Activity: Division of labor and innovation

division of labor adam smith division of labor division of labor adam smith division of labor is the special sauce bellringers

Use this quotation from Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations to explore the effects of the division of labor on innovation.
“Bellringers” are classroom tools that help set the tone or introduce a topic in the classroom. Adam Smith Works bellringers use quotations from and activities based on the work of Adam Smith, allowing you to illustrate the long history of the ideas you will explore in your classroom by grounding them in great books. 

Adam Smith Works Activities are quotations with accompanying activities that you can discuss with your students to introduce a topic, generate deeper discussion, or set the tone for your lesson. They cover topics from economics to history to moral philosophy. 

Bellringers are presented as slides ready to pull and use in your classroom. On each slide, you can find speaking notes and links to more information. 
  • Click the hyperlinked quotation (for example, look for something like (WN 1.ii.2) to see the quotation in the context of the full text. 
    • Use the "Find" feature in the left-hand menu to search for the first few words in the quotation and see it in context. 
    • Alternatively, click on "Contents" to find the relevant chapter of the text. "WN 1.ii.2" is Wealth of Nations Book 1, chapter 2. "TMS I.iii.1.7" is The Theory of Moral Sentiments Book 1, chapter 3, section 1. 
      (The last number in the citation refers to the paragraph in the section.)
  • Where available, click "Click here for more about this quotation" to visit a short article about the passage in question. 
  • Speaking notes suggest topics for discussion when using each quotation.  
“Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object, than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things. But in consequence of the division of labour, the whole of every man’s attention comes naturally to be directed towards some one very simple object. It is naturally to be expected, therefore, that some one or other of those who are employed in each particular branch of labour should soon find out easier and readier methods of performing their own particular work, wherever the nature of it admits of such improvement.”(WN I.I.8)
This group activity should take fifteen minutes, plus any time allocated for class discussion.

Adam Smith is discussing here a feature of the division of labor: By focusing a worker on a small number of tasks, the worker becomes familiar with the task, the problems with the task, and whether or not how the task is done could be improved. If the worker can solve these problems through innovation, that worker is also the one who benefits most directly, which also makes innovation more likely—so long as the worker is allowed to innovate.

Divide the class into groups of four to six students and provide them with the prompts below for discussion.

Working in your group, what do you think Adam Smith is saying in this paragraph, in plain language? Once you think you know, you may compare your answer with another group to see if together you can improve your answers.

Working in your group, can you identify a recent innovation made possible by what Adam Smith is talking about here?

Once group discussions are complete, students may be asked to share their thoughts with the class or via a short writing assignment.

Adam Smith provides an example of this type of innovation at the end of the paragraph in which this quotation appears: 

In the first fire-engines, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his play-fellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour.

You may wish to discuss this example with your class if you believe it will help clarify about what Smith is talking.

You can also read more about this topic in Wealth of Nations at the OLL Entry. You may choose to share this piece with your students following their discussion. Do they agree or disagree with the explanation provided?

See the quotation in context as part of the full online text of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations here. Use the "Find" feature in the left-hand menu to search for the first few words in the quotation and see it in context.