The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2. Enriching an orthodox programme

2.1 Summary

We will call the strategy of adding heterodox concepts into an otherwise orthodox programme ‘orthodox-plus’. Of the three strategies for teaching heterodoxy discussed in this chapter, this is the simplest to implement. The essence of the approach is that orthodox concepts should be interrogated critically; and that heterodox criticisms and alternative concepts can assist this process. Note that the previous sentence was split into two: assess orthodox concepts critically, and use heterodoxy to do so. The first part is crucial. Of course, economics educators could always do better in looking critically – and encouraging their students to look critically – at the concepts they are studying. This neglect is understandable: time constraints mean that tutors are under pressure to move on to the next topic; and, particularly at lower levels, it is incumbent on tutors that their students merely pass through that stage successfully and that core, underpinning concepts are learned. However, they may not be understood. Critical examination can increase understanding. All of that could be achieved without using heterodox content but using heterodox work could assist the process of critical teaching. Further, according to the variation theory of learning, thinking comparatively – from a number of perspectives – about an object of learning improves understanding of it.[1]

To make space for the inclusion of heterodox perspectives in an orthodox module, something must be omitted, but what? This is significant precisely because an objection to the above proposal is that key concepts are omitted. What may be sacrificed is some detail, for instance in some of the technical details of the concepts being studied. Salemi (2005) argues that for an introductory economics module, some standard diagrams – he cites cost curves – can be omitted in favour of more reinforcement and application of key concepts. His approach is similar to arguing that ‘threshold concepts’ – concepts which once understood change the way the person thinks (see Meyer and Land, 2005) – should be targeted in order either to underpin higher-level study or give a basic summary of economics for a non-economist. The same argument could also be applied to the extent of mathematics used in a module. A further approach could be to leave out theories which are less useful in modern economics or spend much less time on them. For instance, CORE omits inter alia perfect competition, clearing labour markets, and Edgeworth boxes under perfect competition.

[1] Space precludes full discussion of variation theory. Essentially, the theory holds that there is no discernment without variation. To understand a part, one must grasp the whole. Thus to understand orthodoxy, one may benefit from examining other parts of economics. See Runesson (2005) for further discussion.