Arnold Kling  

Practice Makes Expert

Scientific Self-help... Looking for an Honest Job...

Both Greg Mankiw and Tyler Cowen recommend an article by the Freakonomics team of Levitt and Dubner in the New York Times on the research of Anders Ericsson into the development of skills by experts.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

...Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

For Discussion. How would you use this information to improve the teaching of economics?

The challenge is that economics uses other skills, including logical reasoning. You can train someone to be an idiot-savant, i.e. someone who can manipulate mathematical expressions of economic thinking, more easily than you can train somebody to take a real-world problem and apply economics to it.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Fabio Rojas writes:

"For Discussion. How would you use this information to improve the teaching of economics?

You can train someone to be an idiot-savant, i.e. someone who can manipulate mathematical expressions of economic thinking, more easily than you can train somebody to take a real-world problem and apply economics to it."

I am not an economist, but...

One way to do this is simply to (a) remove the teaching of mathematics from the econ curriculum - have a separate math course or out source to the math department and then (b) restructure econ classrooms so you have a short lecture on principles followed by having students generate their own examples, which are immediately graded.

Most econ courses are just a bunch of lectures on intersecting curves. Currently, you get a lecture with a lot of math, then you go home and do some weird homework problems. A few weeks later you get a grade and then you move on, even if you don't learn it well. A few students will get the big picture, but most will just learn just enough math to mimic semi-decent thinking and get through the tests.

If you took Ericsson's research seriuosly, then you would make undergrad econ a little bit of lecture followed by immersion in economic thinking, which is then followed by immediate feedback.

Ericsson, IIUC, says that you need to encourage long term memory than short term memory, so this format seems more plausible than the "math lectures" format currently found in classrooms. To much disconnect between basic economic thinking and doing math style homework. The incentive is for short term test taking, not long term learning.

Alcibiades writes:

For Discussion. How would you use this information to improve the teaching of economics?

Well, insofar as a lot of people taking economics classes aren't there due to intinsic passion for the subject, it is going to be difficult. The tried-and-true threat of failing them is probably the best we have. That said, if a student is truly passionate about the subject, well, they'll set up sub-goals and modify their behavior according to feedback automatically. The passionate researcher and the businessman alike don't need any prodding.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Simulation. Hurricane season is always a great time to teach about the price system. Wood for boarding up windows, gasoline for getting out of town, groceries to survive the storm, etc. Give each member of the simulation group a role, define their constraints (money in the bank, cash on hand, supplies on hand, etc.) and do an hour by hour ("24 inspired" -- maybe have Keifer Sutherland's mug on each game card) simulation of how every player takes care of their business.

The resident needs to board up and get out of town before the hurricane comes. Some residents have supplies on hand, some don't. Some have to wait in line at Home Depot, some get right to work.

One gas station owner knows he won't get any shipments in during the storm. And he knows all of his customers will be out of town for a few days after. And he has payroll to meet and taxes to pay the week after. Does he take advantage of the situation and jack up his prices? Another owner has same issues, must set his price but remain competitive with first owner.

The governor of the state knows that the public won't stand for price gouging. Does he pass an emergency law and deploy the highway patrol?

After the simulation is complete, each participant writes a short paper describing what they did to react to circumstances and what they learned about their role. Some global measurement of total satisfaction ("happiness research", haha) is assigned to the simulation. How many people died? injured? were stranded? etc.

The next week, replay the simulation with everyone in a different role. Reevaluate the total satisfaction. Have each participant write another short paper.

The next week, replay with everyone in a new role again. Reevaluate satisfaction. Each participant writes final short paper. It's too bad you don't have 45 weeks in a semester, because it would be interesting to play it over and over for the equivalent of 15 hurricanes, to see if the participants start to learn from repetition.

Now, have each participant write a longer paper about how "price gouging" affected each of the three roles they played. Or if this exercise takes too much time, have them do a book report on To Kill a Mokingbrid. Same concept that's central to economic thinking -- you gotta walk in someone else's shoes to understand what they're going through.

Brad Hutchings writes:

And one more thing I forgot... Each week, each player has some condition they have to meet or they lose a whole letter grade ("A" essay turns into a "B, etc.). Resident has to make it out alive with home boarded up. Gas station owner has to make $X in revenue. Politician can't have more than Y people die. Everyone has to play to win. Too bad we can't cut off a finger of each loser!!

Dr. T writes:

The main point of Ericsson is that most people are lazy and will not try to master material that requires more than a perfunctory effort. Therefore, to be effective, teachers must convince students that they can master the subject and then convince them to expend enough effort to do so. Both tasks are difficult.

Far too many people are convinced that they cannot do something. How many times have we heard "I just can't do math." By the time students are in college, it is difficult to change such beliefs. And, I do not think it is your job to do so. Why the hell are students at an institution of higher learning if they don't believe they can learn and won't make a serious effort to master moderately difficult subjects? We need to perform educational triage: ignore the hopeless and concentrate on the ones who will benefit from our knowledge and skills.

It is possible to convince students (well, at least the subset of teachable students) to exert themselves. Techniques that have worked for me include having high standards and setting challenging goals, using examples relevant to the students, being enthusiastic about the subject, and using current events to showcase the importance and relevance of the subject.

(I have not taught economics, but I teach applied statistics and human pathology.)

Bill Conerly writes:

Why is this discussion about teachers rather than students? How many teachers have set for themselves quantifiable goals; how many work to get good, prompt feedback on their performance? How many get outside their comfort zone, trying something other than chalk and talk (or PP and talk nowadays)?

In the business world, we don't look for managers who whine about unmotivated employees--we look for managers who can motivate and coach employees to deliver more. Maybe teachers should be hired with an eye to whether they can motivate and coach students.

Matt C writes:

A guy said simulations. Games would also work, and with a good game, you're not limited to an audience of college students resentfully grinding out requirements.

For most people, I bet more economics would stick from playing six hours of M.U.L.E. than from spending all semester in an Econ 101 class.

Good, fun games that also teach economic principles are uncommon, unfortunately. M.U.L.E. was written almost 25 years ago and is still in a class by itself. Well, maybe there are some other good ones out there I'm not aware of. Suggestions?

Matt C writes:

The blog software ate my link above. If my guess is correct, this one will work:

If not you should still be able to cut and paste.

Linda writes:

"When students are taught how to do original research in courses outside economics, they are taught to begin with the collection of data. This is not the approach followed by economists, who typically begin an answer to a research question by developing a model. The model then guides the search for evidence. We argue that the economic approach is more likely to lead to the development of a persuasive argument, and that greater awareness of the contrast between the economic approach and its alternatives can enable economists to improve the teaching of the research process.As far back as 1978 the American Economic Review (Hartman) addressed the question of "What do economics majors learn?" and decided that the answer was "not much". In a similar exercise Walstad and Allgood (1999, p354) concluded that college majors appear to learn little more than a control group not studying economics. Their results showed that many college seniors who have taken an economics course still show a lack of understanding of basic economics. An analogous exercise carried out in American Ivy League institutions (Colander and Klamer, 1987) likewise concluded that graduate students were sceptical of what they had learned in their economics courses and were in no doubt that knowledge of mathematics was much more a pre-requisite to success than knowledge of the real world and its institutions. Chicago graduates 'knew' that monetary policy worked and fiscal policy didn't, for example, while graduates at Yale and MIT tended to 'know' something quite different. What students 'knew' scientifically seemed not to be independent of the sociology of the profession." link
There are a lot of disputes over this issue and so many different opinions .I’ve been going trough so many resources for my research .It took me a lot of time to find right recourse for me ,but eventually I got what I need. In case if anyone interested for they researches.

[N.B. Link corrected--Econlib Ed.]

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