On the Methods for Teaching Economics
Juan Camilo Cárdenas
15 de febrero de 2013
Let me start with a proposition: The methods we chose to teach economics - or for that matter any other discipline, are both a reflection and a cause of the fundamentals dominating the discipline at that particular point. The consequences, at least for the case of Economics, are substantial. Therefore, a discussion about the methods for teaching Economics should accompany the current controversies about the discipline itself.
A simple example may illustrate the point: the teaching of oligopolies and the use of the prisoner's dilemma or the cooperation dilemma as a metaphor are based on a model of individuals that because of their own self-interest will fall in the trap of mutual defection. Further, if they were to achieve the “cooperation” outcome, it would be detrimental to competition and to the benefit of society because of the transfers of the consumer´s surplus to the producers and the deadweight loss (in the conventional model they would achieve the monopoly strategy). And there goes a possibility to include cooperation and self-governance as an opportunity for economies to enhance the social pie. In the conventional textbook cooperation will not happen, and if it does, it is bad for society because it creates market power. Not surprisingly students of Economics, Finance and Business have been found to cooperate less than students of other disciplines in experiments that use cooperation dilemmas or be more likely to be corrupt. Of course most economists know that cooperation is good for society. Collective action was at the very basis of the solutions to most economic problems human kind faced, way back before states and markets emerged as ways of regulating individual behavior for the common good. Nevertheless, our teaching of self-governance and cooperation in Introductory Economics has been overshadowed by the powerful argument that competition, private property and liberty of choice are drivers, through specialization and the gains from trade, of human progress. I am not denying the latter process, since it is as true as powerful. The question is how are teaching and learning related to the dominance of competition over cooperation in actual economic life?
The contents of the current teaching of Introductory Microeconomics are based on a particular view of the institutions and agents that have been often described as restrictive, unrealistic and naïve. When contrasted against reality, much of these assumptions about these agents' rationalities and the institutions they are immersed in, seem to create more problems than possibilities for deep analysis. Asymmetric information or power, externalities and social preferences that drive principal-agent problems, poverty traps, conspicuous consumption, and suboptimal equilibria are presented in the start of training in Economics as “special cases” or “exceptions” and only much later in the education they become central to the understanding of the economy.
These elements are, as I have argued, directly related to how we train our Economics students. The system of teaching, learning and evaluation of such learning has also been restrictive and focused on memorization of definitions and concepts but the critical thinking capacity of the students in comparing different tools to the same reality does not play an important role in these courses. Both the contents and the systems of teaching and learning are based, not surprisingly, on a system of beliefs about individual meritocracy that rewards individual efforts. Team work, group externalities or networks phenomena that permeate so often the lives of the students and will continue doing so in their professional lives are absent from the way we teach or evaluate the learning of Microeconomics. In the training of our students we often observe that competition and its rewards due to innovation and promotion of individual effort have also been accompanied with a “rat race” where there is little space for collaborative learning, or concern for the learning of those left behind. More frequently the grading system is based on relative performance and therefore the greater incentives for practices that get closer to threatening academic integrity - one of the most valuable public goods in academia.
Teaching Economics, teaching about the economy
We should aim at building a set of skills in the students that go beyond the memorization of contents and definitions. Therefore, we need to improve the pedagogical tools we use in the classroom and outside of it. Unfortunately teaching Economics continues mostly based on a vertical model of learning through the unidirectional approaches of teacher-to-chalk & board-to-students, and from textbook-to-students. These methods might be effective for memorizing the wealth of definitions in the subject, and for solving the questions that most textbooks offer as exercises in Economics. But are they effective in taking the student beyond and help them have a critical assessment of the economic implications of such solutions? On the other hand, much of the learning process continues to happen at an individual basis. Each student against the textbook and each student against the instructor. Collaborative learning remains absent in the pedagogic process within the classroom and probably also outside of it. More deliberation, peer-learning and debate would likely bring more space for critical thinking and reassessment of the approach in Microeconomics, its strengths and its flaws.
Mejía (2009) puts it quite simply, when analyzing the teaching of engineering. In his view, three spheres are needed to build the capacity for critical thinking in students. In the first sphere students need to learn how to use the tools. In the second sphere they are capable of contrasting with a critical mind the different tools available, and in the third sphere they are able to evaluate the impacts on society of the use of each of these tools.
I believe in Economics we do a pretty good job in the first sphere. However, we do a rather poor job on the second since we teach the tools of essentially one school of thought and just give them a brief historical recollection of the others without training them on those other tools. And we do an even poorer job on the third sphere. I do not mean we fail to provide them tools to evaluate the impacts on society because of the economic functioning of certain institutional arrangements. What I mean is that choosing a certain type of tool has different consequences on society than if other tools were used. For instance, one-variable optimization would have different impacts than using multiple-objective analysis, but our students are made to pay attention to mostly one-variable maximization approaches.
Examples of these three spheres applied to conventional economics and to a new approach are shown in the following table:
To trigger some of the critical thinking skills of the students, and to augment the possibilities for more collaborative and interactive learning we have introduced at the School of Economics - Universidad de Los Andes a series of pedagogic strategies. Let me mention two of them.
a) The use of classroom experiments to increase the engagement of students in the economic rationale of agents. When students have to make decisions that are similar to those of the economic agents and are put themselves on the shoes of those agents, there seems to be a trigger in the way they appropriate the mechanisms inherent in the models being used. There is evidence of the positive learning impact of using experiments in the classroom as part of the Economics teaching process (Ball et.al 2006; Frank, 1997). We have incorporated a series of experiments within the classroom and also during off-class hours to engage them in the experience of the decision-making process behind the models that are being studied throughout the course (See here)
b) The use of clickers or response cards has also increased the attention and interest of the students when combined with other tools. We use these clickers to run some of the experiments mentioned before increasing the capacity of collecting more data and facilitate the convergence of results when the experiment is robust in showing a particular phenomenon. They engage students in a process of trial and error that is less embarrassing or discouraging than the traditional case of raising your hand or being called by the instructor in front of 90 more students. Often we use the clickers, as suggested by Eric Mazur , in a two-step process. We first open a question for an individual answer based on what the student knows at that point. After collecting that individual knowledge data, we ask the students to discuss with their peers sitting next to them what the right answer should be, after which we open the same question again and collect the new individual responses, aiming at increasing their capacity of learning by teaching, and their skills in argumentation and debate.
The increase attention given to collaborative or peer learning in several other disciplines should call our attention. In fact, competition in learning not always has the desired effects (Zarate, 2012). Learning environments with more bidirectional interactions among the students and between them and the instructor should improve the learning process in Economics. Evidence of the positive impacts of more interactive and collaborative environments in education is emerging more often. In fact these impacts go beyond the learning of the material. Algan, Cahun and Shleifer (2011), based on a large sample of 70,000 students from 23 countries in the PISA test, present suggestive causal evidence that horizontal teaching (such as working in groups) promotes attitudes that form social capital such as trust and a belief in cooperation with teachers and with fellow students, and that vertical teaching methods (such as taking notes from the board) erodes these.
The choice of the teaching tools often reflects the positions of the instructors, the textbooks, and the paradigm governing the discipline. Rethinking Economics will imply revising the way we work in the classroom and the way we evaluate individual and group outcomes, hopefully beyond the first sphere in the table above. Because tools acquired in the classroom have an impact on society, and this is especially true in Economics, choosing such tools and pedagogies and making sure our students learn to use them with a critical eye must become part of the discipline´s required transformation.
Algan, Yann, Pierre Cahuc and Andrei Shleifer (2011) “Teaching Practices And Social Capital”. Discussion Paper No. 8625. Centre for Economic Policy Research. www.cepr.org/pubs/dps/DP8625.asp
Ball, S., C. Eckel and C. Rojas. 2006. “Technology Improves Learning in Large Principles of Economics Classes: Using our WITS.” American Economic Review, P&P, 96, p. 442-6
Frank, Bjorn, 1997, The impact of classroom experiments on the learning of economics: an empirical investigation. Economic Enquiry. Vol. XXXV, October 1997, 763-769.
Mejía, Andrés (2009) “Tres esferas de acción del pensamiento crítico en ingeniería”. Revista Iberoamericana de Educación, n.º 49/3 – 25 de abril de 2009. ISSN: 1681-5653
Zarate, Roman A. (2012) “Peer Effects, Cooperation and Competition in Human Capital Formation”. Documentos CEDE 2012-07, Universidad de Los Andes. Bogotá.
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