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Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Beyond “chalk-and-talk”

The charge that the economics major has become too narrow goes beyond course content and curriculum and extends into pedagogy. Many economists and educators stressed that the way in which a course is taught is nearly as important as the content of that course.

Surveys show that there is a single pedagogical technique that predominates in undergraduate economics education in the United States. Known as “chalk-and-talk,” it consists of delivering a series of lectures, usually deviating little from the content that is set out in textbooks, during which students are encouraged to take notes, but not necessarily to participate.

“There are all these voices out there that are competing to be heard,” said Steve Ziliak of Roosevelt University. “We should be teaching students by making them participate in that dialogue instead of stifling them.”

Martha Starr, a professor of economics at American University, said that the “chalk-and-talk” technique often discourages students from asking questions or engaging in a critical dialogue about the ideas they are learning. “It’s been shown that chalk-and-talk is not a good way to make sure that students are engaging with different ideas,” she said. “Actually, I think it’s a great way to make sure that they aren’t.”

Chalk-and-talk, Starr asserted, “basically treats students as passive receptacles of economic knowledge,” and is “popular among mainstream professors because it’s the easiest way to make sure that students are memorizing the standard models without thinking too much about them.”

A related issue is the heavy reliance on textbooks, which Peter Dorman of Evergreen State University called “the single most important obstacle to reforming undergraduate education.”

Ziliak said that relying exclusively on a textbook-based, chalk-and-talk style of teaching is at odds with the way economics is supposed to work. “Economics is a conversation,” he said. “There are all these voices out there that are competing to be heard. We should be teaching students by making them participate in that dialogue instead of stifling them.” (See bottom box: “Does pluralism confuse students?”)

Other economists have suggested other techniques. For example, Schneider has created an activity that is designed to help students understand the issue of the living wage. Students began by interviewing the support staff at their university about their the work and living conditions. Meanwhile, they read the theoretical literature on the topic and researched the cost of living in the local community. At the end of the exercise, they debated among themselves and finally recommended a specific hourly wage that they believed would be just for the staff workers.

Does pluralism confuse students?

One of the most common criticisms levied against a pluralist pedagogy by economics professors seeking to defend the status quo is that teaching students multiple, competing perspectives on economics will confuse them and potentially dissuade them from continuing their study.

A prominent example of this view comes from John Siegfried, an emeritus professor of economics at Vanderbilt University and the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Economics Association. Siegfried, who has written widely about economics education, was also the primary author of the Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics, a guide for what students should learn about economics in high school and before. Siegfried has also argued that the Voluntary Content standards should be used as the basis of the introductory level of undergraduate education. The Standards say that they

reflect the view of a large majority of economists today in favor of a “neoclassical model” of economic behavior…Including strongly held minority views of economic processes and concepts would have confused and frustrated teachers and students who would then be left with the responsibility of sorting the qualifications and alternatives without a sufficient foundation to do so.

Peter E. Earl, an associate professor of economics at the University of Queensland in Australia, has found that students who have had little exposure to a pluralistic pedagogy in the past do sometimes get confused and want the professor to give them the “right” answer. But Earl also found that he could reduce the confusion of students significantly simply by explaining to them what he was doing. “The transition from one level of intellectual development to another looks…likely to be quite painful, but if one explains to students what is going on, they seem to be far more receptive, particularly when they can see that in other parts of their lives they do tolerate, even enjoy, debate and ambiguity and can argue cases,” Earl has written.

More generally, Steve Cohn of Knox College said that he finds it strange that potential confusion is used to justify one-sided instruction. “Saying that if there’s more than one approach you confuse students is a very odd position for a university to take,” he said. “They are here to be confused. Confusion is how you learn to think. I can’t imagine some of the other disciplines making the same argument. Can you imagine teaching philosophy where there’s only one view?”

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