Editorial, Volume 6 Issue 1
Search on Google for 'thinking like an economist' and you will be overwhelmed by well over 10,000 hits. This is a phrase that resonates readily with the profession. The idea that teaching is a process of developing students' ability to 'think like an economist' is commonplace. However, there is no commonly accepted definition of what it means. Some definitions refer exclusively to some central ideas that, it is suggested, all economists use to organise their analysis of problems. Some definitions refer to schema that economists use to guide their investigations. Others refer to techniques of analysis. A few suggest relationships between these three approaches. Yet, as two previous contributions to the journal (Becker 2004, Reimann 2004) have pointed out, there is considerable uniformity in what economics is taught and how it is taught. So how come we find such variation in ideas about what is achieved through this uniform teaching?
The papers in this edition of the journal do not explicitly refer to the phrase 'thinking like an economist' but it looms behind the methods of teaching that are described. Johnson and Contreras describe an international integration of collaborative case studies within a micro course. They use students' self-assessments in terms of Hansen's (2001) six proficiencies as well as assessment grades to evaluate the impact of their initiative. Hansen explicitly introduces his six competencies as a way of operationalising 'thinking like an economist'. This is a 'schema' approach to the definition which divides the processes by which economists analyse problems into stages beginning with 'accessing existing knowledge' (2001 p. 236). Hansen's proficiencies have an advantage of treating students' progression as a journey of improvement along several strands that transcend particular elements of their work within any one year of their study. Learning to think like an economist is not an accumulation of a set of isolated pieces of knowledge that can be easily represented through scores achieved on discrete modules. A difficulty with this 'schema' approach is that it tends to dissociate economists' organising ideas (e.g. about markets and competition) from their methods.
Universities in England have been required to introduce systems of tracking students' progress through 'personal development profiles'. The impetus behind this innovation is a recognition of the importance of helping students to reflect upon their journey as learners: a journey which should, in the case of economics students, lead to 'thinking like an economist'. Lee and Burden describe an attempt to implement an approach to personal development planning that recognises the particular characteristics of the journey towards thinking like an economist, rather than, say, thinking like a sociologist or a biologist. One of the issues they consider is whether there are recognisable and shared stages along this journey: rights of passage that must be experienced. Drawing upon the work of Perry (1970) they identify students' willingness to tolerate ambiguity as a key point of transition in their thinking. There are parallels here with the accounts from students in the paper by Johnson and Contreras. Lee and Burden also ponder the possibility that key transition points may be associated with the acquisition of powerful organising ideas in the discipline, as described by threshold concepts (Shanahan et al. 2006).
Owen addresses the issue of learning to think like an economist through supporting students' abilities in processing data, reading and writing reports.These activities that are readily identifiable as typical work for a practising economist: working with computers is central but not exclusive. This pattern is reflected in the organisation of the learning experiences that Owen describes. Frequently referred to as 'blended learning' this kind of approach represents a development from conceptions of teaching where the computer is expected to provide a complete environment for learning.
Hazlett presents an economics experiment that she uses to help students to understand ways in which uncertainty in investment decisions can affect economic activity. She describes how this experiment creates experiences from which students can begin to appreciate the significance of economic ideas about the formation and interaction of expectations. Experiments encourage us to consider the relationship between experience and thinking. When we speak of the way that economists think we take it for granted that we are referring to the way that economists experience the world. That's the way they see it. Thinking like an economist is not like an outfit that may be worn one day and not the next. But for many students economics is something they do when they are in class or writing an essay. A chief argument for using experiments in teaching economics is that they help students to get inside the subject in a way that gets embedded in their experience. This is no straightforward matter. Hazlett offers plenty of advice on how to get students to engage with the subject in making sense of the experience they have had in the experiment.
One of the major problems in learning economics through everyday experience is the fallacy of composition. Miller addresses this problem in relation to the long-run neutrality of money. He presents students with a series of hypothetical situations and asks them to predict the likely outcomes. He then confronts them with an actual outcome. Asking students to predict outcomes is one of the strategies advocated by 'reciprocal teaching' (Palincsar and Brown 1984). The idea is that the best way to learn something is through taking responsibility for teaching it to others: by summarising, generating questions, clarifying and predicting. In other words, if we want students to think like economists we have to get them to act like economists – not in terms of copying behaviours, but in terms of struggling with the mental problems which frame those behaviours.
Phrases that are popular are usually open to many interpretations. 'Thinking like an economist' falls into this category. There may well be some scope for improving what we do as teachers of economics through thinking again about what the phrase means.The contributions in this edition should help that process.
Becker, W. E. (20903) Economics for a Higher Education, International Review of Economics Education, 3,1, pp. 52–62.
Hansen, W. L. (2001) Expected proficiencies for undergraduate economics majors, Journal of Economic Education, 32, 2, pp. 23–242.
Palincsar, A. S. and Brown, A. L. (1984) Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension- Fostering and Comprehension-Monitoring Activities, Cognition and Instruction, 1, 2, pp. 117–175.
Perry, W. G. Jn. (1970) Forms of intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. (New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston Inc.)
Reimann, N. (2003) First-year Teaching-Learning Environments in Economics, International Review of Economics Education, 3,1, pp. 9–38.
Shanahan, M. P., Foster, G. and Meyer, J. H. F. (2006) Operationalising a Threshold Concept in Economics: A Pilot Study Using Multiple Choice Questions on Opportunity Cost, International Review of Economics Education, 5,2, pp. 29–57.