From esoteric to enlightening

Soumyanetra Munshi

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, economics was not a subject in school until class ten. I opted for it in my higher secondary and later went on to pursue the subject in my bachelor’s and master’s and finally my doctoral studies. And I must admit that at every stage the subject felt very new to me. Economics at the master’s level appeared different from economics in our undergraduate courses, which again was quite different from what we were introduced to in our higher secondary. This is why economics is both an immensely enriching subject to get exposed to and at the same time a mischievous challenge to grapple with. The gamut of topics that can easily fall within economics is mind boggling. No wonder, therefore, that students, especially in school, find it hard to come to grips with the esoteric concepts and teachers find teaching the subject far from a cakewalk.

Nowadays economics is taught in schools (see Bose and Sardana (2008), Srinivasan (2008)) in India, and not without reason. Rodgers et. al. (2007) hold that “[D]ecades of research in economics, education, and early childhood development have shown that young children enter the primary grades with an experience-based knowledge of economics, and they are quite capable of learning basic economics during the primary grades.” Moreover, they say, “The economic lessons that young students learn in their early education form the building blocks toward achieving a solid understanding of economics at higher levels of educational attainment. Students in the primary grades are already gaining a rich exposure to a wide variety of ideas in economics, and they are gaining the skills to apply this new knowledge. The principles taught at a level appropriate for primary-grade students are crucial for a basic understanding of the economic world around them.” In the US, for example, economic concepts are taught right from primary school and some economics subjects (like microeconomics and macroeconomics) are compulsory in the equivalent of the tenth grade examination.

a-beautiful-mind-poster Given the importance of economics, both as a subject and as a way of thinking, I ventured to personally interview some of my students (who are pursuing master’s in economics and had studied economics in school) as well as some students who are learning economics in school now, to get a sense of how well the subject is being taught and received at the school level. From my small survey, I felt that genuine efforts were being made on part of both the students and teachers to learn the subject, but somewhere things were still falling short of the goal. Students complained about the many chapters in the syllabus, the topics seemed too vast to be covered, teachers were asking students to go through the last five years of question papers and marking portions of texts they should learn for exams. At the end of the day, students score well in economics, teachers are happy, and maybe a few motivated students actually go on to study economics in college. However, the real loser in this scheme of things is economics – such an exciting and dynamic subject, it doesn’t really get a fair chance among the other core subjects, neither in the hearts and minds of students nor in the hectic schedule of teachers.

Of course, much is to be blamed on the system, the syllabus, exams, etc., which are beyond our control. Much however, can be improved within the classroom despite the constraints we have. Researchers studying pedagogical methods recommend that effectiveness of economics teaching especially increases with methods that go beyond “chalk and talk”. See several recent articles on effective economics teaching like Becker (2000), Watts and Becker (2008), and Becker et al. (1998). These authors find that economics teaching is much more effective when it becomes interactive, games are played in class, videos are screened, or even PowerPoint is used instead of just the chalk on the board. Rodgers et. al. (2007) in fact list stories and children’s literature that contain economic content and highlight how students love and enjoy learning economics through literature.

Economics in school often seems dull and drab – only dealing with money, or esoteric concepts like inflation and unemployment that an average urban student is unlikely to understand or relate to. There are two definite areas which can be worked upon to make economics both entertaining and informative. First, several new and upcoming areas of economics, even if not included in the syllabus, can be introduced to kindle interest and motivation in students for the subject so that more routine concepts can be better received. Second, concepts that are in the syllabus can be delivered in novel fashion so that apparently uninteresting things can easily find acceptance among students. Below I elaborate on each of these.

The economics of the world
Economics today has transcended the usual boundaries of consumption, production, markets, inflation, unemployment, national income, etc., and new fields of studies have emerged like game theory and network economics. Game theory tools, for example, can be used to analyze topics that are as diverse as coalition formation in government, formation of terrorist networks, marriages, conflict, price wars, auctions, sports, and so on.

Similarly, several game-theory concepts like randomisation (mixed strategies) occur in penalty shoot-outs, tennis serves, etc., and students would love to know of the economic concepts hidden in them. Others like games of chicken, rock-paper-scissors, etc., are found in movie clips which can easily be screened in class to kindle interest in the subject1.

The author is, Assistant Professor at the Economic Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. She can be reached at soumyanetra@isical.ac.in.

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