There’s No Say’s Law in Classroom Teaching

Yes, that’s not exactly what he said, but I’m going with the definition we all “know”. And I’m going to repurpose that popular definition for going on a rant about classroom teaching.

Supply does not create its own demand.

That is, the supply of education in the classroom does not create the demand for education in the classroom.


Do you have a memory of staring out the classroom window, having given up on waiting for time to move faster? My congratulations to you if you have never once experienced this emotion across school and college, because it was my only emotion in almost all classes I ever attended. And boredom of an excruciating nature was my only emotion because all classes were tremendously boring.

Some were instructive. Some teachers/professors really knew their stuff. Two professors, who I am lucky enough to still have as mentors, were the best professors I have ever had. But even they didn’t think it was their responsibility to inspire the class to learn more. A Walter Lewin type moment in a class that I attended? It has happened not more than one or two times across over two decades of sitting in classrooms.

And this is, even today, something that enrages me.


David Perell’s latest essay is the inspiration for this rant:

Inspiration is a uniquely human experience because it isn’t motivated by mere survival. It transcends the world of needs and lives in the world of wants. By doing so, inspiration stirs the mind. It’s no coincidence that the etymology of inspire is linked to “the breath of life.” As the sparkle of inspiration enters our bodies, we are animated with a video game style turbo-boost. Though a state of perpetual awe is the natural state for kids (which is why they learn so fast), it’s foreign to most adults. Too often, the wrinkles of age and the weight of responsibility silence the rush of epiphany.
Blinded by age, we can turn to cold rationality, valuing only what we can define and prioritize only what we can measure. When we do, we forget that the wisdom of an inspired spirit exceeds our ability to describe it. The less we insist on a justification for our curiosities, the more we can surrender to the engine of inspiration and let learning happen.

https://perell.com/essay/how-learning-happens/

How do I teach my eight year old daughter to sum up the first n numbers? By asking her to memorize {(n*[n+1])/2} or by telling her Gauss’s story? Do I teach her Marathi and Hindi by asking her to read her textbook, or by introducing to her the shared civilizational wonder that is etymology?

Should I teach my students about how to think about macroeconomics by writing down equations and defining GDP, or should I begin with Gapminder? Should I draw the 2×2 matrix to explain the prisoner’s dilemma, or do I show students Golden Balls on YouTube? Should I tell students what monetary policy is, or do I ask them to play the Fed Chairman game? Should I tell them about demand and supply, or should I introduce to them the wonder that is kiviq.us?

Should students be taught about mass, velocity, friction, acceleration, arcs and circles, or should they be shown this video? How to motivate students at the start of a semester on statistics? Talk about the spice trade, and talk about brewing tea! I can go on and on, but I’ll stop here.


You see, in each of these cases, you don’t have to teach students the underlying concepts. To be clear, you can, and you should. But my point is you don’t have to – they’ll have developed the thirst to figure it out by themselves, because, you see, they can’t help it. Their curiosity has been piqued, or as David Perell puts it, they’ve been inspired.

And that, really, ought to be your job as a teacher or professor. To get students to go “Whoaaaaaa!”

Get that to happen, and then good luck trying to finish the class on time. I teach undergraduates and beyond, and I’m not suggesting that one should stop at inspiring students as a teacher. Papers will have to be read, books will have to be recommended, essays will have to be written – all of that is necessary, and absolutely should happen.

But each of these things are much more likely to be done (and willingly) if only you light the spark first. Reading Mishkin after you’ve played the Fed Chairman game isn’t a chore, it is a joy. Why, even Fudenberg Tirole stands a chance of being somewhat palatable if students have been first exposed to Games Indians Play, The Art of Strategy and The Evolution of Trust.


Every student who leaves college bored to death because of how stultifying classrooms are is a damning indictment of my tribe. We’ve failed to do right by them, and by extension have failed to do right by society.

What is wrong with higher education? A lot!

But David touched upon a raw nerve where I am concerned – the worst thing about those of us working in academia is that we fail to ask ourselves every single day a very important question: how can I inspire young people to want to learn more? Everything else is a distraction, this ought to be the mission.


Arjun Narayan asked Tyler Cowen this question recently:

You have the power to grant 100% more capital (that they deployed in their lifetime) to a person or institution who prematurely ran out of capital too soon. Who do you pick?

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2021/08/the-capital-life-extension-query.html

Substitute the word “enthusiasm” for “capital”, substitute “students” for “a person or institution” and you have my own personal mission in life. And I promise you, it is my mission because I am very much scratching my own itch.

We should all, at the margin, be learning better.

And the earlier we start, the better society will be.

Lists and To-Do’s

Aadisht messaged me with a list of things he wished was taught in schools and colleges (mostly school), and asked me to come up with a list of my own. Which I will, shortly, but I also wanted to talk in today’s post about a larger point about education in our country. Higher education especially, of course, because that is where I work right now.


OK, short rant coming up:

We spend far too much time in teaching, learning, submitting assignments and writing examinations in college, without actually doing anything. That dulls the mind, captures all of us in a mindless routine that is exhausting, and we end up wasting the most precious years of a student’s life. It’s actually worse than that, because it’s not a mindless routine, it’s a mindless race. You don’t just have to do a whole series of mindless things, you must be seen as being better at it then everybody else.

For example, you having attended classes ain’t enough. You must be seen as having attended more classes than everybody else. Ditto for marks. Ditto for participation in college fests. And on and on and on. But I’ll build on this rant on another day.

First the explanation about listening vs doing, then a potential cure, and then the list.


Explanation:

Consider the program that I am in charge of at the Gokhale Institute. We have about 6-7 courses on offer every semester, and the way the programme is structured, all are currently compulsory. If you assume that each course runs for 40 hours – which it does in non-covid years – we’re looking at around 250 hours of classroom teaching every year. A typical semester lasts for about four months, out of which you need to discount about three-four weeks for holidays, college fests, internal examinations and so on. So about three months (12 weeks) of classroom teaching, into which must be shoehorned 250 hours of teaching.

That is not too bad in terms of time per week, especially considering the fact that we have lectures on Saturday as well. There’s a separate argument to be made about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it does mean that the number of lectures per day averages out to be around 4.

More than the quantity though, it is the sameness of the day that worries me. All classes are the same. The professor talks, the students listen, and there’s some questions. Learning isn’t by doing, in other words, it is by listening.

There isn’t anything to do. Yes, there is the odd in class assignment, activity and what not – but honestly, most courses will involve at least 80% of the prof talking and students listening. And passive listening – my opinion – can only take you so far. In fact, back when I was a student, I didn’t do so well with passive listening. I still don’t do well with passive listening, which is why this last year has been so horrible for me. Attending a call with nothing to see or do except stare at circles that symbolize names is my ultimate nightmare – and I can’t for the life of imagine how students have been doing it day in and day out. (They haven’t, of course. Attendance rates have been plummeting in all courses across all colleges this past year, one way or the other. And that’s not such a bad thing, for a variety of reasons.)

But that’s the explanation part of this post: we focus far too much in our colleges in this country on listlessly listening, and there’s nothing to do.


Now for the (potential) cure.

These past few weeks, two of my BSc students worked with me on a paper that I and a colleague are writing on health in India. Forget the two students, my colleague and I have learnt more about microeconomics than we did in years of teaching the stuff. By extension, I cannot begin to imagine how much the students learnt about research, theory, its application, the nuances of theory and the benefit of working in groups.

Two other students worked with me on writing articles about the budget. Let me be clear, I did not foist this work upon them. Writing articles about the budget is a cottage industry that nobody ought to be a part of more than a couple of times – but if you’re doing it for the first two or three times, it can be a lot of fun. Again, in their case, I’m sure they learnt a lot more from doing the research to write these articles than they would have in class. The point I am making is that doing work when you have skin in the game teaches you far more than passive listening ever will.

There are other BSc students involved in building out workshops, launching podcasts, helping out with background research for tie-ups with other universities and a lot else besides. But the point behind all of them remains the same: my experiment this year is in trying to see if we can turn college inside out.

Throw students in at the deep end of the pool and ask them to do stuff. When they find out that in order to do stuff they need to know “x”, they now have an immediate, urgent desire to know “x”. And then there’s a point to attending classes that teach “x”!

So, in a not at all hypothetical example, a student is helping me write out a process document for the BSc programme. She has realized that building Gantt charts in Excel actually isn’t simple at all. What if she now attends an Excel session that teaches her about filters, tables and building out charts in Excel? As opposed to a semester in which she learns about Excel in the manner in which it would usually take place in a college. In which case is she going to be hungrier to learn?

We will teach you this, and this will turn out to be useful in life later, just you wait and see. (A)

Or.

Here’s what you have to do. Can’t do it because you don’t have the requisite skill? Cool, here’s the class on acquiring that skill. (B)

Colleges are all about approach A, and they need to be about approach B.

That’s the potential cure, and I’m trying to work on this approach in this semester.

It doesn’t scale, that’s the problem. At any rate, it hasn’t scaled so far. But I’ll keep you posted, and as always, suggestions welcome.


And with all of that said, my list:

  1. Disassemble and reassemble the following:
    1. The door to a classroom
    2. A switchboard in your classroom
    3. The clutchplate assembly on a bike
    4. Note that each of these are to be done with proper, capable supervision, and each being perhaps a three person job. While these are being done, conversations about typical pay, spare parts costs, typical expenses, commute, educational requirements, on the job training recommended. This point is applicable to everything else that follows on this list.
    5. Then have classes about division of labor, inequality, growth, specialization, pricing, sociology, calculus and statistics.
  2. Tend to the following:
    1. A kitchen garden plot in college.
    2. A butterfly garden plot in college
    3. A herb garden at home
    4. Develop and tend to (and that means everything, down to selling it yourself) a vermicomposting pit in college
    5. Then have classes about agriculture, resource management, pricing, government intervention, public economics, sociology, environment, urbanization and the history of the Indian economy.
  3. Learn double-entry bookkeeping and apply it for your own finances. Preferably in Excel/Google Sheets.
    1. Then have classes about statistics, finance and accounting.
  4. Build and deploy an expense tracker, with a dashboard. Preferably in Excel/Google Sheets
    1. You get the idea by now, surely.
  5. Publish in the public domain. Could be a video, a blogpost, a podcast, a photo-essay. But you don’t get to hide behind submissions to faculty only. All your submissions are mandatorily on public domain, viewable to everybody. Non-negotiable rule. Of course, by extension, this rule applies to faculty. All of our question papers and assignments to be put up for public scrutiny too!
  6. Write. Write every single day. You don’t get better at writing without writing every single day. Trust me.
  7. Ditto for reading.
  8. But also learn to take the odd day off every week, and do nothing. Including unlocking your phone. I’m a hypocrite, because I haven’t been able to do this even once in the last five years. I’m talking about not unlocking the phone, to be clear. I’ve taken plenty of days off.

What’s your list?

Say’s Law and Education

Does the supply of education create a demand for that supply?

Now, I know that is not what Say’s Law says. I’m simply using the rather more popular version of the statement of Say’s Law (“supply creates its own demand”) and using it in the case of one specific sector, education.

So, with that disclaimer in place: does the supply of education create a demand for that supply?

In other words, is it enough to create awesome MOOC’s, prepare thoroughly well-prepared lecture notes, write fantastically well-thought out textbooks – or is there a role for mentorship in education?

The reason I ask the question because there is an abundance (some might even say far too much) of teaching material out there. YouTube alone has more lectures on any given topic than you can expect to watch in a semester, and that is ignoring everything else that is available on the internet. Add in good ol’ textbooks, journal articles and what-have-you’s, and well, there’s just too much supply.

A glut, if you will.

Has it, then, reached a stage where Barry Schwartz might want to take an interest in analyzing this problem?

So say, for example, I had to teach a course called Principles of Economics (as I hope to next semester). Should I teach this course as I would have otherwise? Take the concept of elasticity of demand. Should I draw the graphs, spell out the concept, write down the equations… or might it be better taught by asking four different groups to watch four different videos about the topic, and then discussing it all in class together?

Teaching in 2020 ought to have taught all of us that teaching in a class can no longer be a substitute for material that is already available on the internet. It must necessarily be a complement. And if it is to be a complement, playing the role of a Guide For Everything That Is Out There On The Internet is perhaps the best use of our time.

Filtering out the not-so-good videos (and maybe even speaking in class about why we think they’re not-so-good) ought to be one of our job descriptions from here on in. Having students speak about what they thought about a particular video – what they liked, what they didn’t, and why – ought to be another. Best of all, having students create their own material ought to be top of the list.

We’ve all heard that line about learning happening the most when we teach others. The ubiquity of electronic devices this past year should mean that learning need no longer be an act of passive listening. It can, instead, be an act of active content creation. Watch videos, read blogposts, listen to podcasts, discuss what you learnt, pinpoint what you didn’t like – and then go and make it better.

Honestly, what better way to learn?

We’ve been talking about flipped classrooms for years now. This past year may well be the impetus we needed to turn it into an everyday, mundane reality rather than a gimmicky line in our documentation.

EC101: Links for 26th December, 2019

  1. On some articles about Baumol’s cost disease.
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  2. A topic that is very, very dear to my heart: teaching economics better, and to younger folks.
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  3. A topic on which I changed my mind this year, and therefore this year ought to count as a success. Props to Murali Neelakantan for helping me do so! On patents.
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  4. Two sets of links about this year’s Nobel. One set is rather informative
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  5. While the other is more critical.

EC101: Links for 13th June, 2019

  1. “A September 2018 article from Eater tells us that Miguel Gonzalez delivers directly to 120 New York restaurants. As an avocado supplier, he works with farms in Mexico’s Michoacán state. To maintain consistency and minimize bruising, he monitors truck temperatures and how the boxes are stacked during their 2600 (or so) mile journey.”
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    What happens when you raise the tariff on a commodity? Who do you think will (ultimately) pay? Econ texts give you the answer – this article provides an example.
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  2. “Across the United States, a similar cocktail seems to be keeping inflation at bay: Employers are reluctant to charge more, unsure how consumers will react, and they’ve found an untapped supply of workers. It’s partly great news. More Americans are getting jobs than policymakers once thought possible, and wages and prices aren’t spinning out of control the way history would predict.”
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    Think you know macroeconomics? Short answer: you never really do. The NYT provides an example of a conundrum that is keeping the Federal Reserve up at night: full employment, low inflation. A nice problem to have, right? You’d have thought so…
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  3. “Economists have written about topics that we would now classify under the headings of “microeocnomics” or “macroeconomics” for centuries. But the terms themselves are much more recent, emerging only in the early 1940s. For background, I turn to the entry on “Microeconomics” by Hal R. Varian published in The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, dating back to the first edition in 1987.”
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    On the etymology of micro and macroeconomics.
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  4. “Belloy’s misfortune stemmed from more than bad luck. He was the victim of unscrupulous traders known simply as operators, who might sell fake elevator receipts, or move prices in their favor by spreading false news. Or they might pull off an especially cunning manipulation known as a corner, in which they would buy future wheat while simultaneously buying all physical wheat.Later, when it came time for the operator to take delivery of his future wheat, the other trader had to first go buy some. But there was none. The operator owned it all. Thus trapped, or cornered, the victim had no choice but to pay whatever price the operator demanded. Cornering was the ruin of many a trader, like our Belloy, to whom the only apparent recourse was to find the nearest saloon and shoot himself in the head.”
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    Rarely are classes in financial economics so very entertaining. A lovely history (maybe apocryphal, who knows) about the early days of the CBOT in Chicago.
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  5. “There is no simple remedy for the curse of knowledge, but let me offer a suggestion. Keep a particular person in mind as you teach. That person should be someone you know well—a parent, a spouse, or a best friend (as long as that person is not an economist). Pretend you are explaining the material to them. Are they getting it, or are they lost? If you know this person well, you may be able to more easily empathize with their learning challenges. You might prevent
    yourself from going overboard.”
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    N. Gregory Mankiw comes up with a short six point guideline about how to teach economics better. It is worth going over this list, irrespective of whether you are learning economics or teaching it. Also, taken a look at Eli5?