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The way economics is taught needs an overhaul: a South African case study

- Emmanuel Ojo and Loïse Jeannin

Economics is a discipline that ought, at its best, to explain the world and its complexities. Unlike physics, it is not an exact science.

Due to its nature as a social sciences, lecturers must assist students to understand the complex relationships between companies, governments, consumers and diverse stakeholders. They also need to guide their students to develop critical thinking skills and information literacy. And this go beyond to an understanding of critical aggregates such as gross domestic product (GDP), inflation and unemployment rates.

It is particularly crucial to revisit the economics curriculum in the light of recent global developments. In the years since the 2008 financial crisis, there’s been much debate about whether universities are doing enough to produce economics graduates ready for the real world. There’s been a rise of student societies committed to new ways of approaching the discipline.

What’s become increasingly clear is that teaching economics needs to be tightly connected to real life. This grounds teaching in students’ economic realities, enabling them relate better to economics knowledge. Undergraduate students, particularly those in their first year of study, must be given the opportunity to engage with different economic actors such as business managers and analysts. They must be given the chance to strongly draw on daily realities.

To teach hyperinflation, for instance, economics lecturers could choose to focus on the Zimbabwean example. They could invite a Zimbabwean economist to their classroom to tell the story. Or what about studying the effect of competition and regulation on small companies? An entrepreneur would be well placed to share her experiences.

Sadly, research that one of us has conducted suggests undergraduate economics students are not being taught effectively.

What our research and experience showed

In both the global North and South, economics tends to be taught with micro- and macroeconomic models that are quite disconnected from sociopolitical realities. Economics lecturers are usually experts in statistics and mathematics, which provide tools for developing these models. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing. But the research suggests that such experts also need to develop pedagogical competencies. This would use a educationalist’s perspective to contribute to the teaching of economics in higher education.

The research, which examined economics teaching of first-year undergraduate students at a South African research-intensive and global African university, reached three empirical conclusions.

First, the economics curriculum must be aligned with undergraduate students’ real-life contexts. Second, the economics curriculum must be rethought in light of ongoing debates within the discipline. Finally, there’s a need for economics lecturers to undergo teacher training – what educationists refer to as pedagogy.

It’s not enough for lecturers to know about the discipline: they must actually know how best to teach and assess students. This has significant implications for student’s learning, and the pedagogical development of the economics faculty cannot be overemphasised.

Renew economics curriculum and pedagogy

Lecturers should use learning materials that are contextual to the economies where learners study. Students will feel more engaged in their studies if they see how learning economics can help them unpack the complexities of the world they live in.

When it comes to pedagogy, the development of online learning management platforms offers the possibility to make the discipline of economics more attractive. This draws on the power of the internet as a tool for teaching. It gives students the opportunity to practice and learn outside the classroom. When lecturers adopt a flipped classroom pedagogy, students can begin their learning at home through online materials. They can then apply their knowledge in class through case study discussions and collaborative projects. This flipped classroom approach can truly engage students with the richness of economic analysis.

But for all of this to happen, lecturers need more training. This will equip them with the skills and confidence to break out of the “sage on the stage” mould. This sort of “chalk and talk” teaching does students a disservice. It doesn’t give them a chance to develop critical thinking skills.

Get lecturers engaged

So, if lecturers are to better teach economics in the current global context and help students critically reflect on economic policies, they need further training in pedagogy. Today’s economics lecturers, who are predominantly academic economists, have a strong disciplinary background. But this doesn’t give them the skills to teach effectively.

Pedagogical training would enhance lecturers’ ability to ascertain student learning, beyond just passing examinations. Academic development through a higher education qualification or specific workshops in higher education teaching could prepare these disciplinary experts for university teaching. The skills they’ll learn will empower academics to branch out of traditional economics teaching that has tended to focus largely on students’ mathematical competencies.

Beyond this, the complex nature of the economics discipline and the dynamics of globalisation in the 21st century justify the need for university teachers and students to engage more broadly through interdisciplinary approaches. Drawing on other disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities, students can better understand the broader social and moral implications of economics decisions.

This is not to say that teaching economic models is obsolete. We do not contend that models should be banned from the classroom. Instead, our argument is that lecturers should encourage students to engage with their real-life economic context to acquire knowledge but also to critically reflect on the factors and impacts of economic decisions. Economic models can’t be taught in a vacuum, they need to be applied critically. Critical thinking skills and information literacy are crucial if students are to be empowered.

This echoes Oxford University economist Margaret Stevens’ argument that it’s time to find a balance between teaching models and encouraging students’ autonomous thinking.

Students should be assessed on their capacity to critically analyse economic problems using appropriate data and aggregates. They must be encouraged to develop critical thinking skills and information literacy to locate and critically assess information available online. This all feeds into what we feel is the ultimate goal of teaching economics: to equip students with the autonomy to understand economic policies and become thoughtful economic actors.The Conversation

Emmanuel Ojo, Lecturer, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand and Loïse Jeannin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Higher Education, University of Johannesburg. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.