Currency, Bartering and Precious Metals

24th May 2013 at 01:00


All that glitters is not gold

The best-known precious metals are gold and silver, which were used in the production of early coins and have long been popular materials for craftwork and jewellery.

But what makes silver and gold more valuable than other metals? How are they formed? And is it possible to replicate precious metals using cheaper materials?

Introduce your students to the magical world of the alchemists, who flourished in the Middle Ages and endeavoured to transform base metals into gold and silver, often using deceit to convince others that they had been successful.

Alchemy, the forerunner of chemistry, was practised in ancient times in regions including China, India and Greece, and was revived in medieval Europe. Alchemists believed that a mix of science, philosophy and mysticism could transform metals, because they thought that all matter was composed of earth, air, fire and water, so any substance could be formed with the right combination of elements.

The ultimate goal of alchemy was the discovery of the philosopher's stone - a mythical substance that could turn any metal into gold or silver and could cure all diseases and deliver immortality. Because of alchemy's pre-Christian origins and the secrecy in which it was practised, it was condemned by the Catholic Church.


Purchasing power

What would a #163;1 coin buy today, compared with what it was worth in 1983? How does the purchasing power of money change over time? Ask your students to investigate what they can buy with coins in your local currency by browsing in a supermarket or searching online.

Ask students to measure a teacher's weight and translate it into currency. For example, a #163;1 coin weighs 9.5g, so if the teacher weighs 75.6kg, he or she would be worth #163;7,957.89.

In another task, you could ask your students to do basic calculations involving coins. For example, how much heavier are 100 1p coins than one #163;1 coin? How much heavier are 50 2p coins than one #163;1 coin?

The idea of doubling can also be fun. Try asking your students how much money they would end up with today if they were given one #163;1 coin in 1983, two #163;1 coins in 1984, three in 1985 and so on.

Finish the lesson by asking the children to create an infographic that presents the data they have gathered. It all adds up to helping them learn the value of money.


Tricks of the trade

Since ancient times, people have swapped items of value, either in the exchange of gifts and services or in markets where tokens can be used as a symbol of value.

Much trade was in purely useful items, such as livestock or sacks of grain (the shekel, an ancient unit of currency, may have begun as a unit of weight for barley). However, trade also took place in items that were simply beautiful: objects such as cowrie shells or beads were exchanged for more useful commodities. Precious metals, from which early coins were made, also fall into this category.

Greek philosopher Aristotle considered that every object had two uses: the first, its original use; the second, as an item that could be traded or sold for a profit. Use this concept to introduce your students to the notion of capitalism and modern shopping and trade. What would students trade with each other? What value would they put on a meal or a haircut? What would they pay for non-essential items such as video games?

Although the idea of a barter economy is strong in the popular imagination, no evidence suggests that any society ever relied primarily on barter. In modern times, regional bartering systems have emerged in places such as the US and Greece, sometimes in response to the hardship of the global economic downturn. But the people who use these systems have not abandoned money.

Related resources

Children solve real-life money problems and learn to recognise coins in TESConnect partner NGfLCymru's activity. bit.lyReal-lifeMoney

Who wants to be a millionaire? Have fun with mathematics using eugenesmith's quiz inspired by the popular television show. bit.lyMillionaireMaths

Explore the importance of fair trade in a lesson shared by TESConnect partner Traidcraft Schools. bit.lyFairTradeIssue

Introduce children to natural and man-made metals in must be crazy!'s lesson. bit.lyMaterialsPresentation

Further resources

Try TESConnect's collection of science lessons and activities on the uses, qualities and behaviours of materials. bit.lyScienceOfMaterials

Make Tudor-style money pots in an activity shared by Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. bit.lyTudorMoneyPot

Ask children to bring in old or foreign coins for a lesson on the history of money from hijohnanderson. bit.lyHistoryOfMoney

Learn all about currency using the TESConnect collection. bit.lyMoneyCollection.

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