Fostering a Spontaneous Classroom Economy

By Brent Vasicek on April 16, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Years ago I decided to implement a ticket-based reward system. Basically, when students do well, they earn a ticket. The great thing about this system is the tickets are cheap. You can easily design them in a word processing document using clip art images that are about two inches square. (Make enough copies for 1,000 tickets to get started.) The costly part can come with the rewards when the students cash in their tickets.

The rewards for these tickets vary by year. Some years we have an official cart with items from the Oriental Trading Company. Other years I offer general supplies or privileges in the classroom. Some of the available items include:

  • classroom supplies (e.g., erasers, pencils, notebooks)
  • extra credit points
  • lunch with the teacher
  • exclusive use of the “cool chair” during reading time
  • extra recess time
  • miscellaneous freebies (posters, books, pads of paper, magnets, silly bands, etc.)

The biggest use of tickets comes during the end-of-the-year auction. During this time, I put classroom items up for sale. Items including the weekly mind maps we do as a class, the rotating Leadership Lighthouse prop, a copy of our class book, theme-specific decorations, stickers, laminated posters with our daily schedule, etc., are all up for bid. (Read more about this and our other end-of-the-year rituals in my post "That's a Wrap.")


The Birth of the Spontaneous Economy

Beth Newingham describes a beautifully designed token economy system in her blog. I do not have such an intentional system in my class. However, this year I had an unusual situation with the tickets arise. One student began creating origami wallets to hold the tickets. Others liked these wallets, so he made many and began charging tickets in exchange for his product. While this undermined my objective of using the tickets to reward positive behavior, I welcomed his entrepreneurship and used this as a teaching opportunity.

I was unaware that this child was selling his origami for tickets until our end-of-the-week class meeting. A few students complained that they were not able to buy the origami wallets. The wallet producer said he was unable to make the wallets fast enough. Our weekly meeting turned into a discussion of supply, demand, labor, and price points.

The following week all sorts of “shops” started popping up. First a girl selling homemade jewelry, then a lending library. A pencil store, a plastic lizard shop, a poem-writing service, a fortune-telling service, customized thank you notes — I was amazed at what these students were coming up with! The neat desk space that makes the room look spiffy had turned into a flea market sea of chaos. I ignored my OCD and decided to embrace this to further enhance their economic knowledge.


The Growth of the Spontaneous Economy

It was time for a new seating chart, so I decided I would pick six of the shops and put them in Strip Mall Row. For Strip Mall Row, the students’ desk fronts (a.k.a. store fronts) would be visible to the class instead of being put into our typical groups, in which the fronts of desks are adjacent. Strip Mall Row allowed for convenient shopping and advertising. However, it came at a cost . . . rent of three tickets per week and keeping up with your retail permit (turning in all your homework on time). Soon everyone wanted to be in Strip Mall Row, but the zoning stipulations of the classroom only allowed for six desks. This led to a great discussion on real estate and the value of location.

Students then started creating gift cards and coupons. A discussion on incentives ensued. Some students wanted to spread the word about their products through flyers in mailboxes and posters. While I didn’t charge postage for the flyers, I did decide to charge for advertising space around the room. Soon students were hanging signage above their desks and on key locations around the room. This, of course, led to a discussion about what makes a good advertisement. We talked about what draws attention and the importance of spelling and organization.

Speaking of organization, one girl started keeping track of each purchase and giving receipts. This led to a great discussion on data collection and how to use the data to improve your store.


The Spread of the Spontaneous Economy

One of the other classes that uses a ticket-based reward system heard about the shops. Their students wanted to shop in our Pier 24 Mall. In lieu of a trip to the Thursday school store, their teacher let her students purchase the goods manufactured by the students in Pier 24. A day before the shopping commenced, each student did a 20-second verbal commercial advertisement to the other class to show what was being offered in the mall.

When Thursday came, the students could hardly contain themselves. They were sprucing up their shops and straightening the signage. The room was completely full of excitement during the 20 minutes the Pier 24 Mall was open. Shoppers and buyers had a great time!

Afterwards, we held a discussion. Some students asked for advice on how to bring in more customers. One student shared his strategy of “talking up the product” during lunch the day before. Another student said he went up to customers at the Strip Mall, talked to them, and led them over to his desk to make a sale. Personalization and building rapport with the customer were the lessons in that one.

Finally, a situation came up in which a student was buying from one shop, marking up the product, and reselling it in another shop. This led to a great discussion about the middle man in business.

All this happened over the past two weeks. I feel as though we are a city that grew over night. I can only imagine what sort of creative ideas these students will dream up during their Spring Break. 

Not only is there an overwhelming amount of creativity and excitement for this student-based economy, but it doesn’t cost the teacher a dime!



For more on this subject, see the Scholastic article "Books for Teaching Economic Concepts" and Beth Newingham's post "Using the Class Store to Teach Economic Principles."


Happy shopping,



2i2 is a trademark of Mr. Vasicek’s class.


This must be a 4th grade thing, as the same spontaneous economy blossomed in my classroom after implementing Beth Newingham's ideas. Right now, I allow students to sell their wares in the classroom store; however, I love the store front idea!

Yes, money is a form of extrinsic motivation. What makes a job not seem like a job is when the intrinsic motivation is present. It is nice to get paid for what you love to do. I encourage everyone to pursue their passions in life.

Brent, I think this is the best blog post I've read in ages. To me, this epitomizes true teaching, and I love that you let yourself get caught up in the energy. Student-driven, rigorous, constructivist teaching at its best - thank you for reminding me about the type of responsive teaching I want to do more often!

So do u volunteer to do your job without getting paid?

Is there a problem with enjoying to learn? Children have so much on their plates these days that it is very hard to hold to hold their attention in conventional ways. Instead of shooting down their ideas, Brent has validated their thoughts and ideas and let them run with them. He has used the opportunity that they have provided to teach and it is not a lesson learned in text books. They probably don't even realize they are learning but it will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Instead of learning it in a conventional way in high school they have learned it in 4th grade and are just maybe better equipped to be the business people of tomorrow. Brent seems to have complete control of his class. He may not have control like you would like. He is fostering thinkers not robots who are bored with book learning. Every child learns differently and I feel very sorry for your conventional way of thinking. Every opportunity to expand a child's interest in how the world works and what it takes to succeed should be utilized. If there were more teachers willing to communicate with their students and SHARE knowledge we would be way better off in this country. This is obviously an excellent example of innovative teaching...going the extra mile.

I agree that students shouldn't need to be rewarded, but with the way our society is set up it seems to be true. I will say that some students are intrinsically motivated; however, not all of them are. Just like some students are visual learners and others are kinesthetic. It is my job to try to connect with them all.

For more on theories on motivation check out Daniel Pink's books, his recent Oprah interviews, or his TED Talk online.

This is absolutely fantastic! I love how you let them lead towards class discussions and learning experiences with their creative ideas! What a fun place to be!

Please explain why students need to be rewarded?

As a former teacher of (old term) Emotionally Handicapped High School Students and now a consultant trainer for 20 years - I haven't met a teacher yet that would prefer to reward.

Do not think for a minute that you are in control. The student is telling you that he will not work unless you give him more than an education that he deserves in an enjoyable, positive manner.

The argument that salaries are a teachers reward don't hold water either. Teachers are paid regardless of the job they do.

Students are internally motivated to learn!

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