Reflections on Economics Teaching
A few days ago I answered some questions from students at another school writing their own economics magazine - this is a fabulous way to build enthusiasm and passion for a subject and develop skills as budding economics journalists. I have reproduced my answers below.
1) How has the teaching of Economics changed since you yourself were at school?
I have vivid memories of the teaching that I had over thirty years ago! It was really good and I benefitted from having two passionate teachers who loved their subject. There was little technology used in the classroom, indeed those of a certain age will remember the infamous Banda machine for duplicating handouts! At the time there was a fierce debate between Keynesians and the rising school of Monetarism, we were coming out of a difficult and turbulent period of stagflation in the mid 1970s and Thatcherism was just around the corner. So it was an exciting time to be a student of economics and in that sense similar to today!
2) What spurred your personal interest in Economics?
No question - it was the teaching that I received at Harrogate Granby High School, a state school in Yorkshire. There was also plenty of coverage of economics on the television and I have happy memories of watching the Money Programme on the BBC (still around today but it has been dumbed-down over the years). My twin brother Jim also studied economics so there was quite a bit of competition in the classroom!
3) Do you think the current A level syllabus allows students to develop a deeper interest in the subject?
No! I have not been a fan of exam board courses for several years now and one of my common exhortations to students is that they should leave the syllabus behind and stop being slaves to the mark scheme! Fortunately there are now so many opportunities for students to engage with the subject and deepen their understanding and passion for economics by using online resources, getting involved with external competitions and dipping into a rich array of new books on the subject! I help to run the annual essay competition for the Royal Economic Society and this year we had a record number of entries with a high overall standard, I was greatly enthused and encouraged by this, students showed a desire to be independent learners and be ambitious in their reading and referencing.
4) Do you think the current A-level syllabus is preparing students for university, and in turn for a future job?
This is a big question! A syllabus is essentially a starting point for deeper study and the Economics syllabus offers a basic introduction to concepts and theories which is fine and also tends to cherry-pick some of the really interesting applied questions and debates. The Mathematics content at AS and A2 level is basic at best and many students find their university courses quite a challenge if they do not have the requisite mathematical skills. Job wise? For most jobs these days, the choice of A-Level and degree matters relatively little.
Time and time again employers ranging from business start-ups to major transnational corporations look me in the eye and say that what a student has done is more important than what they have studied. My advice to students is to get their hands dirty during the holidays - work in a shop or on a building site; spend time raising funds for a charity or perhaps take the first steps in launching a business.
Avoid like the plague a week in Daddy’s accountancy office or a week making the tea for some hedge fund crony!
5) What do you feel the biggest omission from the current A level syllabus is and why?
Our subject moves on internet time and no subject syllabus could ever hope to keep pace! Keep in mind also that putting something extra into a syllabus would probably involve leading something else out! But in a talk that I gave at the Bank of England a few months ago I argued that revised AS and A2 syllabuses should include more of the following:
• Behavioural Economics
• Money, Banking, Finance
• Fast Growth Economies
• Statistics and Simulations
• Economics of Technology
• Economic History
6) Do you feel the teaching of economics has been/will be changed by the financial crisis?
This is a wonderful time to be teaching Economics because many of the conventional theories of the last twenty to thirty years are being challenged and questioned. For example, the investor George Soros has invested millions of dollars to establish an Institute for New Economic Thinking and there is growing interest in the ideas of heterodox economists such as Steve Keen, Ha Joon Chang and Hyman Minsky. Keynes has made a long overdue revival and we are seeing some really exciting work in microeconomics, development economics and behavioural economics.
It is rewarding that many sixth form students are now enthusiastic about challenging many of the tired ideas that have dominated classrooms for years. In that sense they are forging ahead of their teachers! This summer I recommend that you read Paul Ormerod on networks and incentives and Esther Duflo, the co-author of Poor Economics (a remarkable book about randomised tests in aid projects). Mark Henderson is also well worth a read - a science journalist (now at the Wellcome Foundation).
The financial crisis is not over yet - not by a distance! From the fallout will come plenty of new thinking about economics as a subject and an academic discipline. We need new leaders in the subject every much as we need political leadership.
7) How do you feel the teaching of Economics will develop in the future?
The rapid pace of technological change is certainly being felt in teaching although you might not necessarily see it most days if you walked around many schools! These days there are many wonderful opportunities to connect, engage and collaborate that were not available when I was taking my first steps in the subject. Economics should never be learnt out of a textbook (indeed I ban them from my classrooms) and good teaching encourages students to develop skills of critical judgement when accessing and filtering the mass of new information, comment and analysis that comes their way from old and new media.
Twitter is a good case in point; it is a platform to share ideas and resources, to follow experts, organisations and publications and in doing so gain fresh insights way beyond the walls of a classroom. Just this year I have seen students making really productive use of Twitter to enhance their enthusiasm for a subject, but we shouldn’t be prescriptive because how they use social media is entirely up to them!
The crucial change that I sense is the rise of collaborative / shared learning; this is natural to 21st century learners but goes against the grain for many of my own generation! It is only in education that collaboration is viewed by many traditionalists as cheating!
From Tutor2u’s point of view, we just love our chosen subjects and we enjoy blogging, tweeting and writing in other arenas. We have met hundreds of fascinating people from the worlds of economics, business and finance in doing so and now we find a new generation of teachers are coming into schools many of whom have been users of our site as students. They are “no-fear” teachers when it comes to technology and I am really excited about how much they will contribute to economics educators in schools and colleges in the years to come!
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