“Teaching Economics as if the Real World Mattered”

One of the highlights of CTaLE’s trip to the American Economic Association’s annual Conference on Teaching and Research in Economics Education (CTREE) in Atlanta was a workshop organized with colleagues Alvin Birdi from Bristol University and Peter Matthews from Middlebury College. The workshop, titled “Teaching Introductory Economics As if The Real World Mattered”, was a response to student complaints that many of their undergraduate economics courses, particularly the introductory ones, don’t really equip them with the ability to explain and analyse the world around them. We based the workshop on materials produced by the CORE project, including an interactive e-book and teaching and learning materials which Christian, Alvin and I as part of the CORE Teaching and Learning Committee have been developing over the last few months.

As a long-time teacher of introductory economics, I had always been intrigued by the use of “widgets” as the focus of discussion about costs and production in intro texts. This was before smartphones and iPads, so it wasn’t referring to a little icon on your screen. As a non-native English speaker, I wondered what a widget is, and why this was so prominent in the study of economics. So it was gratifying to hear Peter report one of his high-achieving students from Middlebury asking, “What the f*&% is a widget?!” What was alarming though was how many of the 20-odd people in the audience reported their students not questioning the significant presence of widgets in their economics curriculum. Many lecturers also reported students taking introductory economics only because they had to (in order to fulfil degree requirements, for example). These two observations seemed to be related – after all, who could find the study of widgets inspiring!

Other highlights of the workshop included:

  • Alvin’s presentation on the “backward design” rationale of the CORE project. In this context, backward design implies starting with the real world and then working back to learn the tools, and only those needed to make sense about those issues. This approach could in fact be used to teach students the same concepts and tools as a standard introductory course. But because tools are developed in just-in-time fashion, it is likely that students will be more engaged with this approach and also perhaps retain more.
  • The fact that CTREE’s reputation as THE place to meet all those doing new and exciting stuff is justified. We chatted with workshop participants after the session, and found out how they are “teaching economics as if the real world mattered” and engaging students in their own classes, from small urban community colleges to large state universities in the heartland.
  • There is a gathering storm around the traditional way in which undergraduate macroeconomics is taught. Perhaps coincidentally on June 2nd, the day of our workshop, Olivier Blanchard, a famed economist and best-selling textbook author, published a piece on rejigging the standard IS-LM/ aggregate demand-aggregate supply model. Many of the workshop participants mentioned both the disconnect between this traditional approach and the way in which macroeconomists really think about the world, as well as the lack of a clear link between micro and macro at least at the intro level. Given that so much of serious macro research is based on micro-foundations, this has always seemed like a shame to me. But if more and more lecturers from our workshop participants all the way to Professor Blanchard are thinking this way, perhaps a quiet revolution is underway.

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