Adam Smith’s Pin Factory & the Division of Labor Pipe Cleaner Activity

lesson plan division of labor adam smith for high school specialization productivity

Explore the division of labor and specialization with high school or introductory university students by putting students to work in their own (pipe cleaner) pin factory.

Lesson plan was developed by Terra Aquia. Request a free activity kit here.

*This is part of a series of activities that can be used in an Adam Smith Escape Room. A variation specifically for an Escape Room is listed at the end. 

Adam Smith’s Pin Factory is one of the most famous examples in the history of economics. This activity puts students to work in their own factory then shows them an interactive virtual tour of Smith’s factory. By the end of the activity, students will have participated in and be able to describe the benefits of the division of labor to increasing productivity.

Time Required
One or two class periods

Materials needed
-       Intwined balls of pipe cleaners 
-       Scissors 
-       Rulers 
Part One:

Tell learners that this activity highlights an example that Smith observes in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, the production of pins.

Explain what pins are and why they were important. Pins are a traditional sewing tool used most commonly to connect pieces of fabric that are then sewn together. They were a necessary tool for anyone needing to make or patch up clothing.

Tell students for the first part of the task, they will be working on their own to produce pins. [For a variation using fewer students as models for the class, please see the end]. Give each student the materials they will need and the following instructions:
-       Your job is to make as many pins as you can in two minutes
-       Each pin much be straightened out and cut to exactly two inches
-       Take your cut pins and create a small loop at the top. These loops should be secure.

Show students a few pre-made examples of completed pins that are both good and poor quality. Check for understanding, then start a timer and allow students to begin. They will start by untangling a pipe cleaner from the tangled ball, use the ruler to measure, and scissors to cut to size. They will then loop the top of the pin. When time runs out, note on the board each person’s total production. Do not accept poorly made pins!

Questions for students:
1.      Which steps took the longest? Which were the quickest? 
2.      How long did it take to make a pin when they started? When they ended? 
3.      Did they change anything as they learned? 
4.      What would they do differently next time?
Part Two:

Ask students if they think they could improve upon their original production amounts if they were able to work together. Then, allow them to repeat the activity with the revised instructions:
-       You may work with the members of your group to produce as many pins as you can in the two-minute time limit.
-       You have the same amount of time and the same standards for quality.
-       (Optional instruction: Decide in your groups if/how you will divide up the tasks. If you are concerned that no students will “discover” dividing up the labor, you might want to hint at it but most students shouldn’t need the hint and variations among the groups can help students better understand the core of the lesson.)
Start your timer again and allow students to work through the activity with their group members. Some might spend the first 20-30 seconds strategizing or dividing tasks while others dive right in. Allow them to organize and work through any disagreements. The result should show an increase in production while using less resources (rulers/scissors) than they did before.

Questions for students:
1.      Were you more successful? 
2.      Why or why not? 
3.      What would they do differently next time?
Be prepared to discuss comments like:
·         We had already learned how to produce pins from their original round of play (gained knowledge) which made it easier when completing the task a second time. 
·         It’s faster and better but more boring as a worker doing the same tasks repeatedly. Are the workers gaining skills and knowledge if they are only focused on one small part of the process?
·         Some tasks are easier to “group” together than others. 
Following this discussion, transition students into a virtual exploration of Adam Smith’s Interactive Pin Factory example [this could also be a homework assignment if students have access to technology]. If each student has access to technology, they can spend a few minutes reading through the introduction. If not, display the activity on your classroom display and read the introduction to students. Then guide students through each of the “rooms” of the virtual pin factory. Students will note that just like in their own pin factories, work is divided into very specific tasks with several individuals working together to create pins. Throughout each of the rooms, there are additional discussion questions imbedded in the text for classroom conversations. For example, in Room Two of the Pin Factory students are asked to explain how the division of labor could lead to technological innovation. In Room Three, students are asked to consider some unintended consequences that might arise from specialization of labor. Read aloud each of the provided text prompts to the class and end by focusing in on the “why.”

Why is this increase in efficiency so important? According to Smith, it is because it enables trade and exchange:
 “It is the great multiplication of the productions of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people. Every workman has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for; and every other workman being exactly in the same situation, he is enabled to exchange a great quantity of his own goods for a great quantity, or, what comes to the same thing, for the price of a great quantity of theirs.”
Adam Smith Wealth of Nations Book 1 Chapter 1

Quick Version
Instead of having all the students do the first round, have just one or two students do it at the front of the room. This will go quicker and require less materials.

Additional Escape Room activities
This activity can be a continuation of the Adam Smith Escape Room. In lesson one, students learn about Adam Smith and read key passages from Wealth of Nations and correspondence between Smith and his contemporaries.

Another activity that can be used in combination with this is the Adam Smith’s Pin Factory & the Division of Labor Pipe Cleaner Activity. This activity puts students to work in their own "factory" then shows them an interactive virtual tour of Smith’s factory. By the end of the activity, students will have participated in and be able to describe the benefits of the division of labor to increasing productivity.