Adam Smith Escape Room

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

High School teachers who teach Adam Smith are already going beyond the requirements. Use the Adam Smith Escape Room to take your students beyond the ordinary as well. Students will explore big questions from Wealth of Nations and think about what inspires economists to study the world around them.

The activity is modeled on the “Escape Rooms” games where players are put into a specific setting and must find clues and solve puzzles in order to “escape” and win the game. 

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

How can we encourage further exploration and discussion of Adam Smith, his time, and ideas to social studies students? One way is to highlight Smith as the curious mind he was, and that we hope our students will become. Smith looked around the world and was inspired by what he saw. He asked interesting questions, investigated answers, wrote extensively, and debated the merits of his ideas with his peers.
This activity provides a way to introduce Adam Smith in the classroom. Smith is an interesting character. Not only is he commonly regarded as the first modern economist, he was also a philosopher, a historian, and a professor of logic and rhetoric.  Most teachers are not required to teach about Smith in economics or other disciplines. But some, perhaps many, might want to. 
As students explore some of Smith’s big questions from his most famous work, An Inquiry into the Natures and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), “Why and when do people trade? How does trade lead to prosperity for the wealthy and the poor?” they’ll learn how Smith’s concepts relate to basic economic principles and spend time thinking about what inspires economists to study the world around them.
The activity is modeled on the popular concept of “Escape Rooms”. Participants are put into a specific setting and must find clues and solve puzzles in order to “escape” and win the game.

Materials Needed (please email for copies of slides and materials)
  • Google Slides 
  • Printable activity materials

To introduce the materials, ask students if any of them have participated in an Escape Room and if so, have one or two volunteers explain the concept to the group. Tell students that for the day’s activity, we also find ourselves in a room. We aren’t sure who it belongs to, but in looking at the notes & materials around the room, the owner appears to be a scholar of some kind. Point out any specific areas of the room students should focus on and tell them that you will be acting as the narrator for the lesson, guiding students through each puzzle. Split the students in 2-4 groups depending on the size of your class. Provide each group with a set of materials.

Adam Smith Biography Puzzle 
Tell students that we will begin by trying to figure out who the room & writings belong to. Encourage learners to look around the room for identifying items. You can have a slideshow of images projected in the room and/or print outs of images of Panmure House, historical Edinburgh, rows of books. They might look up a passage from Smith's lecture notes or catch Smith’s sign off on a letter to his friend David Hume. Eventually someone discovers we are in the room of Adam Smith. The facilitator will then share a brief Smith biography.

Possible questions from the biography:
When did Smith live?
Where was Smith born?
What jobs did Smith have during his life?
What are Smith's major published works?
Who were other scholars writing during Smith's life?

Writings of Adam Smith Puzzle

Now we have a better idea of where we are and we know a bit more about Adam Smith. Now, let’s take a closer look at what he is studying. What questions is he asking and trying to answer? Look through some of his correspondences to see his conversations with other scholars, friends, and acquaintances to find the answer.

Encourage the groups to read through Smith’s letters. There are Smith passages included in the lesson materials as well as a collection of Smith’s correspondence here. 

Recommended correspondence to include are:
Adam Smith to his mother, letters 5 & 6
Adam Smith to David Hume, letter 86, 88, 93, 137
Adam Smith to William Strahan, letter 207
Adam Smith to Andreas Holt, Commissioner Of The Danish Board Of Trade And Economy, letter 208
Adam Smith to Thomas Cadell, letter 222
Smith’s Thoughts On The State Of The Contest With America, Appendix B

Have students look for key words and main ideas, and as they find them, write a list of their findings on the board using citations. The list might include the division of labor, trade, money, geography, specialization, markets, etc. Use this list to start a discussion with students.

Ask students to summarize Smith’s big questions and emphasize the importance of asking questions about the world around you. Smith asks why and how individuals and communities trade, and how trade can lead to wealth. This exploration into Adam Smith is an excellent precursor to other economics activities like The Trade Game or The Tragedy of the Commons.

More escape room activities
Adam Smith’s Pin Factory & the Division of Labor Pipe Cleaner Activity
Adam Smith Timeline Game: Scientific Innovations & Historic Moments