Wendy CarlinIt’s long overdue to bring the outside world into the classroom at the beginning of the economics syllabus, not at the end, and to teach students how to use the tools we give them to make sense of the problems that excite them, writes Wendy Carlin, project director of the INET CORE curriculum project

Since the INET CORE curriculum project launched on 11 November, we’ve been inundated with suggestions, requests for information and opportunities to communicate. Our tagline “teaching economics as if the last three decades had happened”, seems to have struck a chord. As we deliberate on how to structure our course, and how to teach it, this is a mixed blessing. While it reminds us how exciting it is to reform the undergraduate economics curriculum, it also shows how difficult it will be to get it right.

And, so far, it’s the engagement of students that has surprised us most. One of the reasons curriculum reform is on the agenda today is because of organised groups such as Rethinking Economics, and the Post-Crash Economics Society, and we continue to learn from their insight. But the interest among students goes well beyond the UK. When I was interviewed on the World Service on 6 December to debate curriculum reform, within hours almost 100 students had contributed their opinions and ideas to the World Service Facebook page. Even more remarkable, a Reddit conversation posted in response to an op-ed article I wrote in the FT attracted 1,214 student responses in 48 hours. The dominant theme for both sets of students: why has economics teaching become detached from our experience of the world?

Of course, we don’t own the curriculum reform process: we’re just one contributor in what is rapidly becoming a distinguished field. Some of the most interesting contributions to it have come from:

  • Simon Wren-Lewis, who points out that economic thinking is a response to a real-world context, and should be taught as such.
  • The Washington Post’s Mike Konczal, who suggests flipping the introductory curriculum on its head to introduce unemployment, the role of institutions and externalities before perfect competition.
  • Paul Seabright, who demonstrates that the “messy” parts of microeconomics, which are rarely taught in undergraduate courses with any depth, can be explained using basic concepts and tools.

Others think the current curriculum is taught backwards in another sense: textbook editors, under market pressure to introduce interpretations of recent events and advances in economics from the past couple of decades, have tacked on the new material as the last chapters of the course book. As a result some of the most important concepts – incomplete contracts, new views of economic behaviour – are left out in the cold. One way of thinking about the curriculum reform movement is that it brings the back of the textbook to the front.

What all these contributions have in common is a basic assumption that it’s long overdue to bring the outside world into the classroom at the beginning of the economics syllabus, not at the end, and to teach students how to use the tools we give them to make sense of the problems that excite them. Teaching economists how to communicate their knowledge when they apply it to the world around them is increasingly important, and often overlooked. For example, when Paul Anand and Jonathan Leape surveyed members of the government Economic Service in January 2012, and asked “Are there any changes in your university economics training that would better prepare you as a professional economist?” the single most common response was to wish they had greater focus on practical application of the principles they learned: more examples from real life and more emphasis on real-world topics. As one respondent replied, it was the difference between being taught how to build a car, and how to drive one.

But, if this were easy to do, then many more courses would have changed already. The INET CORE project is a team of 25 economists from around the world working with writers, experts on innovations in teaching, and a team of designers and computer programmers in Bangalore. We are discovering that there are no easy wins: the simplifications of the standard syllabus, the emphasis on sets of standards problems for students to solve, the division into “micro” and “macro”, and the decision to ignore topics like the financial system are there to make economics easier to understand for new students – but, we must admit, also to make it easier to teach. If we decide that this model is no longer sustainable, it falls to us to create something that is both a better learning experience, but also teachable and defendable.

When we consider what to put in and what to leave out, the guiding principle is the applicability of concepts and models to the understanding of important problems. The new curriculum begins with presenting the economy as a dynamic system and provides facts about how it came to be like it is today. Three big themes are:

  • The success of the capitalist economy in improving material standards of living.
  • Its potential for producing catastrophic climate change.
  • The unequal distribution of rewards across and within countries.

These themes run throughout the course. A set of related models are developed that can be used to explain the way individuals make decisions, how they interact with others, and the way rules and institutions affect how scarce resources are used—and how they are distributed. The models help explain why firms exist, the successes and failures of markets, why there is involuntary unemployment, and why banks lend too little to some customers and too much to others. This gives a taste of the way the new course is being built.

Economics students around the world are asking more of their universities and we are part of the response. It’s a reminder that this is an important moment for economics teaching, not just for economics teachers. When we introduce the first iteration of the CORE curriculum in September 2014 (for an introduction to economics course), we will certainly learn a lot more from the most important contributors: the students who use the material.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

About the Author

Wendy CarlinProfessor Wendy Carlin (DPhil, Economics, Oxford University) is project director, INET CORE project, and Professor of Economics at University College London, a visiting Professor at the University of Oxford and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). She is on the Expert Advisory Panel, Office for Budget Responsibility in the UK and has worked as a consultant for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank. With David Soskice she has co-authored two macroeconomics books: Macroeconomics and the Wage Bargain (Oxford University Press, 1990) and the textbook: Macroeconomics: Imperfections, Institutions and Policies (Oxford University Press, 2006).