by John D. Hoge
Nicole gets elected mayor after a week of campaign speeches, poster making, and handshaking. Carlos and Tonya reverse a trend of sagging sales by adding variety to their snack food shop menu. Thomas, the chief of police, calls his officers together for a briefing on a new city council ordinance. Yolanda, the bank president, hires another teller to reduce the long lines of customers waiting to make loans, deposits, or withdrawals. The city manager, Greg, gives a final warning to an accountant who can't seem to balance the city's tax ledger. If you think this sounds a lot like the real world, you're right. But it's happening in elementary schools around the nation as a part of the microsociety1 way to prepare students for their roles as productive workers and citizens in our democratic society. As students carry out their jobs in microsociety, they use basic skills in reading, math, and language arts. More importantly, students experience citizenship in their own democratically governed society. This citizenship experience includes the rigors of daily employment and frequent contact with their own government. As a result, students learn a variety of economics and government content in a way that may form their fondest memories of their elementary school years.
This article presents an overview of a typical microsociety marketplace, court, government, and bank-all illustrated by true-to-life examples. The benefits of implementing a microsociety are then summarized, with particular emphasis placed on citizenship. The article closes with a consideration of several issues related to using this approach as a supplement or replacement for elementary social studies.
Ask a microsociety citizen what's the most important place for a visitor to see and you're likely to hear "The marketplace!" It's the marketplace where students set up their businesses and generate the wealth of their society. Store fronts are brightly decorated with graphic designs, catchy names, and business slogans. Price lists show deep discounts, close outs, and specials. Proprietors smile and greet customers, arrange their wares, and keep records of their sales for tax and other business purposes. A variety of stores typically line the marketplace. A toy store sells trinkets, magic tricks, stamp pads, stickers, whistles, and ball and jacks sets. A snack food shop sells individually packaged dill pickles, cookies, potato chips, pretzels, and popcorn. Some of the other shops represented on the mall are a beverage shop, card shop, flower shop, fragrance boutique, comics shop, sports card shop, hair and nails salon, pet supply shop, and school supplies store.
Student owners of these shops must apply for a business license, submit a business plan that the bank is willing to support with a start-up loan, and pay taxes on their property as well as on their total sales. Merchandise is acquired from the microsociety warehouse, where all items sold in the marketplace are inventoried, stored, and distributed. Store owners must maintain business records, agree to follow fair business practices, maintain their property, and earn a profit-or go out of business. Partnership arrangements for co-owned businesses are spelled out in each business plan. Disputes and crimes that arise in the marketplace are handled in the microsociety courts.
An important component of a microsociety is its municipal court. Just as in real life, crimes are occasionally committed and citizens get into civil disputes that end up in court. Court employees include judges, prosecutors and defenders, bailiffs, court recorders, and clerks. All of these employees receive job-specific training and work under the supervision of an adult leader. Judges and attorneys receive legal training and must pass a microsociety bar exam. Microsociety citizens hire board-certified private attorneys to plead their cases or rely on a court-appointed attorney if they are unable to pay their legal fees. A variety of cases comes before the court during a normal school year. Some typical ones include citizens contesting hallway "speeding" tickets, cases of simple theft, employment disputes, tax cases, and assault and battery charges. Attorneys meet with their clients to plot their court strategies. The clerk schedules the hearings and delivers subpoenas for witnesses. Sanctions used by the court include fines, prohibition of future contacts between the disputants, and community service. Quite obviously, the microsociety municipal court is a vibrant and essential component of each microsociety's government.
At the heart of each microsociety is its government. Microsocieties often have an elected mayor who serves a limited term of office. All citizens of microsociety vote in the mayoral election. Some societies decide that the mayor must be a member of the highest grade level, usually fifth or sixth grade. The mayoral election process may include individual classroom primaries to determine the list of candidates for the regular election. The mayoral candidate from each classroom then conducts his or her own campaign, following any rules that regulate the display of posters or campaign speeches. Once the mayor is elected, he or she can hire one or more city managers to work with the mayor to staff the offices needed to carry out government services.
Microsociety governments carry out many of the same services as real governments. The mayor and city managers advertise for a police chief, patrol officers, health inspectors for the marketplace food stands, staff for the government's mint, unemployment counselors, sanitation workers, and, of course, clerks to run the tax collections needed to pay for these services.
Perhaps the biggest ongoing duty of city government is maintaining records of each citizen's employment status and weekly earnings. As citizens are hired, receive raises, change jobs, or become unemployed, their microsociety IDs must be updated and their taxes must be adjusted if their incomes change. Some microsocieties use a progressive income tax structure similar to the U.S. federal income tax. In addition to collecting income tax on a weekly or biweekly basis, the city government also collects fees for issuing business licenses and citizen IDs. Fines paid to the police department and settlements from tax lawsuits also contribute to the government's revenue.
A bank is a critically important component of all microsocieties. Every microsociety uses its own student-designed currency in much the same way as a real society uses its official currency. Money is used to purchase items in the marketplace and pay workers' wages. Checking accounts are available for a nominal fee. Each citizen is encouraged to open a savings account so that his or her wages will be secure and earn interest. When an account is opened, the saver is given a passbook that shows all deposits and withdrawals. The bank makes loans to citizens who have the ability to pay back the money. Meeting all these financial needs obviously requires a savvy bank president and a substantial bank staff.
These brief glimpses of microsociety hint at the multiple benefits this program offers. First and foremost, students benefit from participating as citizens of their own microsociety. This experience includes the responsibilities of holding a job, paying taxes, and obeying laws which they themselves help determine. In securing their jobs, students first encounter the process of filling out job applications and interviewing. Once hired, they often start at the bottom of the ladder, go through job training, and learn what it means to be evaluated by an employer or supervisor. Students who are chronically late to work, absent, untrainable, or simply inefficient may find that their employer plans to fire them. All employed citizens experience the joy of earning a paycheck. Some employees receive significant raises for outstanding work, and successful shop owners taste the fruits of their entrepreneurial efforts. Beyond experiencing the realities of the work-a-day world, all microsociety citizens interact with their government. They understand that it is their government, and they often seek to express their wishes and opinions to the mayor, city managers, council members, and government employees. Yes, citizens do complain about taxes, but they know what their money does to help their microsociety run.
In sum, while microsociety gives students a modeled real life experience in which to apply reading, writing, and math skills, it also imparts substantial knowledge about the operation of a local business economy and government. But more importantly, microsociety gives children a firsthand learning experience that helps them acquire fundamental ideals of our democracy, such as the importance of participation in elections and government decision making, the value of working to become economically self sufficient, and the benefits of a society where order is established by a system of law and access to fundamental justice.
Many issues are associated with the establishment of a microsociety. The same issues tend to recur, some associated with particular activities or types of students, and others with the school's established curriculum. The following issues have many different potential solutions.
1. Perhaps the most fundamental issue to be resolved is when to implement a microsociety and how long to let it run. Some schools attempt to model a real-world implementation of the entire curriculum through the various occupations and activities of their microsociety.2 Such schools run their microsocieties throughout the school day over the entire school year. Other schools successfully implement their microsocieties during only a small portion of the school day, e.g., the last period of the afternoon. These schools may also run the microsociety for a portion of the school year, starting only after regular school routines are established, and ending the society before the close of the school year with an auction of any remaining merchandise. This second pattern makes it possible to try out a microsociety without completely overhauling the school's curriculum and culture.
2. Another issue fundamental to any microsociety is how to obtain the required merchandise and storefront booths used for businesses. Obvious answers to these needs are various fund raisers, merchandise donations from businesses and parents, or grants from organizations such as the PTA/O. The problem of acquiring merchandise goes beyond the planned startup date of the marketplace, however, since there is an ongoing need for replacement items. These needs can't be met through the regular sales transactions of the microsociety, since it uses its own private currency. Obviously, students who own and run a successful business must obtain replacement merchandise at the microsociety warehouse, and they have only micromoney with which to pay. Similarly, students wanting to start a new business will need merchandise and a storefront booth. The real dollar costs of such merchandise and equipment must be generated by the adults who wish to see the microsociety continue to run. Such fund-raising may be an issue in some schools.
3. All societies have problems, and a school's microsociety is no exception. As you may have guessed, fairly constant problems are associated with unemployment, fair employment practices, and wages. Unemployment occurs in microsociety for the same reasons it occurs in regular society. Occasionally, students are too sleepy to do their micro jobs; other students may be too inattentive or too combative. Still others find themselves outskilled by their classmates. Student microsociety leaders or teachers must decide how to deal with the unemployment problem. For example, should each successful business be asked to take on one unemployed worker? Should the government attempt to subsidize the employment of these workers with tax breaks to employing businesses? Or, should wage supports be paid directly to newly hired workers coming off "welfare"? Such questions remind us of parallels in our own society.
4. Differences in abilities can lead to the problem of just a few students continually holding the top jobs in their microsociety. For example, a successful bank president may be the candidate chosen for city manager, or a successful attorney may easily rise to be the next mayor. On the other hand, a citizen first hired as a sanitation worker may have little chance of becoming a highly paid attorney. Some schools' microsocieties start over several times each year in an attempt to give all students an opportunity to hold different types of jobs. Some microsocieties make rules that limit each student's access to top paying jobs, essentially saying, "If you were a leader in the first go-round, you now have to take a non-managerial or non-entrepreneurial job in the next round." Such attempts to equalize a microsociety drive it further away from the reality it seeks to model.
5. A final employment issue involves the establishment of wages for each job, and decisions about raises. Teachers may have to set the initial starting salaries for the different jobs in the microsociety. In doing so, they must decide how large a wage differential is appropriate. For example, should the clerk of the court make the same wage as a tax clerk? Should the city manager make half again as much or twice as much as a sanitation worker? Is it right that a fifth grade sanitation worker who has done his or her job well has little to spend in the marketplace after paying bills, while some other workers buy anything their hearts' desire? Letting market forces determine salaries may produce greater differentials of wealth than some citizens and teachers are willing to tolerate. Such questions are not easily resolved-either by teachers or by students. These are difficult issues for young children, but removing them from the discussion may reduce the learning potential of a microsociety.
6. Arguably, the most important issue to be considered in implementing a microsociety concerns the school's curriculum. Educational goals defined by the state and local school district require curriculum materials, skilled teachers, and time. Schools may attempt to implement a curriculum with limited instructional resources. Time, teachers, volunteers, space, and other resources used for microsociety must be considered. For example, if the microsociety time block is mainly being taken from time devoted to social studies, then we must ask how well this tradeoff is serving the goals of the social studies curriculum. Microsociety teaches important lessons in economics, government, and citizenship. However, it clearly neglects two of social studies' most important content areas: history and geography. Thus, one consequence of running a microsociety may be that teachers either abandon these important areas, or squeeze this missing content into time normally devoted to subjects such as science, math, reading, or language arts.
Microsociety offers many important citizenship lessons to young learners. While it helps students see the value of having basic reading, math, and language arts skills for employment, more importantly it demonstrates how these same skills are basic to the shared decision making needed to run their government. Microsociety citizens gain valuable experience by interacting with their government or by playing a work-related role in it. Participating as a constructive member of a self-governed society is certainly one of the best preparations we can offer for citizenship.
1.The term "micro-society" was popularized by George Richmond as a result of the publication of his book, The Micro-Society: A Real World in Miniature (New York: Harper & Row, 1973). Dr. Marilyn Kourilsky published her version of this same idea in Mini-society: Experiencing Real-World Economics in the Elementary School Classroom (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1983). The more generic term "microsociety" is used in this article to indicate the many ways school-based microsocieties may differ and to adapt Richmond's and Kourilsky's original formulations.
2.E. Clinchy, "Learning In and About the Real World," Phi Delta Kappan 76, 5 (1995): 400-404; G. H. Richmond, "The Future School: Is Lowell Pointing Us Toward a Revolution in Education?", Phi Delta Kappan 71, 3 (1989): 232-236.
About the Author
John D. Hoge is an associate professor in the Department of Social Science Education at The University of Georgia. He is the author of numerous articles and a contemporary social studies textbook, Effective Elementary Social Studies (Wadsworth, 1996). Recently, he has assisted with the startup and implementation of several elementary school