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Making Economics Lively

How to get students to love economics has been a pressing concern that has been debated and discussed in the literature of economic education over the past few decades. This literature points to content vs. delivery debate and to various nontraditional techniques and materials which are useful in trying to make introductory economics courses more interesting and relevant to students. Here is a brief glimpse at this terrain of an experiential sense of teachers and students.

What is the problem here? Students tend to dislike economics and frequently find it having no real application or relevance to their lives. Economic instruction is too often so abstract that they cannot make adequate connections between the theory being presented in class and the real-life economic decisions affecting their daily lives—“Unfortunately for…practical-minded students, the trend in economics research…particularly since World War II, has become increasingly theoretical and abstract. Economics, as it is currently taught…tends to emphasize the need for formal modeling with an increasing emphasis on its mathematical underpinnings—the ‘science’ end of social science—at the cost of the interest and understanding of those who are attracted to the social considerations of how people make decisions about spending, saving, working, investing, and generally engaging in ‘social’ behavior.” This is not all. Students in different parts of the world have protested against imaginary neoclassical economics and mathematics in their education, and demanded more real-world economic skills training. What is the solution?

A view is about changing the delivery in class, i.e. technology of teaching, by using more interesting methods of presenting course material without changing the substance or content of what is being taught. There is perhaps over-focus on delivery as the way out of the problem. The opposite view, much owed to David Colander and Irene Staveren, is focused on content—what is the content of what we are teaching, what role does that content serve, and should the content be changed?

Consider first the content issues of teaching. How can teachers translate the latest advancements in economics thinking (e.g. evolutionary game theory, complexity theory, experimental economics, behavioural economics) into digestible discussions and models that students can understand? The limitations of logico-scientific narrative, the believability of the reasoning process of high theory in class and how the classroom reasoning process carries over into real-world situations are too important to be brushed aside. Clarifying how much truth the teachers suggest the models they teach have is the most important aspect of good teaching. What Alfred Marshall saw economics as not a body of concrete truth but as an engine for the discovery of concrete truth should be emphasized. It should be made clear that the central models that the teachers teach in economics are simply models — “calisthenics of the mind” — and that they are useful in some instances, and not useful in others. How the models can be related to policy issues and what is the appropriate degree of uncertainty about policy to convey to students in the models that are taught are also components of content. Good teaching is also about motivating the students–in the face of the absence of self-motivated students as a majority by getting the students exercise their mind and learn to teach themselves. The key to getting students to learn is to get them to discuss economic issues together in bull sessions, to get them reading about the economy on their own. Much of teaching strategy should be designed to accomplish that. This is not all. Economics should be conveyed as a pluralistic subject with both orthodox and heterodox perspectives on the economy, showing their respective weaknesses and strengths and why these matter. “Pluralism means good science. It allows space for competition between theories. But more importantly, pluralism creates the room for complementary explanations, which are context dependent.” A wide diversity of context, with many real-world examples must be conveyed to the students so that the students are able to understand the complexities, regularities and challenges of the economic world around them. In short, students are drawn to economics if its content is good on the above lines and even if the delivery of the content is bad.

Now consider delivery of teaching and teaching technology. There is indeed changing technology in the delivery of knowledge to students. Students’ enthusiasm for and interest in economics can be increased by introducing more situations and problems which students generally confront in their own lives; and by encouraging them to develop the theories themselves! The latter way provides the students with an opportunity to “do” economics and to think like economists—“Economics teachers frequently cover principles with the chalk-and-talk pedagogy of introducing a concept, demonstrating how that concept can be translated into either a graph or an equation (or both).” After which, applications are introduced. “A different approach reverses this process and lets students try to discover for themselves what the underlying principle(s) of behavior might be. In other words, teachers can present students with a scenario in which an economic concept is illustrated without explaining what that concept is, point them in the right direction, and see what they invent by themselves…It will probably be necessary to prompt students with good questions, but they frequently will be able to identify for themselves the relevant elements of the principle. Then, and only then when they have found the right pieces themselves can their theory be compared to the relevant principle of economics and used as a springboard for showing how both the graphs and equations provide economists with a tool for discovering more about the phenomenon in question and uncovering other predictions of behavior they might not have otherwise found.” Furthermore, teachers have used new methods and tools in teaching economics by way of the use of simulation games, the incorporation of experimental bargaining games, the use of Shakespeare to teach monetary economics, the use of classical films and documentaries, the use of movies, the use of literature and drama, the use of YouTube, the use of music (songs) and poetry, the use of quizzing on prior reading, the use of animated cartoons along with in-class discussions for basic microeconomic and macroeconomic teaching and the use of creative writing which is no more not the cup of tea for Economics students trained in mathematical modeling and theorizing. Creative writing has helped to improve critical thinking skills and the flexibility of students’ problem-solving skills and their fluency in stating their ideas understandable to non-economists. Students have responded well to these efforts on the part of the teachers. Given the spiritual or positive psychology advice for college graduates that they should not take themselves so seriously and that they should inculcate the virtues of joy, humour and laughter, the use of comedy and jokes in economics teaching can also be appreciated. Yoram Keyes Bauman as the world’s first and only stand-up economist and his parody of and dig at the “ten principles of economics” from Greg Mankiw’s popular economics textbook comes to mind here. There is a collection of wit and satire finding fun in economics as the dismal science by Caroline Postelle Clotfelter as the editor, but I have not yet come across this masterpiece.

So, what is the conclusion from all the above discussion? A balanced one would be that pluralist content conveying the limits and strengths of our knowledge is most important and its delivery can be improvised by using non-traditional methods of teaching as mentioned above in conjunction with user-friendly information and communication technology. It must nevertheless be underlined that “If one is not keeping up with the changing content, one will quickly stop being an effective teacher of economics, regardless of one’s knowledge of changing technology.”

By Annavajhula J.C. Bose, PhDDepartment of Economics, SRCC

David Colander. 2004. The Art of Teaching Economics. International Review of Economics Education. Vol.3. Issue. 1. Diane Andrews. 2010. Stand-Up Economist Combines Comedy with Economics at Mission College. Santa Clara Weekly. March 31. Irene van Staveren. 2015. Economics after the Crisis. Routledge. Jean Kufrin Rosales and Wayne Russel. 2012. “Socializing Economics”: Using Practical Applications to Enliven Economic Theory. Social Studies Research and Practice. Vol.7. No.1. Spring. Ophelia D. Goma. 2014. Creative Writing in Economics. College Teaching. Vol.49. No. 4. Susan Glanz. 2013. The Ten Songs an Economist Must Have on Her Ipod. Global Awareness Society International 22nd Annual Conference. Rome. Italy. May. Yu Aimee Zhang. 2012. Developing Animated Cartoons for Economic Teaching. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice. Vol.9. Issue 2.
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