intends to compare at best.

    Unless you go into far more detail about the limits of the game as a representation of those systems I feel the students are not getting much out of it at all, other than the inculcation of emotional responses to certain concepts, which is huge disservice to a young mind unable to grasp how those concepts are actually related to the world they live in.

  6. Ender Wight says:

    Your lesson has nothing to do with capitalism. What you are teaching is the lessons of mercantilism, which is the reason for the Revolutionary War.

    If this were a real lesson in true capitalism, students could choose whether to play or not. Some students may decide to make their own chocolate in the corner of the classroom and deliver a better product, leaving the Hershey Kisses people trying to upgrade theirs.

    Others may decide that they are not interested in chocolate at all and produce something completely different, say licorice giraffes. Still others may not be interested in candy at all and begin designing hovercrafts.

    And the community is free to buy it or not. If a product isn’t very good, then the owners need to come up with something better; if it is a smashing sellout, then they figure out how to deliver faster and cheaper. Some will decide to go work for the successful producers; others will come up with a brand new idea. As money increases in the community, everyone becomes better off.

    This is real capitalism.

  7. JK says:

    This game is in no way an example of how capitalism works. Its sad to see teachers cannot even properly teach how capitalism really works and why it is superior to any other government form. Rather nauseating.

    • Rebecca says:

      um…Capitalism actually is an economic system, not a government form. What’s truly nauseating are those who criticize teachers without knowing of what they speak or offering up anything better.

  8. Mike says:

    If you really want to demonstrate how Communism works, give every student in the class a C. That’s what it means to share the product of your labor.

    • Concerned Teacher says:

      For a true lesson on Capitalism: “I, Pencil”
      Google it. This lesson is Progressive indocrination and should be ridiculed not highlighted. You asked for our input.

  9. Tim Scott says:

    I understand that this exercise makes for an interesting 45 minutes, but it misleads students about the subject matter.

    1) Under capitalism, actors are free to engage in economic activity as they choose. They can withdraw and not play, which would be a very rational alternative to simple gambling.

    2) Under free market capitalism, the distribution of the rewards of economic of activity are not pure chance, far from it.

    3) Free market capitalism is not a zero sum game, far from it.

    4) Communism does not require abolish the need of government. For 100 years, time an again we have seen it requires the opposite: totalitarian government.

    This exercise will probably be useful in teaching some statistics principle, but no history or political science.

  10. Mike says:

    I would be careful with this game. I applaud the attempt of making this more applicable to the kids’ mindsets, however it oversimplifies the issues and ignores major parts of the whole picture that students should understand when learning about these types of governmental/economic systems. I think there needs to be some tweaking and analyzing impact of what it does to the people economically, socially, and politically.

  11. katie says:

    I loved this idea! Another teacher showed me your blog, and it was a great idea to teach these hard (and some what “boring”) and confusing topics. My kids loved the acitivity in class today! Thank you!

  12. Mary Beth says:

    Just found this online and included it in a lesson plan for a notes period on Russian history. Cited you, of course. Thanks for the idea, I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes!

  13. Sarah says:

    I did this with my 8th graders and very simplified discussion of “not fair” and “mine” occurred. It was a great lesson to use. I simply need to direct conversation more back to Soviet Union and US opposition to communism.

    We have not gotten in social tenets of communism yet.

  14. Keith Johnson says:

    I am trying this type of lesson in two days. It fits perfectly with a lesson on how wealth was created by King Cotton after Reconstruction in Texas. Thanks for your ideas.

  15. Coy Lingner says:

    An attention-grabbing discussion is price comment. I believe that it’s best to write more on this matter, it won’t be a taboo topic however usually people are not sufficient to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

  16. MC says:

    This activity is not intended to demonstrate nuances of each economic system, or even to promote one over the other. It is an interactive simplification that provides a personal experience attached to the content of the course. I recently conducted a French Revolution simulation that also was not entirely historically accurate. OF COURSE, you provide disclaimers about the truth and why certain aspects of the historical event are altered for the sake of the learning experience. Considering I have a very short amount of time to cover a ridiculously wide range of content, I look forward to using this game to supplement my students’ understanding of the basic differences of the three systems.

    Keep up the good work!!

  17. Jim says:

    First I admire your desire to actively engage the students This might be appropriate for middle school but at the high school level something a bit more in depth would be necessary. You’d be better off having students read and compare, simplified digested versions if a class doesn’t have the literacy skills, the writings of Adam Smith and Engels. Or if you feel this game vital, allow the students to create and write up the associative relationships between the game and the major principles of the systems in smaller groups (you could even do this as matching). However, I feel the game does not even touch upon the principles of a free market economy in which consumers decide what is produced through spending. Economics is about producing and allocating resources effectively and efficiently; as well meaning as your game is, it doesn’t really address the major issues in anything but childlike simplicity. I’m about to do the cold war in US History and I really hope the 10th grade WH teacher did a thorough job with capitalism and communism or I will get stuck in the unit an extra 2 days, which I don’t have.

  18. Aly says:

    This is NOT capitalism at all. Its shocking that you’re teaching this as “capitalism”.

  19. MW says:

    The criticism seems a bit harsh in some respects. I don’t believe this activity is intended to show every nuance and comparison between the “isms,” but rather, it is an hands-on , somewhat enjoyable simplification of a concept the kids may have difficulty grasping. I intend to try this. I’ll also explain the options that would be available if this game were to try and represent capitalism. Some of you need to chill the heck out.

  20. Mahatma says:

    The pro-capitalist responses are soldly in the majority here, typical of what one would espect in the U.S. – a country sometimes referred to as the “Mecca of Capitalism”. Over this past month, I had conversations with three veteran teachers about the lessons on communism they experienced when they were in high school. In short, all three teachers recalled how communism was portrayed to them as a menace that rivaled the Nazi Holocaust. Coincidentally, on this very day in 1952, the Supreme Court upheld a New York law that made it legal to fire and/or not hire communist teachers. With the Cold War over and communism less of a menace, I am glad to see that there can be some dialogue on the virtues of communism without the legal threat of teachers losing their jobs. However, here in “the Mecca,” change comes slowly, and teachers are still ostracized by their cohorts for attempting to portay communism in a good light, as demonstrated in this blog. Teachers need to be aware of their own cultural baggage and biases. Kudos to those who can shed their capitalist baggage and biases, and are willing to engage their students in a lesson on the virtues of an alternative ideology that, at least in theory, benefits the poor and working classes, and at most, actually does.

  21. PCarter says:

    My students have difficulty understanding complex concepts like political systems. This lesson will go a long way in introducing a more in depth study of each system and will give students more confidence about the subject. Thank you!

  22. Mrs.H. says:

    I used this lesson last year and, with a few tweaks after reading the comments, will do it again this year. I found it discouraging and disturbing that people were eager to bash on “ignorant” teachers. They clearly have no concept of what our profession is like. :) Take heart that you’re fighting the good fight…I appreciate the hands-on idea! I teach 7th grade, and it’s the perfect simple introduction to some pretty complicated topics.

  23. Daniel Wagner says:

    Looks like you taught them that communism is a good thing. Shame on you. Seriously. Now, if you, as the government, had taken all of the candy at the end and given them half a piece, this horrid lesson might have been salvaged. If this is public education in the PNW, well… No wonder the country is in Her current state. I’d rather die than turn my kids on to communism.

    Wow… I’m simply aghast…

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