WHAT HAPPENED TO ECONOMICS? WHAT IS THE GOOD OF IT? Delivered at the: Business Educators Australasia Conference 2018 Biennial Conference
This presentation talks about the influences on the collapse of economics enrolments in NSW schools and what students and teachers think of economics and where it has a place in their learning. Drawing on case studies in regional NSW, ACT, the USA, UK and Singapore, it shares teachers’ and students’ perceptions of good economics pedagogy, how teachers in economics can design assessment and how interventions can support students to find their way back to economics. My purpose is to provide you with recommendations that may encourage students, especially girls, to study economics. We need to future-proof economics.
I want to explore with you the shifting culture of education and in that the issues plaguing economics. We will investigate the dynamic and complex interplay among individual, relational and contextual conditions for secondary enrolments in economics. With fewer students choosing to study economics in senior years, it is impacting university enrolments in economics and most concerning, limiting diversified social debate.
I would like you to join me in moving beyond the boundaries of this reality. Be assured there are remedies. I would like to share with you, aspects of regional and international case studies that address some of the concerning deficits in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment practices in economics. I would also like to highlight some of the wider initiatives that challenge the prevailing dynamic around economics in schools. I want to share with you interventions that support classrooms where students, especially girls want to learn economics and can successfully do so, and with your help, perhaps we’ll see the redemption of economics. I want to also move the discussion to you and the wider group here to help build strategies for rebuilding economics.
As economists, we recognise the bigger picture of economics. We in this room have come from a variety of backgrounds, but I can guarantee our driving questions around economics stem from our morals. The prevalence of economic injustice demands we develop a broad economics education. Just recently we hear Commissioner Kenneth Hayne in handing down his findings state categorically, "Too often, the answer seems to be greed — the pursuit of short-term profit at the expense of basic standards of honesty." Economic literacy addresses the democratic deficit. It is steeped in a principle not unlike the rule-of-law in an economic context. How do we feel about the economy?
In "Keynes: The Return of the Master", Robert Skidelsky explores the renaissance of Keynesian economics after the GFC and strengthens his support for that resurgence in governments protecting society from risk. He advocates regulation against short-term speculation moving against some of the free market impulses we’ve experienced over the recent past. Skidelsky makes a compelling argument that government policy should be fuelled by a moral imperative, referring to Keynes' assertion that making "the world ethically better was the only justifiable purpose of economic striving" (p. 131). If we are to consider what is the good of economics, it must start with understanding its morals and ours.
I have travelled through Washington, visiting the monuments there, all the presidents and great thinkers lined up in their brilliance. The words of Franklin D. Roosevelt carved out to remind us: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little… I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-nourished." The eloquence of Martin Luther King Jnr was also beautifully displayed, echoing a similar sentiment, speaking of freedom, equality and justice. These are the true measures of the worth of economics.
All great leaders and thinkers advocating economic policy are directed by their moral compass. Living a good life is not necessarily about the pursuit of material wealth, it lives in what makes people good. Beyond curriculum, pedagogy or assessment when we think, I mean really think, about the question, “What is the good of economics?” this is the answer. To live a good life.
It seems like we understand this but perhaps our students don’t appreciate it. They have big questions around moral issues. Somehow, we need to move our design thinking around economics to answer their questions, to make those connections. So, let’s hear from them. That is the starting point to build our economics culture it has to happen around their big questions because that is their future.
I come from the Far South Coast and this is a photo of Tathra after the devastating fires we experienced earlier this year. It is a very personal story for our school community and there’s been some passionate responses. A couple of weeks ago we took a group of our students to Canberra for Q&A. One of them asked this question:
I have been involved in case studies in the Archdiocese of Canberra Goulburn secondary schools relating to economic enrolment, participation and results. I sat down with the economics education team at the New York Fed and attended the American Economic Association Annual Meeting in Philadelphia earlier this year. I visited schools in NY, England and Singapore. I had the opportunity to work with Rethinking Economics to open dialogue on outreach programs for schools, following their extensive success in the UK, as well as other economics associations such as ‘Promoting Economics Pluralism’, accrediting pluralist economics courses at Masters’ level in the UK. It has been an immersive experience in economics so hold your breath and jump in with me.
Neo-classical economic modelling relies on self-centred independent individuals, and positions households as homogeneous decision-making units in the market. A more inclusive approach to economics recognises how women and men act on their feelings. It cannot be explained by homo-economicus. The way we relate to one another is through our mutual interdependence, in and out of the market. If our students are sitting in a classroom where economic modelling identifies the main decision-maker of the household as being in paid work and contributing to GDP but neglects to consider other roles such as caregivers, people with disabilities, volunteers or people dealing with mental illness and anxiety. So what role do young men and women see themselves in a neo-classical economic model? Increasingly, they don’t see themselves in that model. It lacks relevance. Students in a social media mosaic don’t see themselves as ‘separate selves’ in a utility-maximising model, they’re looking for choice and variety and a pluralist perspective can offer that.
This is “The Fearless Girl” at Wall Street. It was commissioned to represent the marginalisation of women on boards. Recent political discussions in the Liberal party have raised this issue. This isn’t just about the girls though. Our aspiring young men want a more balanced perspective, they recognise the inbuilt bias and constraints on diversity affecting women. In the same sex marriage debate our students simply understood this inclusive policy. They are asking for a moral and inclusive classroom that respects diversity, and in that classroom role models matter. In the top 10 economic textbooks used in the US men appear in 77% of the examples and problems. Female characters are often made up. Where are the role models? I’ll come back to this later.
Outside factors, such as misinformation and poor access to economics is also limiting interest in the discipline. A study I can recommend contends that the misconceptions surrounding economics and the prevailing apathy amongst students and young adults towards understanding complex economic phenomena stems from a disconnection in education. Young people feel like economics is something that happens around them and economic events such as the GFC are inevitable and blameless. They feel like they have no agency. On the LHS there is a Wordle using students’ comments from the survey to describe economics. “Money” stands out. It is a narrow perception of economics that dominates students’ opinions and does not reflect how economics is being taught but moreso the media’s packaging of economics. Roughly half of the students who were surveyed had not been in an economics classroom. To unlearn misconceptions, students need to be in economics classrooms.
Economics can be mired in an encyclopedic coverage of facts, concepts and graphs due to curriculum restraints and tends to rely on textbooks and rote-learning through a prescriptive curriculum instead of student-centred learning such as gaming. The high stakes testing dynamic around senior economics dampens any risk-taking behavior in teaching and learning, and experimenting with our inner creativity in economics doesn’t always pay off. Some of us may remember the famous economist Ben Stein’s cameo in Ferris Bueller’s Day off, that certainly wasn’t an engaging classroom, especially for Ferris!
This leads us to ask, “What is working?”. Reading the economics landscape, we can start to see the way ahead.
Who is choosing economics? In the case studies, it turns out to be a straightforward answer: students coming out of integrated junior classrooms with teachers who are qualified and supported to teach economics. By integrated, I’m referring to teaching and learning programs from Year 7 that combine HSIE/ HASS/ SOSE: history, geography, civics and citizenship and economics and business, combined with English and religious education if you are teaching in a religious school. It’s the STEM equivalent of the humanities.
Some deliberate studies in the US have drilled down into the influences on economics education. Watts & Walstad (2011) identify three key factors: (1) The amount of time students spend on economics in their classes, (2) Teachers’ knowledge and training in economics, and (3) The use of instructional materials with good economics content and pedagogical methods that students and teachers find interesting and accessible. Moreover, they cite the gains are more evident in economics than core subjects such as mathematics, English or science.
When there is the time, the expertise and the material is relevant and integrated with a range of other subjects, and you begin early on, students can begin to appreciate the ‘bigger picture’ of economics that you and I innately understand.
Getting students, especially girls, into economics relies on engagement, confidence and avoiding bias.
What can we do about this? We need to understand what direction our students are heading, and what direction economics is heading given the constraints of the contemporary influences on the discipline. Then we need to understand how we can steer them in the same path.
In considering what our students or our future thinkers are looking for in the curriculum, Alan Reid’s work gives us some context. The Australian Secondary Principals Association commissioned Alan Reid to look at where education is going in “Beyond Certainty: A Process for Thinking About Futures for Australian Education”. I am quoting from the Executive Summary here where Reid rather succinctly identifies the two competing discourses in our schools: “One is standardising, and favours certainty, uniformity, competition and regulation in education policy. Its policy features include school choice, competition between schools in an education market, high-stakes standardised testing and narrowing the curriculum. The other discourse is futures focused and prizes flexibility, adaptability, collaboration and agility. Its policy features include student-centred teaching approaches, integrated and project-based learning, inquiry, formative assessment and teacher autonomy.”
The first discourse has not seen us prosper. Economics lends itself to the second discourse but with the constraints in the education system it seems shackled by curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.
Where to now? What solutions can we bring to this dilemma? The potential interventions discussed earlier of engagement, confidence and bias offer a way forward but it is the integrated learning approach that addresses the leading factors signalled in the literature: a reliance on neo-classical economics, absence of role models, students being unaware of the influence of economics and a reliance on didactic pedagogy that points to a sustainable future for economics.
STEM has introduced an integrated approach to learning maths, science, engineering and technology. I’d like to quote from a paper from Hughes (2009), “How to Start a STEM Team”: With little chance to learn in school how science and math skills might translate into professionally useful knowledge, students are unable to make informed choices about further education and work options. Sound familiar? STEM pilot schemes brought together groups “of open-minded, professionally motivated science, technology, and math teachers exploring/reinforcing each other's subject areas in a visionary cross-curricular format.” What can we learn from STEM in future-proofing economics?
We need to look to developing cultures of thinking across disciplines, integrating strands of HASS and English in inquiry pedagogies or problem based learning. For teachers in NSW this is still a long talk but perhaps with the upcoming NSW curriculum review headed by Geoff Masters we may see the introduction of mandated 7-10 curriculum in economics and business and civics and citizenship that the rest of Australia is experiencing.
An integrated approach to economics through law, economics, liberal arts and finance is evident in the pedagogy of economics classrooms where students feel connected to the content, cognisant of the reach of economics into their daily lives and invested in a future that seeks to use economic principles and ways of thinking.
Designing an integrated curriculum uses threshold concepts in economics in dynamic and contemporary scenarios. The threshold concept framework can be used as a gateway. There are pioneers in this work in the UK that have approached this in a tertiary context, but it also works in schools. Using an inquiry-based and student-centred learning environment, frontload the concepts, present the problem, describe the landscape and engagement follows.
This is an example of a task for Year 7s involved in an integrated course. This is Our Place: Assessment of Learning; Proposal: Our Future Place:
Before introducing this task, direct teaching instruction introduced explicit concepts such as liveability, sustainability, persuasive texts and the interdependence of consumers and producers in the market. Embedding economics and business concepts in contemporary problems and scenarios offers experiential learning that is relevant, engaging and authentic.
We have been working in silos but our students need interdisciplinary learning. They are asking those big questions that extend beyond the classroom, examining relevant contemporary problems. In an increasingly connected and globalised community, integrated learning is transformative. These silos become an artist’s palette and that is what we need to do with economics, embed it in an integrated teaching and learning program that becomes our students’ palettes for a 21st century curriculum.
Have a think about this for a minute…
What design principles would you use in introducing economics to students and colleagues. I’m drawing on the work of ecnmy.org in this slide. They partnered with Rethinking Economics to just recently publish, “Doing Economics Differently”, just this week.
In light of the three pre-conditions of learning successfully in an economics classroom: the amount of time students spend on economics in their classes, teachers’ knowledge and training in economics, and the use of instructional materials with good economics content and pedagogical methods that students and teachers find interesting and accessible, the integrated model creates time and it offers teachers who are not trained in economics a way in to understanding the bigger picture of economics. But it relies on you sharing your expertise, knowledge and passion for the subject. Interestingly I looked at a number of programs used in the ACT schools for economics and business and I could see immediately where the bias was, without knowing who was involved in writing the programs. The historians and the geographers leapt off the page and took a very didactic approach to teaching economic concepts. Some of it is really papering over the cracks. They need you to step in and build it right first time. Use your economics in your schools and implement a strategy where you can speak up and share your expertise in big picture thinking.
I am concerned for Annalise and her peers. They need economics and we need to change our thinking design and plan where we’re heading. I’ll leave the last word to Alan Reid,
“The basic premise of this paper is that the future is not inevitable: it is fashioned by humans who can either allow events and trends to wash over them and then respond to the effects or be proactive and try to shape the outcomes.”
That’s why I’m here, maybe it’s why you’re here too.
Aprea, C. (2015, April). Secondary school students’ informal conceptions of complex economic phenomena. International Journal of Educational Research, 69, pp. 12-22.
Dobrescu, L., Greiner, B., & Motto, A. (2015). Learning economics concepts through game-play: An experiment. International Journal of Educational Research, 69, pp. 23-37.
Fischer, L., Hasell, J., Proctor, J. C., Uwakwe, D., Ward-Perkins, Z., & Watson, C. (Eds.). (2018). Rethinking Economics: An Introduction to Pluralist Economics. New York, NY: Routledge.
Hughes, B. (2009, October). How to start a STEM team. Technology Teacher, 69(2), 27-29.
Karunaratne, P. (2017). Transforming the economics curriculum by integrating threshold concepts. Retrieved from The Economic Society of Australia: esacentral.org.au/images/KurunaratneP.pdf
Reid, A. (2018, August). Beyond certainty: A process for thinking about futures for Australian education. Retrieved from Australian Secondary Principals Association: https://www.aspa.asn.au/
The Economist. (2017, December 7). Women ask fewer questions than men at seminars. The Economist. Watts, M., & Walstad, W. B. (2011). What research tells us about teaching high school economics. In M. Schug, & M. Wood (Eds.), Teaching Economics in Troubled Times (pp. 200-212). New York, NY: Routledge.