The leaning in learning

Nigella Vigoroso-Heck is inclined to avoid bias.
Our students will probably leave school with an economic mindset that reflects the biases of their teachers.

I haven’t always worked at the school that I am currently at now. At my previous school, I worked closely with Sam – who very much started out as my mentor and quickly became a friend. Sam and I would rarely share economics classes though. Instead, we would each try to take the same class all the way through its entire two years of the economics A-Level course. It worked for us because we could maintain the momentum of a quick-paced syllabus and we could build stronger relationships with our students.

I find myself questioning whether our students would get a truly pluralistic view of economics even if the syllabus allowed it. Can an economics teacher ever be truly neutral?

After a few years of working like this, however, we realised something: at the end of the two years, almost without fail, Sam’s students would tend to be much more Keynesian and towards the left on the political spectrum. My classes, by contrast, would be much more aligned with monetarist thinking and be right-of-centre.

I could never quite understand this. OK – Sam is a proud Yorkshireman and he enjoys criticising the Government’s fiscal policy at every turn. But me… well, I certainly don’t consider myself to be a monetarist. Like most teachers (at least I hope most teachers would agree), my lessons are constructed to be neutral in their outlook; I wouldn’t want to advocate one school of thought over any another. In private, I can admit to you that over the years, neo-classical thinking has provided me with a useful filter through which to view the actions of others. But that is a far cry from espousing the policies myself. In terms of students, I simply want them to make up their own minds.

Eight months into my new school, a funny thing has happened. This term I have a new colleague: Tom. And as we near the start of another exam season, it’s clear that my students have become left-of-centre “doughnut economists” (Kate Raworth’s best-selling descriptor of optimum, pluralist economics practice). Tom’s, by contrast, are almost all Austrian.

This outcome is much less surprising. It’s pretty hard to be more free-market than Tom. At nearly 60 years old, Tom is a dyed-in-the-wool Thatcherite who can’t help but find a sudden burst of new energy whenever a student (usually an Oxbridge candidate) mentions the likes of Hayek or Von Mises. But even Tom would be upset if he thought he was, in any way, deliberately skewing the outlook of our future economists. So what’s going on?

In my previous column, I bemoaned the lack of scope in the A-level syllabus to pursue a pluralistic view of economics. But I now find myself questioning whether our students would get a truly pluralistic view of economics even if the syllabus allowed it. Can an economics teacher ever be truly neutral? And, if not, can economics teaching ever be truly pluralistic?

The same problem frequently occurs with politics. Teachers of politics must, to a large extent, be interested in politics and therefore they must have devoted a significant amount of time to working out their own political leanings. Can such a person then deliver a politically-neutral course? One would expect, of course, that teachers teach with a high degree of professionalism and try not to let their personal biases interfere with learning. But as a teacher, I can tell you, it’s not always that easy.

A better way might be to say nothing at the outset and simply allow students to work their own way through well-designed learning activities.

For example, one of the things that I always struggle with (in fact I’m struggling with it right now with two of my classes) is a topic on the International Monetary Fund (IMF). I am, I admit, biased. I am biased because of many things: my own personal experiences before teaching, the experiences of friends in Jamaica, the books by Josef Stiglitz and John Perkin, the Yes Men movies … as a result, I know that I will always find it hard to explain “the positives of the IMF” to my students. Even so-called IMF achievements, such as rescuing Greece from bankruptcy, I actually consider to be failures. Knowing how many tears of austerity have been shed over the Greek tragedy, I find it a really difficult one to sell. And I’m sure I do a horrible job of it.

But I know that other teachers have similar difficulties as well. Tom struggles to teach the topic of privatisation without extolling its virtues and largely glossing over its failings. My old colleague Sam could barely teach the self-stabilisation model with a straight face. This is clearly not a deliberate ploy, rather a subconscious bias. As a result, I am left to conclude that our students will probably leave school with an economic mindset that, to a greater or lesser extent, reflects those biases of their A-Level teachers. They will already be halfway down the rabbit-hole of one particular school of thought.

Assuming then that this is a problem we wish to fix, I will now consider some of the solutions. One solution might be to teach all of the schools of thought at the outset. Then you could work through the main issues that concern economists (such as resource allocation, macro policy, development) through the various lenses of the schools. While this certainly forces students to get a pluralistic appreciation of the subject, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate the teacher bias problem.

Perhaps team-teaching then; that is, literally having two teachers in the classroom who will try and put over competing views. In this scenario, however, discussions might end up being dominated by the teachers rather than the students themselves.

A better way might be to say nothing at the outset and simply allow students to work their own way through well-designed learning activities. Biased teaching will be more prevalent when teaching is didactic (what I call the fountain of knowledge approach). Instead, the teacher should be a mere facilitator of learning activities. I have recently adopted such methods in my own classroom – using props like Lego as often as possible to teach economic theory. This is working well as it allows my students to formulate their own ideas and come to their own conclusions about economic concepts. Concepts, in their first iteration of learning, are therefore not pre-loaded with the theoretical bias that almost certainly comes with didactic teaching. They can now participate in a more inclusive and pluralistic discussion of economics at the outset with different students offering different takes on their experience. By experiencing first and rationalising later, my students are now less likely to accept the perceived wisdom from the fountain of knowledge and, instead, they are more confident to challenge, deconstruct and reformulate the mainstream ideas. Hence, the reason we have introduced Doughnut Economics into our learning cycle this year. My students seem happier with this set-up (for now). I hope it’s because they have a broader view of the subject, although maybe it’s just because they like the Lego.

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