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EconTalk and Chalk?

A Bloom-ish Defense of Educati... Answering the wrong question...

Together, EconTalk and EconLib provide exactly the kinds of resources that Becker and Watts foresaw in their critique of standard economics teaching methods.

by Edward J. Lopez

Chalk and Talk.jpg
In 1996 a now famous paper called "Chalk and Talk," by William Becker and Michael Watts, was published in the American Economic Review. The paper was a revelation to economic educators. It revealed that the methods and technologies they used to teach university economics were surprisingly uniform, even as the profession had begun recognizing and appreciating the diversity of students' backgrounds and learning styles. After surveying 625 teachers of university economics, Becker and Watts found that 83 percent of class time was spent lecturing and writing on the chalkboard. The surveyed teachers also confessed to using little in the way of alternative teaching methods and technologies. "[E]conomists should recognize that there is an important place for the consideration of alternatives," they wrote. "Some students and teachers are natural-born listeners and lecturers, some are talkers and discussion leaders, some seem to learn or teach best using group activities that feature 'hands-on' demonstrations of economic concepts and relationships."

Ten years after "Talk and Chalk", Russ Roberts and Liberty Fund launched the weekly podcast series, EconTalk. Using a conversational interview format, the program discusses new books, articles, and blog posts across a broad range of topics covering intellectual history, human affairs, and current events. This project was an early adopter of podcast technology, and for a dozen years has embraced the application of basic yet powerful economics principles to better understand the world. In recent years, the EconLib has added ancillary resources using new communication platforms to EconTalk episodes. Together, EconTalk and EconLib provide exactly the kinds of resources that Becker and Watts foresaw in their critique of standard economics teaching methods.

Yet despite EconTalk having upward of 60,000 listeners each week, and despite "Chalk and Talk" having garnered hundreds of citations in the academic literature, the two have never met in a systematic and documented way. In fact, with rare exceptions EconTalk as a pedagogical tool appears to have been entirely unexplored in the literature on teaching economics. Why not combine the two? Call it "EconTalk and Chalk."

In its own right, Chalk and Talk's main impact was to emphasize the value of using of hands-on methods to create active rather than passive learning environments to reach diverse student groups. Two highly diverse and frequently taught classes are Principles of Economics and Economics for MBAs. Principles of Economics classes have mostly first- and second-year students from a wide variety of majors. Few, if any, students in a given principles section will go on to advanced (graduate) study in economics. In fact, many of them will take just that one economics class. Their interests lie in math, art, science, construction, journalism, nursing, and more. And while they are open to seeing how economics fits in, they might not see themselves as poised for a deep dive. On this basis, Paul Heyne offers his famous advice to economics educators: treat the principles class not as the first of many economics classes the students will take, but as the only economics class they will ever take.

Likewise, MBA classes tend also to be highly diverse but for different reasons. The typical MBA student has a higher value of time than the typical undergraduate. MBA students overwhelmingly have full-time jobs or pursuits aside from their evening classes, and they are seeking a learning experience that is very applicable to the real world. They come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds and interests, from engineers and entrepreneurs to writers and artists, just to name a few, and they very much want to see how economics is relevant.

EconTalk and EconLib are freely available resources that economics educators can use to create hands-on, active learning environments for their diverse student groups. At least three features support this claim. First, EconTalk covers a wide range of topics. The coverage includes traditional economics topics like money and banking, job creation, business cycles, econometrics, health care, education, economic policy, and more. There is wide coverage of the 2008 financial crisis, and several interviews with Nobel laureates. There are also special topics like innovation, creativity, sports, food, history, and fashion. However diverse a student group, EconTalk's over 600 episodes have something of interest.

Second, the interview style of host Russ Roberts invites economics educators to cover topics in an impartial way. Over the years, Russ has developed the skill of seeing and appreciating multiple sides of an issue. Consistent themes that arise in the show include recognizing and avoiding confirmation bias; possessing intellectual humility; attaining argumentative soundness by substantiating claims with logic and evidence; appreciating the beauty of a sound argument; appreciating the ethics of liberal individualism and self-command; seeking and appreciating emergent orders; and keeping a healthy skepticism by, for example, being wary of conclusions drawn upon "what the data show" and taking the stance that "studies show" is not a scientific statement. Russ often agrees with his guests, although when he does it is not without scrutiny. He also frequently disagrees with his guests, and in doing so demonstrates an argumentative style that students can learn from and even aspire to. Much of this carries over from the site onto social media, Twitter in particular. In this respect, EconTalk helps economics educators to teach their students how to use economics to make sound arguments, and to do so in civil, fruitful ways.

Third, EconTalk episodes can be incorporated into the classroom in numerous ways. The variety of assessments and assignments is limited only by the educator's imagination. In short, EconTalk is a fitting resource that economics educators can use to meet the Chalk and Talk challenge. But with nearly 600 episodes and its breadth of coverage, a little navigation help would go a long way. Perhaps you are an educator who has used EconTalk in the classroom. If so, what tips do you have for interested readers? I will try to give my own handful of tips in a subsequent post. I hope you'll join me!

Edward J. Lopez teaches economics at Western Carolina University, where he is also director of the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. His research focuses on the dynamics of legal and political institutions. His recent publications include "Informal Norms Trump Formal Constraints: The Evolution of Fiscal Policy Institutions in the United States" (Journal of Institutional Economics, 2017, with Peter T. Calcagno), and Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change (Stanford University Press, 2013, with Wayne A. Leighton). He is Executive Director and Past President (2012-2014) of the Public Choice Society.

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