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Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

TEFL - Teaching ECONOMICS as a Foreign Language

There is a belief - an assumption perhaps - in certain quarters, that economics taught to non-economists is distinctly inferior to that taught to students studying single or joint honours economics. Evidence however reveals "non-economists" (a phrase I will return to later) using economic models, analytical frameworks and terminology competently, indeed enthusiastically and without any fuss. So striking has been the evidence of this grasp of economic fundamentals by non-specialists that lessons have been re-imported into the teaching of economics to economists.

A brief case study may aid illumination.

As I was photocopying some handouts for a class, an economics colleague leant over and said "Ahhh Good stuff - more masters teaching then Paul?" I didn't have time to stop and chat - I was late for my second year modern languages course! What made my colleague think that the material I was about to deliver was masters level? Was it the reference to the assumption of unidirectional causality embedded in the Structure-Conduct-Performance Paradigm? Perhaps it was the concentration ratios and cumulative concentration curves? Or maybe the discussion of the limitations of neo-classical analytical frameworks and the contribution made by Michael Porter?

Teaching economics as a box of analytical tools that can be readily applied, rather than abstract theory, allows the introduction of some quite technical concepts but with purpose and reason. In doing so, the students are far more willing to engage with such frameworks than when they are taught as theory in isolation. How many times have we had to deal with the student question/statement "I understand and can draw the diagram ...but what is the POINT of all this?" The answer is to start with "the point". That is, give the subject purpose from the very start and each and every time a new concept is introduced - applied applied applied!

Back to the case study.

One element of this second year BA Modern Languages and European Studies course is a module entitled An Economic Analysis of Europe. This is a wonderful opportunity to introduce all sorts of economic concepts as analytical frameworks which the students can then use to inform and direct their independent research. For example, we investigate the microeconomic environment of business in Europe. Here the students are expected to engage in independent research on an industry of their choice with a view to completing an extended essay presenting an economic analysis of that industry.

The basis suggested for the analytical framework is the Structure-Conduct-Performance Paradigm, extended through Porter's Five Forces Model and accompanied by a PEST Analysis. While obsessing about precise definitions, students quickly appreciate how industries vary (inter alia) in terms of the level and nature of competition (Neo-classical competitive spectrum). They discover how distinguishing features may be grouped or classified as Structural or Behavioural, as well as Performance related (SCP Paradigm). With a little encouragement, they see the merit of a consideration of factors beyond the immediate market - in the "proximate environment" (Porter's Five Forces). Finally, they welcome the idea than even an economist must acknowledge the existence of a wider environment of "forces driving change" (PEST). Without tears they have, by being encouraged to view the "models" as useful analytical frameworks, quickly assimilated the essence of principles level Theory of the Firm, plus elements of intermediate level Industrial and Business Economics - including concentration ratios and cumulative concentration curves.

Of course, I introduce an element of incentive; this "analytical framework" and the accompanying industry analysis where they are required to select an industry and find the data, is the backbone of one element of their assessed coursework AND it is directly relevant to at least two questions in their final examination. This seems like a fair deal and the students react well to it. As an aside, the independent research element and the somewhat quirky specified framework dramatically reduces the incidence of plagiarism.

It may be of interest to note that at the very start of the module, I explain to the students that learning economics is analogous to learning a foreign language - before we can have a conversation we need to learn some grammar and some rules - as you might imagine, as Language students, they have no problems with this concept.

An example assignment has been supplied as an appendix to this case study.

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