The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

2.1 Summary

We will call the strategy of adding heterodox concepts into an otherwise orthodox programme ‘orthodox-plus’. Of the three strategies for teaching heterodoxy discussed in this chapter, this is the simplest to implement. The essence of the approach is that orthodox concepts should be interrogated critically; and that heterodox criticisms and alternative concepts can assist this process. Note that the previous sentence was split into two: assess orthodox concepts critically, and use heterodoxy to do so. The first part is crucial. Of course, economics educators could always do better in looking critically – and encouraging their students to look critically – at the concepts they are studying. This neglect is understandable: time constraints mean that tutors are under pressure to move on to the next topic; and, particularly at lower levels, it is incumbent on tutors that their students merely pass through that stage successfully and that core, underpinning concepts are learned. However, they may not be understood. Critical examination can increase understanding. All of that could be achieved without using heterodox content but using heterodox work could assist the process of critical teaching. Further, according to the variation theory of learning, thinking comparatively – from a number of perspectives – about an object of learning improves understanding of it.[1]

To make space for the inclusion of heterodox perspectives in an orthodox module, something must be omitted, but what? This is significant precisely because an objection to the above proposal is that key concepts are omitted. What may be sacrificed is some detail, for instance in some of the technical details of the concepts being studied. Salemi (2005) argues that for an introductory economics module, some standard diagrams – he cites cost curves – can be omitted in favour of more reinforcement and application of key concepts. His approach is similar to arguing that ‘threshold concepts’ – concepts which once understood change the way the person thinks (see Meyer and Land, 2005) – should be targeted in order either to underpin higher-level study or give a basic summary of economics for a non-economist. The same argument could also be applied to the extent of mathematics used in a module. A further approach could be to leave out theories which are less useful in modern economics or spend much less time on them. For instance, CORE omits inter alia perfect competition, clearing labour markets, and Edgeworth boxes under perfect competition.

2.2 Evaluation of the ‘orthodox-plus’ approach

  • A critical examination of assumptions is encouraged. As Sutton (2000) notes, assumptions are something which students question (perhaps naturally) but the discussion of which is often postponed – often indefinitely. Referring to questions raised by students about (or against) the practice of reducing complex human actors to simplified mathematical representations of rational maximisers, Sutton (p. xv) claims: ‘By the time that students have advanced a couple of years into their studies, both these questions are forgotten. Those students who remain troubled by them have quit the field; those who remain are socialised and no longer ask about such things. Yet these are deep questions, which cut to the heart of the subject.’ This situation is problematic from a pedagogical point of view.
  • A discussion of the role of assumptions in economics is provoked. This is not ‘orthodoxy-bashing’: on the contrary, a discussion of the realism of assumptions leads naturally into one about their role and possibly a justification for unrealistic assumptions. That in turn leads to a consideration of models and a greater understanding of how they work and how to think about them. That can be vitally important in understanding economics and in offsetting the apathy many students feel when studying economics.
  • Third, the heterodox conception offers an alternative for students to consider. Again, that should be done critically. There are two principal benefits of doing this. First, students are introduced to ideas that have played a formative role in the history of economic thought. Second, the heterodox views are a basis for comparison and examination of orthodox theory, and in line with variation theory cited earlier they provide a background for crystallising the orthodox views. This is the value-added of using the heterodox concept to examine the orthodox – compared with, say, simply drawing on the conclusions of experimental economics, as Becker (2004) suggests.

[1] Space precludes full discussion of variation theory. Essentially, the theory holds that there is no discernment without variation. To understand a part, one must grasp the whole. Thus to understand orthodoxy, one may benefit from examining other parts of economics. See Runesson (2005) for further discussion.