On Whom Do You Depend?

lesson plan division of labor wealth of nations specialization pin factory high school middle school opportunity cost interdependence ecology biomes

How do we decide what to do for ourselves, and when to depend on others?
Lesson Description
This activity is designed to help your students discover the interdependence of different types of jobs and how we are able to benefit from the labor of others through the division of labor and specialization. We can choose to do a number of activities for ourselves (fix a car, paint a wall, mow the lawn) but using our own time to do those things will cost us the opportunity to use that time in other ways. Sometimes our time is more valuable than the cost of hiring someone else to do a job for us, even when we could do it ourselves.
Time and Audience
This lesson is designed to be flexible in both the amount of time needed to complete it and the level of understanding of the students. The base activity can be completed in under 30 minutes, but additional modifications and supplementing with additional resources can stretch this lesson over two 60 minute periods. The core activity may be appropriate for students as young as 2nd grade, but appropriate modifications make the lesson sufficiently rigorous and engaging for most middle school students.

  1. People divide labor into different jobs. When people choose one job and do it well, we call that specialization.
  2. When people divide labor and specialize in one job, they can usually do it better than others who specialize in different jobs.
  3. People specialize in jobs that help others. When we specialize to help others get what they want, we can have more resources to get what we want. 
  4. People tend to specialize in jobs where they give up fewer opportunities than someone else would in order to do the job (we call this a lower marginal opportunity cost).


  1. Specialization Handout 
  2. Job cards
  3. Slide deck versions: 
    1. Base lesson only
    2. Base lesson with video
    3. Lesson with extensions; and 
    4. Lesson with extensions and video
  4. Concept crossover handout
  5. Animals that Trade quote handout
  6. Pin factory quote handout
  7. Woollen coat quote handout


Pages one and two of the Specialization handout cover this lesson.


Before the students arrive, print the attached activity sheet and cut out the individual job slips. You will need a complete set of job slips for each group of students, so make sure you print enough. You may want to print them on heavy paper or laminate them for repeated use. When the students arrive, divide the class into small groups (three students per group is ideal, but the groups size is variable). Each group will need a shared workspace, though a single desk or table should be sufficient space. Distribute a copy of the job slips to each group of students.
You may also want to write the Adam Smith quote (see Quotes section below, also included in the slide decks and handouts) on the board or project it on a wall and have students discuss what they think it means both before and after the activity.


For older students: Show students the video “An Animal that Trades: Part 3, Division of Labor” from the Adam Smith Works website (see Media Toolkit below, also included in the slide decks and handouts). Ask them to think about different jobs they see being done each and every day.
Inform the students that each group has a number of different types of jobs on slips of paper. Their task is to put the jobs in order and they must use all of the job slips. They will be required to think creatively about how each job serves the needs of someone else in the community so that others can do their jobs as well. You may want to encourage students to write down how they have linked the jobs together.


Give the students a few minutes to organize the jobs into sequential order. As students work in their groups, move through the room and talk with each group about how they are arranging the jobs. There are no correct or incorrect orders, so long as the students can successfully link one job to the next. Gently encourage groups to think of things differently than groups around them. This will prove helpful later in the review portion of the lesson.


After several minutes, bring the class back together. Go around the room and ask each group to share the order in which they arranged the job cards. You may wish to have them write their order on the board or on a poster to share with the class. Be sure to note that many groups had different orders and that there was no correct order. Discuss why each job helps others do their own job and point out that many people doing different jobs help us to have many of the things we want, even if we don’t do it ourselves. Ask students to consider how much time people would have to improve their skills at their own job if they had to do all of these jobs for themselves. 


  1. Have students try to come up with alternate shapes (other than a line) and see how they can connect the jobs in a circle, polygon, or even a web.
  2. When students put the jobs in order, ask them to describe how a single dollar could move from one person to another through the entire chain. Have them write a story about the travels of this dollar. Ask students to consider why the dollar moves in the opposite direction of the goods and services being exchanged. (You may choose to use the WheresGeorge.com website to show them how real dollars move through the economy from one person to another.)
  3. Have students create their own job cards and see how many new jobs they can fit into the process. Blank cards have been provided in the job cards sheets for this purpose—as with the other Job Cards, you may wish to laminate these for re-use and provide dry-erase markers. 
  4. Create a series of stations throughout the classroom with different props or pictures representing each of the jobs. Have a number of students act out the order they created in the original exercise. You can even have several groups acting out their order simultaneously. It may seem chaotic to do so, but in the end, everyone is able to get their job done.
  5. Assign different time allowances for different jobs and give each group a time budget, then ask them to complete the jobs. Would the amount of time to do a task be the same for specialized as for non-specialized workers? Does it matter (and if so, how much does it matter?) whether specialization makes a job faster when trying to get everything done?
  6. For older students (5th grade or above), start the lesson by walking them through the Interactive Pin Factory on the Adam Smith Works website (see Media Toolkit below). The activity focuses on specialization between professions, but this example shows specialization even within a very narrow process. You may wish to modify the activity by asking students how there is specialization even within each of the jobs used on the job cards in the activity.
  7. Read through the quote page on Adam Smith’s pin factory with your class. Help them work together to learn what Adam Smith is saying in this passage. How does it apply to their economy? 
  8. Read through the quote page on Adam Smith’s woollen coat with your class. Help them work together to learn what Adam Smith is saying in this passage. How does it apply to their economy? Show the short film “I, Pencil the Movie” (see Media Toolkit below). How are the jobs involved in making a coat or a pencil similar to (or different from) the jobs being done in students’ economies?

Discussion Questions:

●      When do you think the division of labor is most helpful? Are there times when specialization may not make you better off?
●      What are some goods or services that you and your family use that you could not produce on your own? What are some goods or services that you and your family can produce on your own? Do you usually produce them yourself or do you buy them from others who specialize? How would your life be different if you had to produce everything yourself?
●      Sometimes we build machines that specialize in doing jobs that people used to do. How could this impact the people that used to do those jobs? What can they do in response? How could this impact other people in the economy?

Concept Crossover: Ecology

A handout has been provided for this activity, which can be paired with the video “How to Make $1700 Chocolates From Scratch”, which can be found in the Media Toolkit section below.

A biome is a group of plants, animals, and other environmental features that all work well together to support and sustain life. Each animal in a biome plays a different role. Some are herbivores that eat plants while some are carnivores that eat other animals. All animals feed the soil when they die. Sometimes, if an entire species in a biome is wiped out, it can harm other plants or animals as well. Market economies are organic systems, similar to biomes. When new technologies are introduced, it can disrupt the economy. There are some important differences, but like other dynamic systems, people in the economy can adapt and change to suit the current economic environment.
In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith uses the example of different breeds of dogs and how they are suited for different environments. Smith uses this example to demonstrate that trade is essential to fully experience the gains from specialization of labor, by noting that the strength of a mastiff does nothing to improve the life of a greyhound, nor does the quickness of the greyhound improve the life of a spaniel, because these different dog breeds do not trade with one another. But different animals within the same ecosystem do interact and adapt to the larger environment, each serving its own purpose in the big picture while pursuing their own desires.

Living Economics!


In 2014, the Dutch television program Metropolis TV sent a reporter to Côte D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in western Africa to interview N’Da Alphonse who operates a small cacao bean farm. Cacao beans are the main ingredient in chocolate. Mr. Alphonse and his farm workers had never tasted chocolate before. They did not even know what cacao beans were used for. All they knew was that by working hard to grow cacao beans, they could sell the beans to others who wanted them. With that money, Mr. Alphonse could pay his workers and they could then buy food and clothing for their families. As a gift, the reporter brought many chocolate bars and shared them with the farmers, who were delighted that they could help make such a delicious treat.
Do you think you would be able to grow cacao beans and all of the other ingredients needed to make a chocolate bar on your own, or would you rather purchase one at a local store? 
Cacao beans are not native to Côte D’Ivoire. Why do you think there is a cacao bean farm there?


“But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only… It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interests.”
~ Adam Smith, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” 1776

Quote handout: Animals that Trade
Quote handout: Adam Smith's pin factory
Quote handout: Adam Smith's woollen coat

Media Toolkit:

“An Animal That Trades: Part 3, Division of Labor” (8:51)
Adam Smith Works, Liberty Fund, 4/13/2019

Interactive Pin Factory
Adam Smith Works, Liberty Fund, 2019
“I, Pencil the Movie” (6:32)
 Competitive Enterprise Institute, 11/14/2012
“I, Pencil Extended Commentary: Trade and Specialization” (2:55)
I, Pencil, Competitive Enterprise Institute, 12/19/2012
“How to Make $1700 Chocolates From Scratch” (9:06)
How To Make Everything, 2/14/2017
“How to Make a $1500 Chicken Sandwich in Only 6 Months” (3:43)
How To Make Everything, 9/15/2015
(The Entire How To Make Everything channel on YouTube is relevant to this discussion.)
“Trade is Made of Win, Part 2: Cooperation” (2:43)
Learn Liberty, 3/27/2011
“Specialization and Trade: Because We Can’t Be Good At Everything”  (2:43)
Learn Liberty, 7/9/2013
“Sesame Street: Mike Rowe’s Dirtiest Jobs” (5:43)
Sesame Street, 3/5/2010