Don't know much about history, don't know much economy...

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Dorman said that, in order to teach students both the strengths and weaknesses of a modeling approach, he uses a game he calls “math charades” on the first day of class. Students are divided up into teams and each is given a “story,” such as a tomato farmer who is trying to determine when he should plant his tomatoes, or a politician trying to determine how many advertisements to use in a campaign. Each team is told to translate that story into a mathematical model, with constraints on how many words and pictures that can be used, and then the teams exchange models and try to guess what the stories of the other teams were. “Then they sit around and laugh,” Dorman said, “because they got some things wrong and some things right. And you can say that, really, what you’ve been doing in math charades is exactly what you do in economics. It’s just going back and forth between stories and math.”

“It’s been shown that chalk-and-talk is not a good way to make sure that students are engaging with different ideas” said Martha Starr of American University. “Actually, I think it’s a great way to make sure that they aren’t.”

Another way of making students engage emotionally with the subject matter is to teach the theoretical frameworks side-by-side with a work of literature through which those theories can be analyzed. For example, Ziliak teaches an introductory economics class for which he requires The Grapes of Wrath as a primary text. “It’s got everything in it,” he said. “There’s microeconomics, macroeconomics, questions of social justice, booms and busts. It’s a way of making the economy real for students.”

Reynold Nesiba, a professor of economics at Augustana College, said that it is also important to expose students to the methodology and insights of the other social sciences. “You can’t understand how the American economy works if you don’t have some American history. You can’t understand it without knowing some sociology and some politics and some moral philosophy.”

Nesiba said that cross-listing courses between departments and team-teaching them with faculty members from other disciplines can be an effective way to promote critical thinking skills. “Students can get such a rich experience out of hearing the way that two different disciplines think about the same issues,” he said.

“Economics is an inherently interdisciplinary field,” he went on. “We’ve moved away from that in our teaching, but I think we’ve reached the limits of what economics can do on its own, and we should be going back to the dialogue between schools of thought and different disciplines. That would be a remarkable environment for students to learn in.”


An opportunity for reform?

Individual economics programs wishing to experiment with a more diverse curriculum, said Julie Nelson, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston, “don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

“Programs that are trying to teach in a more pluralistic way already have a number of models and frameworks to draw from,” she said. “They don’t need to start from scratch.”

Dorman emphasized a variety of institutional and cultural constraints that have, so far, prevented widespread reform of the economics curriculum. But he and many other advocates of pluralism believe that the current historical moment provides an opportunity to institute change that has not existed before.

“There’s been a wave of interest in this following the financial crisis,” Dorman said. “People are starting to recognize that the [conventional] models don’t capture everything and to ask if there needs to be a change in the way that economics is taught. It’s important to capitalize on that interest.”


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