Oct 31, 2013

A "Big Think" Approach to Teach Econ

This is an interesting paper by KimMarie McGoldrick & Robert Garnett [published here] on how to adopt a "big think approach" to teach economics principles, and it should work for other classes as well. See this excerpt from the conclusions:
The big think approach focuses on a key barrier to liberal education reform in undergraduate economics education, namely: the highly technical nature of economics Ph.D. programs. Many undergraduate instructors and programs profess to teach their students the art of critical thinking or “thinking for themselves” within the major; yet students’ demonstrated achievements do not support these lofty claims. The pedagogical norms of and supporting resources for undergraduate economics education remain heavily oriented to “little think” rather than “big think,” in part because the professional training of most Ph.D. economists leaves them unprepared to develop course materials consistent with a big think approach (Colander and McGoldrick 2009b). Our project aims to fill this gap by placing compelling, autodidactic tools in the hands of instructors who want their students to achieve liberal education outcomes but who have yet to find practical ways to integrate critical inquiry into their courses (p. 24).
The authors add
The big think approach is also not primarily concerned with debate or contending perspectives. It is not Crossfire or Taking Sides; and it is not “what’s wrong with economics.” It’s about learning to bridge the gap between the algorithmic certainty of economic theory and the untidiness and uncertainty of ill-structured applications. In terms of existing pedagogical models, big think might be described as a carefully crafted social issues approach to economic principles (Grimes 2009). As such, it offers potentially large benefits to our introductory economics students, the great majority of whom take only one course in economics – and our economics majors, 98% of whom who do not go to graduate school (Siegfried 2009: 222) (p. 10).
The article suggests using things like context-rich problems, connecting foundational knowledge with applications, and others. The authors give two examples that can work as templates for making that connection, one for microeconomics and the other for macro: one where the goal is to have students think and brainstorm on different pricing strategies in higher education, which is an issue they are very familiar with, and the other one based on the US government debt, an interesting issue in itself, and widely discussed these days. In the first topic for example students can apply concepts like price discrimination, elasticities, etc. The paper is worth reading carefully. Discussed it with your colleagues who teach econ principles classes. 
I am sure teachers in other countries can find interesting social issues for discussion. The topic of pricing in higher education can work well. For a macro class may be taxes and its effects or / and the informal economy should work. 

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