Nancy Wall charts continuing attempts to ensure economics education has a wider vision of the real world

Are you keeping up with the steady changes in thinking about the way Economics is taught? If the answer is yes, you will want to skate over some of this. But it is clear that many teachers hear little about recent trends.

Maybe you remember Joe Earle. He’s the one who wanted to know why his three years as a student of Economics had not given him any explanation for the financial crisis of 2008. He and others formed The Post-Crash Economics Society at the University of Manchester. With Cahal Meran and Zach Ward-Perkins he wrote The Econocracy, reviewed in the Spring issue of TBE in 2017.

This was followed in 2018 by Rethinking Economics (reviewed in TBE, Spring 2018). It grew out of work done at Kingston University and looked at the many aspects of Economics that actually help us to understand the way the real world works. The foreword to the book, written by Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Commentator for the Financial Times, said:

“The apparatus of neoclassical economics builds on shaky foundations. It violates norms of human behaviour. It is inconsistent with how humans actually behave. It does not even allow us to understand fully such important economic phenomena as bubbles and financial crises. Therefore, we should confront the heterodox ideas and traditions represented in this book. The economics that humanity will need will surely display the vigour of the mongrel, not the neuroses of the pure-bred. It will build on a better understanding of what humans desire and how they behave. It will abandon the assumptions that the study of humanity is a lost branch of physics, humans are desiccated calculating machines, a separate sphere of economic behaviour exists and economic outcomes have nothing to do with power.

Consider the obvious: the political and social institutions that economists mostly ignore also have economic purposes. They are part of the economic world, just as the economics world is part of them.”

Meanwhile, Wendy Carlin, (Professor of Economics at UCL) and others were working on the CORE course. This is mainly used online and provides students with an introductory degree level course that is focused on real world issues. (Ruth Corderoy wrote about this in TBE Spring 2016). The companion book, “The Economy, Economics for a changing world” came out in 2017 and was reviewed in TBE in the Summer 2019 issue.

The CORE course has spread across the world and has been taken up by around 250 universities in 63 countries, including 43 UK universities. Online it is free to the user. The blurb describes it as ‘the only introductory economics text to equip students to address today’s pressing problems by mastering the conceptual and quantitative tools of contemporary economics’.

The CORE moves on

In February 2020 I was invited to a symposium at the Bank of England, entitled ‘Economics Education for a Public Purpose’. The EQuSS project (Economics as a Quantitative Social Science), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, focuses on the social sciences, policy issues and interdisciplinary courses. The project has produced two new ebooks, ‘Economics, Society and Public Policy’ and ‘Doing Economics: Empirical Projects’. These two courses provide resources that are needed to introduce students to analysing economic data. Notice that these objectives are a far cry from study of theoretical economics. They are designed to focus on the data and quantitative skills that are needed to address the pressing public policy issues that face us in the real world.

See: https://core-econ.org/espp/

and

https://core-econ.org/doing-economics/

Many of the students using these courses will not be specialising exclusively in economics. They will be able to use their economic understanding and their data handling skills to address real-world phenomena. The courses are designed to encourage critical thinking and discussion that deepens the understanding of economic concepts. They will be relevant to climate change, inequality, unemployment and wellbeing (and much else). An online teacher community will be able to share content and advice.

Who is it for?

Some teachers are using CORE resources with A level students. But many are not, even though the resources are free online. Yet ESPP and Doing Economics have many opportunities for stretch and challenge approaches and can be useful for Maths and Business as well as Economics courses. The Economics Network hopes to put some of the material on their website, using the content to address real world issues. Some of the content could be very useful to teachers who are in need of additional training in the subject. (Information at www.core-econ.org/espp/book/text/0-8-resources.html ).

In any case, these developments have everything to do with what students do after studying Economics at A level.  The CORE approach is interdisciplinary, offering a range of pathways. For the right people it offers many opportunities. It is also linked to ‘Discover Economics’, the Royal Economic Society campaign that seeks to broaden the scope of Economics and also to encourage much greater diversity amongst those who are studying the subject. (One in five of students at independent schools study A level Economics, compared to one in 17 in all other educational institutions.) The RES says Economics courses  ‘are neither diverse nor inclusive along many dimensions, including gender, ethnicity and social class.’

CORE approaches do chime with the felt need for more women in the field of Economics.  Addressing real world problems requires people skills as well as mathematical skills. They say “We need people who are curious, engaged, employable and capable of grasping the statistical significance of the available data. They will need insight within social, political and ethical contexts.” (For more on this, see page 25, TBE Autumn 2019, which refers to the Royal Economic Society’s efforts to recruit more women to the profession.)

Traditionally, economists have seldom chosen to research matters that involve both economic and social problems. Students following CORE courses will use their data skills to examine a range of issues within the economy, society and public policy. They will learn how to hold politicians to account. They will gain hands-on experience using real world data to illuminate global problems.

Economies change fast. Economics education has to keep up with the pace of change. The CORE approach expects students to engage in strategic interaction to help keep up with current developments.

The symposium

Some of those attending that afternoon at the Bank of England were teachers and researchers but many more were students. There was dynamism in the atmosphere. The awarding bodies are paying little attention to the CORE approach. But within the limitations they place on our school courses there is still room for innovation and a much wider vision of the real world.

Nancy Wall, EBEA Trustee