Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why don't we understand economics education?

Increasingly preoccupying my thoughts recently is the remarkable fact that the economics profession doesn't really know anything about how undergraduate courses are received by the students who take them.

Unquestionably, the most common type of research into undergraduate education is the type like this, this, or this (sorry to link to protected academic articles): teaching methods. The semi-famous series by William Becker and Michael Watts derides "chalk and talk" in favor of more creative methods of lecturing. In "Teaching Economics at the Start of the 21st Century: Still Chalk-and-Talk", those authors conclude:

"In contrast to the passive learning environment that characterizes the teaching of economics, class discussion and other forms of active learning, rather than extensive lecturing, are now the dominant forms of instruction in other fields of higher education."

I agree in principle that it's no fun to try to learn - really learn - any subject by sitting in a lecture, but goodness me, "active learning"? How about "devote some time to reading a variety of books and material on the subject you're learning"? How about "sit down with colleagues or experts and talk and listen"? In my life, those have been the most effective ways of getting information and understanding into my head. Am I alone? To me, that's active learning, and it doesn't require fancy technology or a three ring circus, just a good library and good educators with time to devote to small groups of students. Lectures, especially to large classes, must naturally be presented without a lot of nuance.

The cult of the classroom experiment, or demonstration, or performance art, or audience participation, is not, however, the real issue. By far the bigger problem is that we have no idea - repeat, no idea - what students want, expect or get from economics courses. Why do they enroll? Why don't they enroll? Why do they drop out? Why do they major in economics? What do they think economics is about, before, during, after they take economics course? What if they never do? Who do we lose?

Why don't we have the first idea about the answers to those questions? Have we ever asked? The mind boggles. We're try to patch up the wreckage of the lecture system, when all the while we might be sailing to entirely the wrong place in our leaky boat. Forget the method for a moment - what are we even actually teaching?

In a separate article to the one I quoted up above, William Becker's "Teaching Economics in the 21st Century" says:

"Media headlines scream the need to understand macroeconomics. At a minimum, courses in macroeconomics should enable students to have a greater understanding of the economic news as it appears in the Economist, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal than those without an education in economics."

I've covered this ground before. How about, at a minimum, we teach economics properly? How about, at a minimum, we kick civics into a course where it belongs and actually show students what economics can be, and what it is? Compromising the integrity of an entire field of hundreds of years of intellectual thought with political, philosophical and moral implications so that people can understand the Wall Street Journal? Who wants to understand the Wall Street Journal?! From the same article:

"Departments of economics have two powerful reasons to care about improving the quality of their teaching. First, the contest for resources within institutions of higher education implies that the number of majors and enrollments matter.... Whether students will take more courses in economics or choose to major in the field because of improved teaching is hard to say, but, at least, improved teaching is unlikely to hurt enrollments!"

Hilarious, I'm sure. I'm kidding: it's sickening. Can we entertain the notion that perhaps higher enrollments are not compatible with improved teaching? We are supposed to be running an institute of excellence in learning and thought. Whoring for enrollment is disgusting.

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