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Lesson Ideas
Warm-up activities

The Change Game
A Tool for Exploring the Effects of Innovation

This page is an update of an article I published in the California Council for the Social Studies' Social Studies Review (Volume 20 Number 3, Spring 1981, pages 16-19).  

The game really can "change" your classroom by actively involving students in exploring the effects of innovation in the past and on the future.

Click on any of the links in this table to move directly to its section of this page.

Teacher Pre-Test The Game, part 1 The Game, part 2 Answers Resources

Teacher Pre-Test

In what years do you think the following items were invented?  You can click here to see the answers, but don't peek just yet.  Fill-in the blanks based on what you know at this moment.

1. the typewriter __________ 9. the incandescent light bulb __________
2. adhesive ("Scotch") tape __________ 10. cold, ready-to-eat cereal __________
3. aspirin __________ 11. toilet paper __________
4. the advertising agency __________ 12. the toothbrush __________
5. the bicycle __________ 13. the toothpaste tube __________
6. the refrigerator __________ 14. the zipper __________
7. the wrist watch __________ 15. Roll-on deodorant __________
8. the Gallup Poll __________ 16. the Xerox machine __________

The Game, part 1

If you are looking for an exciting, informative and entertaining introduction to a unit on industrialization or the effects of change, try the following.  

At the start of each class period during the unit, write one of the items from the Teacher Pre-Test on your board.  Ask your students to quietly determine in their own minds the year in which it first appeared.  After appointing someone to keep track of the "bids," run an auction to see who can get closest to the actual year.  

After each "bid" you can tell the class that it is (a) high or low, (b) warmer or colder (this works only for bids after the first), or (c) right or wrong.  Answer (a) provides the most information and should result in shorter games.  Answer (c) provides the least, and could lead to games that end without a winner in groups with little experience.  Answer (b) provides enough information to keep students thinking and involved without leading to the frustration that can result from answer (c).  If you use answer (a), you might also want to make a rule that a student loses the right to continue in the bidding if his/her bid is outside the bounds you've noted (i.e. it is lower than a bid you've previously identified as low, or higher than one you've identified as too high).  A rule like this can encourage careful listening.  

Instruct students to raise a hand when they want to bid, and select only among those with raised hands.  Do not compel students to bid.  Remember that in "real" auctions people bid whenever they feel like it.  It has been my experience that while some students choose not to participate at first, as the game progresses they become infected with the excitement it generates, and are drawn in.

Continue the bidding until the correct year is identified, then discuss some or all of the following questions with your students:

  1. How did people get along before the invention was made?
  2. Considering that many inventions never catch on, why might society have accepted this one, at this time?
  3. Might it have been accepted had it been invented earlier?
  4. Could it have been invented earlier? (What, if anything, was necessary for its invention that might not have existed earlier?)
  5. What social effects has its adoption had?
  6. What jobs did its acceptance destroy?
  7. What jobs did its acceptance create?
  8. To what further inventions did it lead? (Along this line, I've given a student an invention and asked him/her to construct a family tree of items descended from it.  The results were very interesting.  However, if you feel that your students need a more structured task, have them read one or more chapters from James Burke's Connections, then have them construct trees based on what they've read.  You could, of course, also have them extend either tree backwards to include inventions necessary for its creation.)

As the auction and discussion should take no more than the first few minutes of a class period, you can use this activity as many times as you can come up with different items.  I've found that, done properly, students never tire of it.  On the contrary, they usually beg for more items on which to "bid" long after I'm ready to move on.

Eventually, after we've discussed several of the things that we presently take for granted, one or more students will come up with a comment like, "How come those people were so stupid?  Any moron would see that (fill in the invention) is necessary, and would easily figure out a way to make it."  Invariably I'll respond, "Are you stupid because you don't have something your children or grandchildren will have?"  This starts minds churning, and soon I begin to get questions about what sort of inventions the future might bring.  Rather than reeling off a list I've gleaned from books and magazines, a strategy that I've found has a tendency to shut off thought and discussion unless very carefully handled, I proceed to rewrite the rules of the game and continue playing as described in The Game, part 2.

The Game, part 2

This time, instead of beginning with an invention and having students attempt to guess a year, I throw out a potential effect of a possible invention and have students attempt to identify the invention.  They do so by asking me questions, answerable with a yes or no, designed to gather information about the invention.

The first few times I play this version with a group, I occasionally have to provide clues to guide the questioning when it becomes stalled or fixed on an unproductive area.  I might say something like, "You seem to be assuming that this is a machine of some sort, perhaps you should test some other possibilities."  But for the most part students listen carefully, think clearly, ask excellent questions, and press on until they've gathered enough information for someone to shout out an excited, "I've got it!"

I find that by the time students have identified an invention, they are so full of ideas and questions that it is easy to lead a productive, exciting discussion which focuses on that invention's chance for realization, its likely effects, and its potential value and dangers.  I've had students seize control of such a discussion, move it in surprising directions, and keep it going for an entire class period.  All I had to do was act as moderator.

To find potential future inventions to use in this game is a relatively easy matter.  Books, magazines and web sites such as those listed in the resource section below are filled with them.  Once you've picked one, all you need to do is imagine a likely, intriguing effect arising from it and you are ready to begin.

To help you get started, here are three ready-to-use "clues."

  1. This invention would help us see the world in ways we can now barely imagine.
  2. This invention might cause many of today's handicapped and non-handicapped citizens to exchange social and economic roles.
  3. This innovation might eliminate traffic police and keep families from breaking up.


The Game, part 1

As an invention frequently goes through many stages before it is perfected and widely adopted, it is often difficult to fix a specific year as "the one" in which it was invented or accepted.  With this in mind, I selected the following years as those in which the given inventions reached marketable stages in their developments.

1. the typewriter 1867 9. the incandescent light bulb 1879
2. adhesive ("Scotch") tape 1925 10. cold, ready-to-eat cereal 1863
3. aspirin 1899 11. toilet paper 1857
4. the advertising agency 1841 12. the toothbrush 1770
5. the bicycle 1855 13. the toothpaste tube 1892
6. the refrigerator 1916 14. the zipper 1913
7. the wrist watch 1907 15. Roll-on deodorant 1955
8. the Gallup Poll 1935 16. the Xerox machine 1950

Answers 1-10 are from The People's Chronology: A Year-by-Year Record of Human Events from Prehistory to the Present by James Trager.  Answers 11-13 are from The People's Almanac by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace.  Answers 14-16 are from The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace.  In addition to these books, The Timetables of History by Bernard Grun is quite valuable for identifying invention dates; as is The Timetables of Technology by Bryan Bunch and Alexander Hellemans.

The Is That a Fact? section of this site shows that seemingly indisputable facts sometimes are neither indisputable nor facts.  Likewise, some will dispute one or more of the dates above.  If you want to search the web for information on them, use the following table.  Click an invention to open a Google search for it in a separate browser window.  When you are finished exploring, close that window to return to this one.

1. the typewriter 9. the incandescent light bulb
2. adhesive ("Scotch") tape 10. cold, ready-to-eat cereal
3. aspirin 11. toilet paper
4. the advertising agency 12. the toothbrush
5. the bicycle 13. the toothpaste tube
6. the refrigerator 14. the zipper
7. the wrist watch 15. Roll-on deodorant
8. the Gallup Poll 16. the Xerox machine

The Game, part 2

Before the web, the best sources I found for identifying possible future inventions were in books.  Future Facts: A Forecast of the World As We Will Know It Before the End of the Century by Steven Rosen and The People's Almanac Presents The Book of Predictions by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Irving Wallace were the easiest to use.  The net has changed all that.  For good ideas today, look at the sites to which I've provided links below.

I based the "clues" I've listed for part 2 of the game on the following potential inventions:

  1. a machine capable of translating the languages of intelligent animals into human language and vice versa

  2. contact lenses which enable machinery to be operated by eye movement

  3. computer systems which allow workers to do all of their work at home

If you are interested in knowing more about the research being done on communication with animals, see Lilly On Dolphins: Humans of the Sea by John C. Lilly; and Future Facts.  The latter outlines the work done with chimps by Ann and David Premack of the University of California.  Equipment to control machinery by eye movement is described in Future Facts, while Alvin Toffler discusses the effects of transferring work into the home in The Electronic Cottage.

Resources to supplement and extend this activity

Books Web sites Other Lesson Ideas


by James Burke
Paperback - 304 pages Revised edition (September 1995) 
Little Brown & Co (Pap); ISBN: 0316116726

A selection of Burke's Discovery Channel Connections programs are also available on VHS video tape and DVD.

The People's Chronology : A Year-By-Year Record of Human Events from Prehistory to the
Present (A Henry Holt Reference Book) 
by James Trager
Paperback - 1251 pages Revised & Updated edition (August 1994) 
Owlet; ISBN: 0805031340 

The Timetables of History : A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events 
by Bernard Grun, Daniel J. Boorstin
Paperback - 724 pages 3rd Revised edition (December 1991) 
Touchstone Books; ISBN: 067174271X

read an excerpt

The Timetables of Science : A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in the History of Science 
by Alexander Hellemans, Bryan Bunch (Contributor)
Paperback - 660 pages (March 1991) 
Touchstone Books; ISBN: 0671733281

The Timetables of Technology : A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in the History of Technology
by Bryan H. Bunch, Alexander Hellemans
Hardcover (November 1993) 
Simon & Schuster; ISBN: 0671769189 

Future Shock
by Alvin Toffler
Mass Market Paperback Reissue edition (December 1991) 
Bantam Books; ISBN: 0553277375

by Gerard K. O'Neill
Hardcover: 284 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 27, 1981)
ISBN: 0671242571

Yesterday's Tomorrows
Past Visions of the American Future

by Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press; Reprint edition (April 1, 1996)
ISBN: 0801853990
Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 9.9 x 0.4 inches

Wasn't the Future Wonderful?
A View of Trends and Technology from the 1930s

by Tim Onosko
Paperback: 188 pages
Publisher: E P Dutton;
1st edition (April 1, 1979)
ISBN: 0525475516

This book reprints articles depicting possible future technology and life from the 1930s magazines Modern Mechanix and Inventions and Popular Science and Inventions.

Where's My Jetpack?
A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Materialized

by Daniel H. Wilson, Ph.D.
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (April 17, 2007)
ISBN-10: 1596911360
ISBN-13: 978-1596911369
Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.1 x 0.7 inches

The Lord Darcy Series by Randall Garrett

These three books (Murder and Magic, Too Many Magicians, and Lord Darcy Investigates), republished in one volume in 2002, were out of print for many years.  While only science fiction (albeit very good science fiction), they transport the reader into an alternate universe where a magical culture rather than a scientific one dominates Earth.  I suggest them in the context of The Change Game because they depict one very well thought out vision of what our lives might be like had the process that led to the inventions that are the subject of the game never developed.  Whet your appetite with an excerpt.

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Web sites

Especially for kids (listed by Seth Stern in an article from the Christian Science Monitor)

Invention Facts and History: The Great Idea Finder

The Lemelson Center Links to Invention Information on the Web

Hyper History Online

When you see the site, click on the scientist button at the bottom left of the window, just to the right of the Color Code arrow.  Beneath the timeline that will appear, you should see a button that links you to Inventions, Discoveries 1590-2000.  Click on that.

Inventions HQ

This site contains links to just about anything you might conceivably want to know about inventions that can be found on the web.

Invention Timelines on the Web

Popular Inventions

A Timeline of Inventions

Inventions that changed the way we live

Nationmaster Timeline of Inventions

A Google search for Invention Timelines

What is the most important invention of the past two thousand years?

Major thinkers from around the world provide answers and reasoning.

21st Century Inventions - a FEED e-zine special report

Forecasts from The World Future Society

TechCast (formerly the GW Forecast)

LIFE Millennium

LIFE magazine presents its picks for the top 100 events of the second millennium.  This is the online version of LIFE's Fall 1997 Special Issue.

Long Island Newsday looks at Our Future

Take a special look at the section called 21 Inventions for the 21st century.

PBS' The American Experience lists predictions about the 20th century made in 1900

See if your students can figure out which predictions on the list came to pass.  For each of those, can they find the year it was realized?

The New York Times looks into our future and past

Also of interest is this 1997 issue of The New York Times Magazine.  In it, the editors have included articles that look back 100 years, and into the future 100 years.  It contains especially nice sections on the 1939 and 1964 New York World's Fairs.

Paleo Future

This blog contains an ever-growing collection of items showing what the future looked like from the perspective of various Americans at various times. It is a treasure trove, mined from late 19th and 20th century popular culture.

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Other Lesson Ideas

Here is a group activity that allows students to explore the social value of inventions that appeared during the Industrial Revolution.  It probably works best with groups no larger than 5.  Once all groups have arrived at a ranking, have a person from each report its result and reasoning to the entire class.  Afterwards see if you can reach a class consensus.

If the list is too long for the students with whom you work, shorten it before you pass it out to them.  If it works well for you, try the activity again using items you dropped.

If your students are unfamiliar with one or more of the inventions on the list, use them as subjects when playing Part 1.  Once you're convinced that your students have become familiar with them, move on to the group activity.

On January 24, 2002, linguist Geoff Nunberg focused on the effect of technological change on the English language in an essay at the end of Fresh Air.  If you have the Real Player installed for your browser, you can hear what he had to say.  Consider playing it for and discussing it with your students.  If you're feeling truly creative, you might want develop a version of the change game built around retronyms. For other words that could be used in a linguistic version of  The Change Game, see the Resource Links for the warm-up page Is That a Word?.

You may also want to explore the lesson Yesterday's Tomorrow.

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copyright 2000-2009 All Rights Reserved.
original web posting: Thursday, August 24, 2000
last modified: Sunday, December 27, 2009