There’s No Say’s Law in Classroom Teaching

What a blogpost from Ashish who writes the Econforeverybody blog.

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.

Speaks for most students really.

How to teach? Concepts or curiosity? We usually say teach concepts and curiosity will follow. Ashish turns it around and says pique their curiosity and concepts will follow:

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

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 PlayThe Art of Strategy and The Evolution of Trust.

Every teacher should ask this question:

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.

Superbly said as always..

5 Responses to “There’s No Say’s Law in Classroom Teaching”

  1. Anantha Nageswaran Says: many things are easier said than done, even if they are superbly said. How do you ‘expose’ students to ‘The Games Indians play’ and ‘The Art of War’. I am also reminded of the saying, “you can only take the horse to the water…”. Somethings are easier to write as a rant than to do or achieve in practice.

    • Ashish Says:

      I’m really late in replying to this, my apologies. But introducing students (especially Indian students) to “Games Indians Play” is really easy, in my experience: describing their likely behavior when they approach a traffic signal, and explaining how behavior at a traffic signal can be thought of as a variant of the prisoner’s dilemma has worked for me in class.
      I’ve never taught about the Art of War in class (or about the War of Art, for that matter), but economics can become SO much more interesting if taught well. Even without the gamification, just linking to what the blogworld is saying on a given day, and THEN going back to the textbook has been a better way to invoke curiosity in the

      • Anantha Nageswaran Says:

        I do agree that Economics (or, for that matter, most subjects) can become SO much more interesting if taught well. No disputes there.

  2. Ashish Says:

    …minds of the students. And I’ve you to thank in some of these cases! (
    I don’t know if the horses actually drink the water or not, but I can say this much with something approaching certainty: they certainly do take a closer look at the water 🙂
    Thank you for all the writing on your blog – I and my students have benefited vastly from it over the years, and thank you for reading 🙂

    • Anantha Nageswaran Says:

      Thank you. I would recommend Izabella Kaminska’s article for FT on the UK natural gas shortage.

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