Teaching Economics with Real-World Context

Preparing the Economists of Tomorrow

Teaching Economics with Real-World Context

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The following article first appeared in the INOMICS Handbook 2022.

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While every generation claims its problems are the most formidable and pressing in the annals of humankind, our generation certainly has a strong case: a global pandemic that has already taken five million lives, and a world seemingly headed toward catastrophe, unable to keep global temperatures from rising and thus contain climate change.

Today’s students share a collective angst, an anxiety about the future—and rightfully so: worried about getting a job, worried what the planet will look like when they are ready to settle down and raise a family, and even angry that they had nothing to do with climate change; it was not of their doing, but placed on their laps - a negative externality if you will - only to unravel and become their responsibility.

Students (and the public) look to economics and the economics profession for help and guidance. Probably at no time in recent history have we had a greater ethical obligation to educate our students within a context of hope and aspiration so that all can successfully (and sustainably) provision for themselves and for others.

Based on our collective years of teaching, as well riding the waves of pluralism, sustainability, and rethinking economics, we offer the following suggestions for would-be teachers of economics and, of course, veteran teachers as well.

1. Align Course Content with Current Issues

We need not become messengers of doom and gloom; instead, emphasize the role of education in giving students the ability to think and to solve problems. And, most importantly, let’s instill students with a sense of optimism and empowerment (for a helpful resource, see Boyd and Reardon 2020).

Construct the course so it aligns with the big issues of the day, and today there is no bigger issue than climate change, and how we can live our lives sustainability (A helpful guide is the UN 17 SDGs; also see Reardon et al. 2018, and Reardon 2021). Doing so will make the course more thematic and interesting to students, while still covering core topics, but grounded in the context of the 21st century. And it will shed light on other pressing problems such as inequality, migration, species depletion, technological change, and even the coronavirus itself, all of which are interrelated with climate change.

Our goal is to educate and not to proselytize. Not all economists think alike, and this is something we should celebrate. But we must teach our students to communicate their results and thoughts clearly. The world needs graduates who can be critical thinkers, who can listen, engage in dialogue, and respect and work with others with whom they disagree.

2. Teach Multidisciplinary Thinking and Cooperation

Once the course is re-structured to align with the big issues of the day, i.e., climate change and sustainability, pluralism automatically follows:

“It is absolutely impossible to discuss sustainability from one perspective. It is absolutely impossible to discuss sustainability without discussing justice, ethics, and power. And it is absolutely impossible to discuss justice and power without developing the skills to listen and dialogue. It simply cannot be done. Start teaching the UN 17 SDGs [with its emphasis on sustainability], and pluralism with its myriad benefits becomes inevitable. Thus, recognizing and incorporating sustainability is a game changer” (Reardon 2021, p. 294).

Pluralism, like sustainability (and democracy and freedom) is a complex and multi-faceted concept. A simple, working definition is a willingness to listen, engage, and dialogue with different and often opposing views. This is necessary because pandemics and climate change do not respect well-established intellectual silos nor international borders. Workable solutions are not the prerogative of one discipline as if only one discipline has the answer.

Does pluralism mean that every issue must be taught from every possible school of thought? And that every instructor should master every ideology? Absolutely not. At the individual level, pluralism is a modus operandi, in which one humbly accepts what one does not know, works with others to understand their point of view, listens, and dialogues with others. This is something that every instructor can and should do; and is probably the best thing with the most far-reaching benefits that a professor can instill in his/her students. 

For even more credibility, invite guest lecturers from politics and sociology. While most of the social sciences are still ensconced in silo-based teaching and research, students (and society) would most benefit from our disciplines pooling together—generating positive externalities if you will.

3. Be Realistic by Discussing Societal Power and Model Efficacy

Speaking of power, don’t ignore it. Students see it every day in their relationships with landlords/landladies, in their summer jobs and internships, in their colleges and universities, and sometimes in their own family and relationships. Power in any economy is central and ubiquitous, and must become intrinsic to the economics curricula. To ignore it in one’s teaching is to lose credibility with students. The preponderant lesson from Jared Diamond’s Collapse is that elites and vested interests have universally used their power to thwart and parry necessary reforms which would have benefitted all. In today’s economy, what are the contexts in which power takes place, and how can the existence of power be mapped, understood, and incorporated into the economics curricula? Here students and faculty alike can benefit from an active perusal of the history of economic thought. Not only does it showcase how economic thinkers were well-focused on the issues of their day, but how various configurations of power either promoted or thwarted the adoption of various ideas.

Use models that are realistic and empirically based. Every discipline uses models, but economics (especially neoclassical) is notorious for using models that are overly deductive and anti-historical, or lacking in empirical validity. If we want to teach our students how to be critical thinkers, we must roll up our sleeves, so to speak, and get our hands dirty. Data, evidence, and discussions of how the foundational models of economics have outdated assumptions (but can be modified to incorporate new learning) will gain you credibility and teach your students to test everything. After all, this is what they should be doing when they graduate into the real world.

4. Don’t be Discouraged by Having to Work Within the System

Now wait a minute, you might say: I accepted a tenure track position and am expected to teach standard economics; I will be evaluated by my colleagues and our department will assess students. So what? Yes, we are all constricted by working within the current system, but that doesn’t give one a license to do nothing. Teach our students to listen, dialogue, and work with others—much-needed skills that are in short supply not just in economics, but throughout society. Isn’t this what good teaching is all about? Have we become so inured to the drudgery of teaching the bread-and-butter issues that we forget what it means to be a good teacher? It doesn’t matter if the course is online or face-to-face (although after two years of virtual teaching, students welcome the chance to be back in the classroom); learning is a unique and exciting opportunity. Working with students, getting to know them individually, and teaching them to listen and dialogue with others, in a spirit of humbleness, will ripple and multiply throughout society.

Teaching economics is an honorable profession. We have an ethical obligation to educate our students and to teach them how to think critically, and how best to live and provision in a world that is becoming increasingly warmer. Let’s make it happen.

The above article first appeared in the INOMICS Handbook 2022.

Download the INOMICS Handbook


Boyd, Graham and Reardon, Jack (2020) Rebuild the Economy, Leadership, and You: A Toolkit for Builders of a Better World, Evolutesix, London. 

Diamond, Jared (2005) 'How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,' Penguin, New York. 

Reardon, Jack (2021) 'Improving Pluralism in Economics Education,' in Hermann, Arturo and Mouatt, Simon (Eds.) Contemporary Issues in Heterodox Economics: Implications for Theory and Policy Action, Routledge: London, pp. 282- 298. 

Reardon, Jack, Madi, Maria and Cato, Molly Scott (2018) Introducing a New Economics: Pluralist, Sustainable, and Progressive, Pluto Press, London. 


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