Catch ’em Young!

I spent the last week of 2021 teaching young kids economics, and what a time I had.

This academic year (2021-22) has been the best ever at the Gokhale Institute where placements at the Master’s level are concerned. More students have been placed than ever before, and at higher average CTC’s (Cost to the Company) than ever before. If you’re looking for quasi-anecdotal data about how tight this particular segment of the labour market is in India, I’ve got a story to tell you.

But this ought to worry us, as educators. If you believe that the physical, classroom-based education is indispensable when it comes to making people productive in workplaces, then we have a nice little natural experiment coming up. Folks who have graduated this past year, or will graduate this year, will join workplaces without having seen a physical classroom for the better part of the last two years.

If there is no noticeable dent in their productivity, ability to come up to speed, or in the pay they receive over time (relative to folks older by a couple of years or so) then, well, we have problems, no? The Emperor’s New Clothes saga in higher education is upon us, and interesting times lie ahead.

One of the implications of this evolution, I think, will be making explicit something that everybody in higher education has known for years, but have been loathe to admit in public. An MBA degree, or a Master’s degree in econ/stats is a stepping stone to either a job or to further studies. For the most part – not exclusively so – sure, and sure there are students and educators who don’t subscribe to the college-as-a-conveyor-belt philosophy. But they are a fast dwindling breed. The vast majority of higher education isn’t about learning.

And classes, examinations and results have therefore become a sham that we must all pretend to take part in. In private, students will happily tell you how aware they are that this is a sham, as will professors. But one is not supposed to say these things in public – or at least, one wasn’t supposed to say this in public until the pandemic hit.

One of the first things I taught these young kids was the concept of incentive compatibility. And if you think about it, the whole course was an example of this concept, because there were (praise be the lord) no examinations. No marks to be scored, no grades to be obtained, and therefore no comparisons to be made. They were there to learn, which worked out just fine, because I was there to teach.

And I taught ’em! Across the space of five exhausting but exhilarating days, I took them through the principles of economics, introduced to them the headache that is macroeconomics, told them about externalities and other causes of potential market failure, introduced to them the wonder that is the prisoner’s dilemma, and so much more. It was a whistle-stop tour through the kingdom of economic theory, and I had an absolute blast.

The students, if anything, seemed to enjoy the experience even more than I did. Our classes would begin at nine in the morning and get over by four in the afternoon, but the questions would continue beyond, and spill over onto dinner time. And as an econ-nerd who loves introducing new topics to people, I can’t tell you how it gladdened my heart so to be talking about the iron law of diminishing returns at eight in the evening, after a full day’s worth of classes.

Did the students “get” everything, one might quite reasonably ask. And I’ll be honest and say probably not. It was a lot to pack in to just five days, and not all will have been retained. And of what has been retained, not all will be fully understood.

But they left class every day wanting to learn more about the topics that they had learnt. They remained curious and inquisitive, they were willing to push back on topics and concepts they didn’t understand or instinctively disagreed with.

And the feedback session at the end of the fifth day was my favorite bit, for the consensus seemed to be that economics was such a fascinating subject precisely because there were no fixed, definite answers to many big picture problems. For better or for worse, this is exactly what makes the study of economics appealing to me, and that is why this assessment of the subject gladdened my heart so.

I have often wondered what a classroom bereft of both the carrot of marks and the stick of attendance might look like. I have suspected that the only incentive left, then, is the curiosity to learn more about the subject at hand. And my hunch, for a long time, has been that this will make teaching, and learning, a much more pleasant experience.

And while one five-day session is perhaps too little data on the basis of which to make sweeping generalizations, I will say this much: my thesis about learning isn’t quite as hypo as it was before those five days.

There are problems to be solved, of course. Scale was and remains a challenge, the logistics aren’t easy, this isn’t a cost effective way to teach, and the there is no guarantee that the learning will persist over time. And I’m sure you, the reader, can come up with a hundred other things that could be better.

But hey, I have learnt that is possible to teach economics to students between the ages of 13-16. Not just possible, but thoroughly enjoyable.

And I look forward to doing more of it, with many more kids, in the years to come!

One thought on “Catch ’em Young!

  1. Well don’t think the counterfactual is correct as more than physical presence, the network building and peer pressure contributes to the future success.

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