Changing how economics is taught

Dollar and euro bills Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Efforts are continuing to make economics degrees more relevant to the real world

There was an immediate response to my recent remarks on the "Rethinking Economics" movement that has grown to prominence in many university economics departments in the past few years.

In particular, I focused on the way that the campaign was ignited when undergraduates (in Manchester and other places) expressed their disquiet about what they were being taught.

Notably, they complained about what they saw as the lack of engagement with the real world, and the financial crisis of 2008 and onwards.

Well, the people who do the teaching say I did not make it clear that they are also concerned about the teaching of economics, and they are taking action to change it.

Here's a follow up to my comments, from Wendy Carlin, professor of economics at University College London (UCL). She is leading a project called Core, standing for Curriculum Open-access Resources in Economics.

It is a group of people seeking to reform the undergraduate economics curriculum.

Prof Carlin writes:

Andrew Haldane, chief economist to the Bank of England says: 'It is time to rethink some of the basic building blocks of economics."

Image copyright Wendy Carlin
Image caption Prof Carlin is helping to lead efforts to change how economics is taught in universities

He is not alone in saying so. Many professional and academic economists agree. And teachers of economics in universities all over the world are on the frontline of this reform.

The events of 2008-9 led economists - like everyone else - to reflect on the role the subject had played in creating the conditions for financial crisis.

It prompted efforts to broaden the curriculum, and question what had become an approach to teaching economics disconnected both from real-world problems and from current economic research.

One example is the Core project, involving academics and teachers around the world.

Since 2012 we have been at work creating a broader, less theoretical curriculum.

Students looking for economics teaching that deals with financial crises, the contributions of thinkers from Hayek to Marx, and issues like inequality, the environment and innovation, will find these subjects are already on our courses.

In the UK the Core course is being taught at universities including UCL, King's College London, the University of Bristol, and Birkbeck. Universities abroad such as Sciences Po in Paris, Sydney University, and Dartmouth College in the US are also using it.

Students also study Core in economics departments from Bangalore to Bogota, including 2,000 students on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.

Image copyright STAN HONDA
Image caption The financial crisis of 2008 still looms large over global economics

For many years economics textbooks and courses mostly excluded the experience of developing countries. For example, they omitted the importance of access to credit, or the economic role of co-operation as well as competition, partly because their textbooks were created in London or New York.

So our collaborators are not just translating the course into French, Spanish, Hindi and other languages; they are integrating local examples to make the course relevant to everyone who wants to study economics.

The solution to the problem of a narrow, abstract curriculum might seem obvious. But our experience holds some lessons for others working to the same end.

One is that it is not easy to create a coherent course encompassing "Marxism, Schumpeter, classical, Austrian, Keynesian, behavioural, developmental economics", while also teaching students how to use those ideas to solve practical problems, such as how to improve access to financial services for people on low incomes, or what the effect on the global economy of a decrease in the price of oil might be.

Another big obstacle to change, in our experience, is the dominance of a few prominent textbooks. Teachers short of time will use lecture material they are familiar with, and the automated tests provided by the publishers.

Getting them to shift to a new way of teaching economics - however gripping for students - will require excellent material, and also extras like test-banks to help lecturers make the switch.

We publish all our Core material online for free and provide resources for teachers and students. Students are among the creative voices telling us how we can do better: some are helping create the material we provide.

Our motto is: "Teaching economics as if the last three decades had happened."

Another obstacle to faster change, however, is that some economic and policy institutions - universities, government departments, central banks - are dominated by people who studied only, as Peter Day put it - "theoretical economic men or women who took rational, optimal, decisions".

Many see the need for change, although others do not, even after the financial crisis exposed the limitations of this approach.

The institutional barriers mean there is not a quick fix. But our work has already created a plural, practical, global economics course that produces better economists.

Many other economists are engaged in the same process of reform. Slow as it is, change is well under way.

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