Leaping from lily pad to lily pad* while shouting the answers to economics questions might seem too ridiculous to be true but it is, in fact, a valid teaching method for economics in the IGCSE curriculum. Not only does this and other similar exercise fail at anything other than getting students to rote memorise formulaic answers, it harms the reputation of economics as a subject by inviting mockery and dulling interest. There are numerous unique problems that are involved in the teaching of economics that mainly stem from its dual nature of being both a science and humanity and the failure of our policy makers to address the duality. We need to take action immediately if we are to reverse the global trend of increasing economic illiteracy.

The primary problem with teaching economics is due to it being not quite a science and not quite a humanity leaving it in limbo. This has created an extremely weird and schizophrenic assessment system that is based almost entirely on rote memorization of facts and narrow analysis structures. Assessments are divided into 2 parts in the IGCSE, the first parts are multiple choice question that seeks to grasp if the person understands what each definition means via question like those shown below. These tests don’t require any skill on effort other than memorization to pass

Which is a supply-side policy that would increase output in the long-run?

  • An increase in benefit payments
  • B an increase in places at training colleges
  • C an increase in the rate of income tax
  • D an increase in the rate of tax employers pay
This question is, in essence, asking “What is the definition of output and supply-side ?” as anyone who has any knowledge about those will be immediately able to figure out the correct answer

What is the main cause of high rates of unemployment in developed economies in periods of recession?

  • A decreases in total demand
  • B movement of labour between countries
  • C reduced levels of technological change
  • D regional inequalities of wealth
This question is also appears to require critical thinking but in fact only needs memorization of the definition of “recession”,”unemployment” and “demand” to answer.

While I have a personal dislike towards these kinds of tests serve an important purpose of making sure students were paying attention and understand the rationale behind having them. They also only count towards 30% of your grades so they are of lesser importance than the second part of the assessment which is the structured questions. Structured question are where the main problems with economics are most visible and are in the most immediate need of addressing

Since multiple choice question already tests you for your knowledge of definition, it would make sense that structured questions are concerned about the application of such knowledge in the real world. The structured question attempt to pay lip service to this ideal but often fail and instead resort to asking definition after giving an example of phenomena. This has created a terrible set of incentives which rewards rote memorization of definitions over an understanding of economic principles. Examples of this are given below

(a) Using information from the extract, identify two reasons why Sweden is considered to be a devloped country

One of the few question on the test that requires any application of economics in the real world as is also an incredibly superfical question that in essence asks “What does a  developed country mean”.

In 2013, an earthquake on the Iran/Pakistan border destroyed many factories and homes. Some officials wanted the Governments to rebuild the factories and homes, even though there would be an opportunity cost. Others suggested that some people should be encouraged to emigrate.

(a) Define ‘opportunity cost’.

A blatant example of giving a real life example in an attempt to apply something to real life while still just asking for the definitions.

If were to analyse these tests using an economics perspective we can see that they are structured in a manner to incentivise rote memorization of definitions and practising of graph manipulation over trying to gain a deep understand of economic principles. This is because only a few question require a deep understanding of economic principles while most simply require knowledge of the definition and the ability to manipulate graphs.

This needs to be addressed immediately as this has been driving bright and creative students away from selecting economics as a subject which are the students who are most likely to make groundbreaking discoveries in the future. It has instead been rewarding those who can memorise or have the ability to pay for tuition which is not something that should be rewarded. If we are to make sure economics countnies to grow as a field and breaks it reputation as “dismal sciences” then we need to addrese the problem early.

*Please not this isn’t meant as an insult towards any teachers. I believe that my teacher was doing the best thing he could withing the system he had and often allows us to ask questions and criticise parts of the curriculum during the class. This is criticism is more directed towards the IGCSE system as a whole and their method of assessing the subject than the way the subject is taught in my school

One thought on “The problem with high-school economics

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