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Editorial, Volume 7 Issue 2

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Learning Economics: Can the ‘what’ be separated from the ‘how’?

At first sight the papers in this edition fall into two categories. Two papers by Chen and Lin and by Garrett and Moore examine the scope for improving outcomes by varying teaching methods. Three papers invite a reconsideration of what is taught. Two of these — the papers by Mungaray and colleagues and by Ziegert and McGoldrick — assert benefits from devoting a considerable amount of curriculum time to helping students to learn how to make practical contributions to communities and small businesses. Gibson argues that economics education in schools in England has been implicitly promoting values that should be the objects of critical scrutiny by teachers and students alike. The validity of separating the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of teaching is intrinsic to the method of evaluating instruction (randomised controlled trials) that is commonly regarded as the ‘gold standard’ in educational research. But the three papers which argue for changes in the curriculum also present (overtly in the case of the papers on service learning and implicitly in the case of the paper on ideology) alternative methods of instruction. Changing the ‘what’ and changing the ‘how’ are inextricably linked and this complicates the task of evaluating claims for improvement in learning economics.

Several empirical studies have indicated that the use of PowerPoint does not, by itself, improve student performance in economics courses (for example Rankin and Hoaas, 2001). These studies focus on the effect of PowerPoint in the classroom. There is apparently no evidence however on the effectiveness of other uses of PowerPoint, for example as supplementary material available to students through a course website. This question is addressed here by Chen and Lin. They find that, for a particular course, students who downloaded lecture material in PowerPoint performed better than other students on given test questions related to that material by 3.5 per cent on average, which they note is greater in magnitude than the effect on grades of student attendance in the same course. This raises the rather interesting possibility, given the prior evidence on the effectiveness of PowerPoint, that PowerPoint may be more valuable as a resource outside of the classroom than in the classroom.

Advocacy of service-learning within undergraduate programmes has been much stronger in the US than in, for example, the UK. Mungaray and colleagues present an evaluation of a particular approach to service learning which is focused upon micro-enterprises rather than community projects. It is common for evaluations of service-learning to concentrate on the benefits to students of becoming involved in ‘real-world’ projects. This paper asks a different question: what are the benefits to the micro-enterprises from the participation of the students? Social benefits of this kind would normally be missed in any estimate of the returns to an economics degree. However, in a context where strengthened links between higher education, employers and communities are seen as intrinsically ‘a good thing’, evidence of the kind provided by Mungaray et al. may be influential in persuading colleagues to introduce similar changes to the curriculum. Readers whose interest is aroused by this example of service learning should find the paper by Ziegert and McGoldrick an ideal way to gather an overview of the field. They provide a ‘state-of–art’ review of the arguments that have been advanced in favour of this kind of curriculum initiative and review the basis in learning theory for advocating service-learning. They also investigate the issues to be confronted in attempts to develop practice and offer guidance which draws upon their considerable experience in the field.

Gibson provides a critical evaluation of recent developments in economics in the school curriculum in England. The overall situation is far from unique to this country: elements of economics education can be traced in a variety of curriculum packages with titles such as ‘financial literacy’, ‘enterprise’ and such like. The emphasis is typically on ‘competency’: what can we equip students to be able to do? As Gibson points out, an approach to the curriculum of this kind tends to hide away some huge assumptions about what kind of future individuals should be prepared for and — even more so — what role they are expected to play in shaping that future. Gibson addresses these questions in the context of particular developments in the school curriculum in one country, but the issues he discusses could be applied with similar gusto to undergraduate economics education.

Interest in game theoretic approaches to real world conflicts such as arms races and price wars has received booster shots in the past two decades with Nobel prizes in economics going to game theorists John Nash in 1994 and both Robert Aumann and Thomas Schelling in 2005, not to mention the interest generated by the Oscar winning film A Beautiful Mind based on Nash’s life. Interest in the teaching of game theory has also bloomed. Paul Ormerod acknowledges the importance of game theory in economics education in the very first edition of IREE, while also noting its limitations (Ormerod, 2003). In the present issue, Garrett and Moore offer an innovation in the teaching of game theory, in particular with respect to mixed strategies, with the aim of improving student understanding of what can be a very demanding topic. We all remember from our youth, fondly I imagine, the ‘rock-paper-scissors’ game which illustrates the use of mixed strategies, as Garrett and Moore point out.

Peter Davies and Ross Guest

References

Ormerod, P. (2003) ‘Turning the Tide: Bringing Economics Teaching into the 21st Century’, International Review of Economics Education, 1(1), 71–9.

Rankin, E. L. and Hoaas, D. J. (2001) ‘The use of PowerPoint and student performance’, Atlantic Economic Journal, 29, 113.

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