Designing a Foundations of Economics course for a changing world

Over the past few weeks—and actually since taking the graduate course on history of economic thought in which I dabbled independently into economic methodology through the work of Professors David Colander, Diedre McCloskey, and Mark Blaug—I have been reviewing the approach I want to take for Foundations of Economics (FDNECON).

In my course preps, I was able to review a variety of work and ongoing commentary on the fundamentals of economics at the Principles (or Foundations or Introductory) level including that of Professor Mankiw and opinions from the economics opinion leaders and columnists. I attach Professor Mankiw’s reflection on textbook to this email, Professor Colander’s upcoming keynote on “Teaching Nuanced Economics” at the 10th International Developments in Economics Education Conference at the University of Warwick on September 13, and a few links (below) on the opportunity to reimagine Econ 101 (whether textbook or approach):

• Quartz:

• Washington Post:…y.html

• Opportunity Insights (Raj Chetty’s Ec1152, a reimagination of Ec 10): https://opportunityinsightsorg/course/

• “What students learn in Economics 101: Time for a Change” by Samuel Bowles and Wendy Carlin (2019):…l .pdf

Initially, my course preps for FDNECON was substantially an updated version of my Introduction to Economics (INTOECO) course design which I reframed around the role and place of FDNECON in more “advanced” economics and business courses while retaining Sowell’s Basic Economics as the main text.

I designed INTOECO with liberal arts and a liberal education in mind—it was centred on basic economic concepts that shed light on everyday phenomena not so much that students would “think like economists” but for them to have a unique approach and more nuanced appreciation of their own discipline and personal interests (and better people, too!). Sowell’s accessible language and narration of relevant historical vignettes provided students a platform to understand what otherwise would have been highly theoretical concepts. Furthermore, it allowed students to connect the concepts to their personal experiences and pressing real-world issues which their reflective economic journey journal entries show. Furthermore, Sowell’s text being structured around key concepts in micro and macro using the most basic way of discussing it using vignettes leaves sufficient room for personal introspection for its relevance and application in current time whether the student is trying to understand the news or her disposition in life.

While keeping a class of 43 students engaged in active debate and discussion of the text proved to be quite the challenge (e.g., not everyone speaks up in a class this big neither do we have the time for everyone to speak up), their reflective journals demonstrate an even deeper form of learning that rote memorisation of concepts at this level does not provide.

However, the difference between INTOECO and FDNECON students is clear: most INTOECO students would not have any more economics courses to take (except perhaps for Development Studies and Political Science majors), but FDNECON students will need to take either COBMECO or COBECON. This difference in the goals of the course led me to the difference that I need to take in approaching my course design while staying aligned with the department-wide ELGAs and ELOs.

Thus, I have reset my course design exercise and course preps for FDNECON for which I develop the following guidelines for myself in finalising my plans for the course. Additionally, given that I now have three sections of FDNECON, the assessments I originally had in mind (like in INTOECO) would no longer work due to time constraints. In INTOECO, a student would complete 13 reflective journal entries at the ideal rate of 1 entry per week (some though not many crammed about 7 of the 13 towards the end of the term, as expected) aside from individual or paired term papers, weekly quizzes and an essay-type midterm exam. Implementing 13 journal entries per FDNECON student would mean I would have to read and grade over 1,500 short essays throughout the term and 120 term papers. It might work against the intent of achieving deep learning and student engagement if reading, grading and substantial commenting/exchange would take time away from meaningful content preparations for the course. This also triggered a change in the assessments I mapped out against the ELOs. Given three sections of FDNECON, I now have to consider pedagogical economy as well.

Design principles for FDNECON (C40, K47 and K49):

• Introduce economics both as science and an art and craft: theoretical models need to make sense in the real-world. Abstract models are introduced and treated as heuristics and not a template for policy nor personal action. Economic theory + moral reasoning allow students to understand nuance that is necessary for policy design, assessment and determination

• Design a course that embraces the truth that the students taking the course are not going to be economists by profession, but need its illuminating perspective to shed light on behaviour and economic patterns.

• Design a course that equips students with fundamental, working understanding of economics principles that prepare them for further economics and business courses. The focus at this point is not the search for truths, but ways to solve problems as is usually the case for most business undergraduate programmes. An engineering method or applied method (not applied science) guides the use of observation, data exploration and the use of heuristics only to look for answers that solve the problem. The scientific method as used in formal economic research is not emphasised in this design.

• Design a course that tackles the role that economics plays in society today: to address inequality, environmental decay, innovation, policy and politics, instability and growth in an era of unprecedented changes (i.e., permanent technological revolution).

• Design a course that blends the best of the Samuelsonian template and Mill-Marshallian approach; we provide theory, but subject that theory to challenge on whether the theory checks out with reality especially when solving everyday problems or whether they stand to shed light on even the news on the economy today. Again, normative and ethical value judgments are used (i.e., using Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator device or J.S. Mill’s Devil’s Advocate). Engaged debate is necessary to not only heighten the appeal of economics to non-econ majors, but also to deepen the level of learning of core economic concepts brought to life by debates on real-world issues.

• Design a course that encourages students to build confidence working with datasets, learn processing data and derive insights independently or with their peers. Design with technology at the heart of the student experience, not an afterthought.

• Design a course that is consistent with the everyday interaction of students with economic concepts. In most cases, for example, they experience a world in which micro and macro issues (and decisions, implications) are inexorably intertwined. Another example is introducing imperfect markets, information asymmetry (i.e., in contracts), concepts of altruism, fairness vs the predigested goal of reaching economic efficiency and material wealth (i.e., no matter the problem or situation) earlier on rather than as extensions of perfect models that do not often represent nor describe reality whether in choices or markets.

• Design a course in which institutions, social structure, history and politics play a critical role in understanding economic outcomes that in the marginalist approach following the scientific method assume away for simplicity.

• Design a course that still facilitate deep learning while allowing economy and efficiency in facilitating the course. Fourth hour activities are thus reimagined beyond the term paper and reflective journal entries giving students the flexibility in the choice of medium (written or creative work) and setting (individual or small groups) for their final projects.

As such, I have chosen to adopt the Curriculum Open access Resources in Economics (CORE Project: which is now in use in over 100 universities (including Columbia University, University of California, University College London) across 186 countries. Its main text, The Economy, and the Project is led by economist researchers and professors who found that the connection between what economists do and what is taught at the principles level often have a disconnect. Thus, their text is based on empirical data (many of which come from live datasets and ongoing contemporary work in various fields) that try to shed light on economic phenomena at the principles level, which the overly simplified models of, say, perfect competition cannot address nor explain clearly to students when assessed against real world patterns and human behaviour.

Inequality is the overarching theme addressed by the text along with environment, innovation, instability and growth, and the global economy today. Its approach is mainly heterodox “within the mainstream” as it does not dispute (at least not directly) the orthodox concepts that will still be used in more advanced courses in economics. It is heterodox in its presentation of economic concepts, but not in the content itself. It introduces a slight move away from convention by engaging students earlier on strategic behaviour, altruism, fairness in which game theory is the language used more often than pure mathematical abstraction. It also encourages students to pursue data exploration (datasets are public and accessible), for example, in answering exercises. It does not separate micro from macro although this flow does not distract the students for when they take on further studies in which economics is divided in that manner. It is anchored on historical context and the path dependence of economic outcomes giving sufficient focus on institutions, social structure, history, politics and policy. It also “flips” the standard flow of principles courses in which supply and demand instantaneously equilibriate in a perfectly competitive market to a market price in which both buyers and sellers are takers to a treatment that in most cases, they are price-setters. Perfectly competitive markets are introduced as a special case, which is consistent in the treatment found in Mas-Colell et al. (1995).

The upside of using CORE, aside from its content and pedagogical approach in delivering a principles course, is that its resources are virtually no cost to the student. Students may download the entire book on any or all of their devices. CORE uses multimedia and interactive features (as McGraw-Hill Connect ebooks would) and additional resources for further studies or exploration including datasets and guides. They provide rich content which may be used both in class or for personal study. The CORE community of professors also engage in forums sharing latest research, supplementary materials, additional insights that provide further nuance and guidance to those using the CORE curriculum. Additionally, they provide new sources of data and potential areas of interest for students’ projects. 

The criticism of Professor Colander of the CORE Project is not unfounded—that while it is an innovative take on the principles course, it is still largely about science and not the nuances in which policy work (whether for industry or society) can be understood better. The text itself does not present normative and ethical judgment per se and does not introduce ways on how students can sharpen these much-needed skills as future professionals whose scope of work would require in almost every occasion the exercise of such judgment. Value judgments will be part of the case study experience I am introducing in this course which follows the business school style of learning by doing, only this time they are used to bring to life economic concepts as they are applied in the real world (i.e., three case studies will be used this term). As an example, Section 3.8 asks whether MRT=MRS is a good model. CORE argues, as is the argument in Samuelsonian tradition, that models like this “help us see more by looking at less” despite its lack of realism, an intentional feature, which could be subjected to further discussion on how individuals assess choices where MRT does not have to be equal to MRS.

Understanding that students will take up an additional and a more “advanced” economics course later on, so as not to preempt these courses, I will not focus this course at least not solely on mathematical purity in economic analysis (although I would use it as diversion once in a while to challenge students), but I would sharpen its interpretation for use in addressing the major themes of interest in this course.  Current events such as Brexit, US-China trade war, the tarrification of rice, local innovation laws passed recently, etc. will be used throughout the course to drive the economic principles home blended with opportunities for students to assess the models using normative and ethical judgment.

Perhaps the change we want to see in the economy indeed starts with Foundations that is designed for a changing world.

Going beyond the mainstream

I stumbled on this reading before bed tonight. It is one of the classic pieces written by John von Neumann which is used in most history of mathematics courses:

As a mathematical discipline travels far from its empirical source, or still more, if it is a second and third generation only indirectly inspired by ideas coming from ‘reality’ it is beset with very grave dangers. It becomes more and more purely aestheticising, more and more purely I’art pour I’art. This need not be bad, if the field is surrounded by correlated subjects, which still have closer empirical connections, or if the discipline is under the influence of men with an exceptionally well-developed taste. But there is a grave danger that the subject will develop along the line of least resistance, that the stream, so far from its source, will separate into a multitude of insignificant branches, and that the discipline will become a disorganized mass of details and complexities. In other words, at a great distance from its empirical source, or after much ‘abstract’ inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degeneration. (Von Neumann, The Mathematician, 1947, pp. 180-196)

It is interesting to see that the same could be said of economics when its models become too elegant (l’art pour l’art, neat and structurally sound), esoteric (so as to demonstrate excessive sophistication more than is necessary) and far too detached from the real-world (empirical truths) phenomena it seeks to understand—when it distances itself too far from its empirical source, “or after much ‘abstract’ inbreeding,” it, also, “is in danger of degeneration.”

The world looks to the economics profession once again as the countries the world over fear even greater inequality, environmental degradation, instability even in the wealthiest of nations, the future of work against a worrisome backdrop of a global economy that is slowing down marked by signals that point to a possible recession of a different nature.

In a group chat, some PhDs exchange about the challenges to macroeconomists and how their models do not provide sufficient guidance for thoughtful policy work especially when it seems that the discipline is playing catch-up than potentially leading it. Where its representative household approach, the micro foundations of macro, and its many other assumptions given freely (and quickly) away to make theories upon theories work in the Walrasian general equilibrium sense all now seem to open even more questions than provide answers.

No one holds the perfect answer (I doubt no one would ever), but there needs to be more debate, deeper engagement—meaningful discourse, openness to even more agreement on nuance which makes policy work possible than futile disagreement on which science to use to answer a real-world problem. Science is not the problem, but it does not hold all the answers.

There is much more work AND LEARNING needed which aspiring economists can contribute to, but which may work better if there is agreement that the current mainstream thinking alone cannot solve problems today that no longer have the same nature as of those that were experienced generations ago.