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Economics curriculum reform – In search of relevance

A new question-motivated, relevant curriculum, which positions itself in part as a response to weaknesses in the mainstream teaching of economics – some of which were exposed by the global financial crisis of 2008 – is showing early indications of success, according to its creators.

Internationally renowned economists Sam Bowles from the United States and Wendy Carlin from the United Kingdom, who have been involved in developing the new curriculum for undergraduate economics, delivered a guest lecture late last month at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, in Johannesburg about their progress in the development of their new pedagogical model.

The two economists are leading a collaborative group called the CORE Project, which has released a new online, open-access, free textbook that hopes to transform the way people teach and learn economics.

The new textbook, titled The Economy, is aimed at first-year economics students, and teaches theory based primarily on recent developments in economics and other social sciences as opposed to many of the existing texts, which drive home the theoretical elements of economics at their core.

Dealing with today’s problems

The textbook forms part of a larger online curriculum that challenges conventional pedagogical models for teaching economics. Instead of simply promising that the theory will someday be applicable in the real world, the CORE Project is a community of learners and teachers collaborating to make economics accessible and relevant to today’s problems.

According to a Wits press statement, the visit to Wits by Carlin and Bowles coincided with a “stated university commitment to curriculum reform as part of its wider transformation programmes, which include increasing access for students from poorer backgrounds, employment equity in academia and administration, and other initiatives, such as, the renaming of buildings to reflect South Africa’s history and non-racial vision”.

Dr Kenneth Creamer, an economics lecturer at Wits who was instrumental in arranging the visit by Carlin and Bowles, said in the statement he believes that “efforts at economics curriculum reform should be locally driven by staff and students, but such efforts will benefit greatly if they are also informed by global best practice”.

Good results

Carlin, who is a professor of economics at University College London, said the CORE method had already been shown to be effective with first-year students who had been taught using the CORE method significantly outperforming those who took the traditional introductory economics courses.

According to Carlin, the CORE method seeks to be relevant, with the initiative positioning itself as a response to weaknesses in economics teaching, some of which were exposed by the global financial crisis of 2008. It offers a question-motivated way to learn the tools of economics. According to a press statement released by Wits, Carlin has pithily described CORE as seeking to teach economics “as if the last three decades had happened”.

“First-year students think economics is difficult, boring and unrelated to the real-world problems. Teaching a standard principles course is easy but student engagement is poor and the content doesn't reflect what we do as practising economists,” said Carlin.

“According to employers, economics graduates are technically competent but they are unable to relate their knowledge to other team members or to apply it to problems they are tasked with. And this became very evident, particularly within the UK Treasury and the banking world, during the financial crisis.”

The illusion of universalism

Bowles, who is a professor of economics at the Sante Fe Institute in the US, said economics was often taught as a universal form of knowledge which meant that anyone with a PhD from the US could go anywhere to teach what he or she had learned in their studies and it was regarded as relevant. But, in many cases, it isn't. Sadly, Bowles said, such knowledge often isn't even relevant in the US.

The CORE method uses a simple framework and, like all introduction-to-economics textbooks, it simplifies significantly. While the CORE method also, like mainstream courses, teaches students to think about economic inequality as stemming from differences in endowments, technologies and institutions, they apply this approach to real-world case studies.

Said Bowles: “For example, after the industrial revolution when productivity took off, why did wages not take off? Why did it take almost half a century before wages took off? …We don't want to create a teaching of economics that is unique to the South-Asia or Latin America geographies but we do have adaptations for Latin American, Italian students and so on. And these are not simply translations of the text.

"We start with a problem that is relevant to students and then we ask, 'How did that happen?’”

Adaptation for schools

CORE was launched in 2014 and has grown to include over 40,000 registered students and over 3,000 registered teachers across Europe, North America, South America and Asia. There are also secondary schools using the material in one way or another. The most serious project for schools is taking place in France where there is to be an adaptation of the material for French high schools.

Wits Associate Professor of Economics Tendai Gwatidzo said at the lecture that CORE would assist many economics students who struggle with the move from working with equations and diagrams at the undergraduate level to working on their research.

“Many of our postgraduate students struggle when making that transition. And I think this new method will allow students to start thinking about the application of the theory much earlier in their studies,” he said.
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