“Slaves of some defunct Economy”/On Topicality, Part 1

I can’t imagine that many other subjects face the pressure, and enjoy the opportunity, of topicality quite as much as Economics. Geographers like to link to current issues*. Sociology, perhaps. There’s Politics, of course, but even when things are politically stable and somewhat dull – though I can’t remember the last time that was true – the economy continues to feature in the news pretty much on a daily basis. And that’s just Macroeconomics. There is always a microeconomic story somewhere in the news, every day, without fail (possibly thanks to the Imperialism of Economics within social science, claiming other subjects’ territory as its own). Channelling the man in Goodness Gracious Me who claims every cultural artefact as Indian in origin, one of my standard routines in open evenings and taster sessions is simply to show that nearly every story of the front page of BBC News is economics in some way. We can’t escape it.

I used to thrive on this, but increasingly I find it something of a burden. Part of that is the current economic environment, but part is the (by now) clichéd journey of someone who’s been teaching for over a decade.

When I was first teaching, I loved making things topical. I would – naively imaging students were as excited about things as I was – listen to something on Today, and when I got into work I could have a simple worksheet or set of questions based on an audio clip or written article ready for Period 1. All the better if this fit with what we were meant to be doing, but no matter if not – this was now! Current! Zeitgeisty! Economics can explain the world – here’s what’s going on today if only you’d pay attention.

I’m not sure how conscious my move away from this was, whether it was my own realisation or part of the last decade or so of reform of teachers’ ideas and understanding of their craft, but either way I don’t do it nearly as much now. Or at least, only subtly.

The problem was that the students didn’t – or maybe couldn’t – pay as much attention as I expected. I vaguely remember when I was doing my A Levels being caught out by an economics question from my dad. I don’t recall what it was, but it was a classic of the “you do Economics: explain this” genre, and I mumbled something and excused myself by saying we hadn’t really done it yet. But in reality I just didn’t know, and in a Rumsfeldian way I didn’t really know if I was meant to know. I didn’t yet understand the subject or have the volume of knowledge required to make an attempt at answering my father’s question.

Economics is a vast and complicated subject; L6th students have barely scratched the surface of even the watered-down, simplified sample of the domain we offer them**. You also get a great range of students in the subject, from some who are politically aware (active, even) and engaged in current affairs – for whom a diversion into the latest news is exciting and interesting – to many for whom it’s just another subject and no more special, meaningful and instantly applicable to the real world than Maths, say. For those students subjected to my Just-In-Time topical lesson, it wasn’t that one segment on Today they needed to listen to in order to understand the issue I was suddenly presenting them with: it was years of politics and economics.

So trying to shoehorn in the topic du jour with students who didn’t have the requisite prior knowledge is really difficult. Topical issues – especially those of the past decade or so – require a huge hinterland of background knowledge to really understand, and trying to cover them on an ad hoc basic places an insurmountable cognitive load on many students. Some might get it, some might not; all might leave with a misunderstanding thanks to the complexity of the topics involved. I remember more than one occasion when in order to cover the topical issue I found myself digging away at knowledge we hadn’t yet covered, like an archaeologist excavating the foundations of prior civilisations.

Reflecting the discussions in curriculum and this importance of prior knowledge for learning, I became less keen on topical issues, or at least certainly treated them with more caution. What role does topicality play in a rigorous, structured, well-ordered curriculum, but in a subject which prides itself on being able to explain the world around us? There is, at the very least, a tension here, not found to the same degree in other subjects.

There are trade-offs aplenty (the very essence of economics, after all), and consequent dangers, not least because the requisite background can be relegated, for reasons of curriculum time, to well-intentioned but flawed “research tasks”.  I have seen plenty of instructions for students to “research the financial crisis”. Er, have you seen the length of Adam Tooze’s Crashed?

*****

The economics itself has also made this harder. Economics might not look the same in the future – people are speculating that Covid-19 will lead to all sorts of changes in the way we work, permanent shifts in approaches to trade, maybe changes to the role of the state in the economy. At the very least, our data series are going to have some massive disruptions in them; this recession will always have an asterisk next to it saying “deepened by deliberate government policy to suspend economic activity”; researchers will have to decide how they wish to treat this period and whether it tells us anything about recessions in general.

But we hadn’t even returned to “normality” from the previous crisis!

Economics lessons across the land are currently taught in the shadow of the Financial Crisis and Great Recession: interest rates (a staple mechanism for examination “Analysis”, full of relatively simply-described cause and effect mechanisms) have barely changed since then, making a mockery of standard exam questions around monetary policy; unemployment has had to be taught in light of a rapidly evolving labour market moving to more flexible work and lower official unemployment rates; arguably recent revisions to attitudes on trade have their roots in the crisis, and so on.

If I have anything coherent and simple to say in this post, it is this: how the economics teacher navigates topicality is actually quite difficult, and arguably under-discussed. It can be done, and needs to be, but too often, I contend, topicality is assumed to be always and everywhere a good thing, and I’m not convinced that’s true. The problem is especially difficult as – ironically – topicality increasingly becomes somewhat historical. What seems to us adults as still part of the same era or process is now definitely history to our students. For me, the change has been really noticeable over the past two or three years. Aspects of the last recession which could previously have been referred to in a fairly casual way, with topical issues easily discussed in class, now require more and more background knowledge and teaching. And it will be the same again. The economy of 2030 will probably still be in the shadow of Covid-19. A Level students of 2030 may remember the lockdown itself, but not what came before, how things changed, what a normal recession (if there is such a thing) looks like. More archaeological layers to uncover.

Does anyone else think this problem is getting harder, or is it just me?

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Economics is a palimpsest, the scratchings of previous generations still visible under the present surface of our economic situation, reflected in the paraphrase of Keynes that gives this post its title. Or maybe a painting from a Dutch master’s workshop, with X-ray analysis showing us the evolution of the artist’s ideas; we might be able to see the finished work in front of us, but do we really understand how it was constructed and what it means?

And herein lies the tension. I am naturally inclined to think that a rigorous, well-planned progression through a curriculum is the best approach for student outcomes. But that yields some problems. It means that students cannot – and probably should not – be expected too much to apply their (limited) understanding to complex, ongoing phenomena rooted in the past. But that does rob the subject of a lot of its beauty and power as a social science; if your course is all abstract models, generalisations and simplifications, there is a risk of putting some people off (especially those more engaged students). And, ironically, this is exactly what Economics as a subject was accused of in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis – too abstract, too focused on models, not enough real world, and so on.***

In Part 2, I will sketch out some vague ideas about how to navigate between the Scylla of a fixed, abstract subject and the Charybdis of swirling complexity and unintelligible topicality. But I don’t have any definitive answers – in fact, I think there are almost unanswerable questions in here about curriculum, exam boards, the nature of economics as a “from scratch” subject late in a student’s learning, the purpose of the subject (and indeed any other subject). Readers’ contributions are therefore more than welcome.

* maybe more on the love-hate relationship between Economics and Geography in a future post.

** this sort of issue makes me sceptical of calls for all students to study some form of economic literacy, earlier in school. But that’s also probably for another post.

***and I agree – it’s part of why I went into teaching. But that’s another post. Again

2 thoughts on ““Slaves of some defunct Economy”/On Topicality, Part 1

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