Friday, April 01, 2011

Failing at Getting Students to Learn Beyond Their Own Experiences

Once you the teacher get students over their initial shyness and show that you welcome their input in class many students are willing to contribute to the class discussion, provided they feel they have something relevant to say. An obvious way to get students to open up is to tie the subject matter under discussion to experiences that are apt to be common to the students. They can then each express their point of view based on their own unique personal history with such experiences

Armed with this thought it then becomes a teaching task to try to reframe course topics in a way that students can bring their experience to bear. Sometimes I do this in planning a class session. And certainly I do it in writing about the economics for the students to read and then to write something in their team blogs, as I wrote about a bit in a previous post. I also do it reflexively, however, in the live class setting where I will think to poll the students on the fly about something that occurs to me while I'm presenting. And I've been doing it in my behavioral econ class when teams of students are presenting, but where there doesn't seem to be much interaction at the time. The goal is generate discussion. And that way there is immediate feedback as to whether the attempt was successful, provided by the the student responses and any follow up comments they may make. When the only response is silent stares that denotes failure.

Early in the semester, I thought I was having a fair amount of success this way. Lately though, I've been failing. The class sessions feel like we're at a funeral. I'm scratching my head for reasons. Is it the topics I've got us covering? Has my style in class signaled impatience? Is everyone heads down now hoping the semester will soon come to a merciful end? I'm guessing it is all of this and perhaps more too.

In my intermediate microeconomics class we do discussions of the readings on Wednesdays. This week we read a chapter about Marx in Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers. I knew this would be a challenge ahead of time. Most of the students are Business majors. They are not dispassionate observers of various social organizations. They are strongly pro-capitalist. Marx predicts that capitalism is inherently unstable and will ultimately self-destruct from its own inner failings. This prediction seems wrong at its core. But Marx also got many other things about capitalism right. He was the first to provide a credible explanation of the business cycle. Heilbroner, who gives a balanced treatment in my view, is worth reading just for that reason. Even advocates of capitalism should understand its weaknesses.

In their blogging about the chapter ahead of the class session, the students were all over the place. Some indicated they enjoyed the reading. One was overtly hostile to it. Some of them took on the issue of whether government should perform income redistribution and I got at least a couple of posts on what I would take to be a Tea Party line - the rich are taxed enough already. The line, however, that really got to me the most was that several students said capitalism rewarded hard work and enterprise. Nobody said the opposite, but the clear implication is that if you are working at a low wage or you don't have a job at all you must be a deadbeat or somebody only going through the motions. The lines from the All in the Family opening song occurred to me.
Everybody pulled his weight.
Didn't need no welfare state.
Gee our old Lasalle ran great.
Those were the days.
Yesterday after meeting a team of students from the behavioral econ class, I read several pieces from The Atlantic Web site. One was from Richard Florida, The Conservative States of America. He looks at various demographic factors that correlate with being conservative. One is the importance of religion in a person's life. Being religious correlates positively with being conservative. Education is negatively correlated, the higher the education the more liberal the voter is likely to be. Of course there are exceptions to this and Business students are likely to be more conservative. But I wonder if it is something else here, something I see in my own household with my kids. The biggest socializer for my students has to have been school. These kids have done very well there. They've gotten high standardized test scores. They've gotten good grades. When thy see other students who've done less well, it's invariably because those kids haven't done the work or so they conjecture (learning disabilities are hard to note in otherwise ordinary appearing students). School itself is a great enforcer of the belief that if you work hard you will be rewarded.

What is missing in this story is the role luck plays. Another piece in The Atlantic, this one from the magazine itself, Secret Fears of the Super-Rich, makes quite clear that many of these people first don't relish in their own good fortune and second don't see their wealth primarily as a consequence of their own hard work. Of course this will be true for those who inherited it but it is also true by those who made fabulous fortunes themselves, mainly by being at the right place at the right time. And then, with substantial irony, most of these people are unable to interact with the rest of us who are not rich, because they are afraid (with justification) that we'll have our hands out or disrespect them for not always having a rosy outlook. So most of them don't work, even as they see that work has the potential to be a source of fulfillment.

Naturally, if some become extremely rich because of good luck others, in fact many others, become poor because their luck was bad. In today's New York Times there is a piece about the state of Florida, where the unemployment rate is substantially above the national average, and the legislature is contemplating dramatic reductions in the number of weeks people out of work can collect unemployment insurance. This provides a good segue back to my class. In the view Marx articulated in Das Kapital, technological innovation resolves economic slumps. I said in class that Marx mostly had in mind process innovation, but had he worked through the same argument for product innovation he might have come to a different conclusion - the economy could self-sustain and grow indefinitely, yet in more mature sectors of the economy employment would inevitably decline with opportunities opening up in newer sectors.

This means, of course, that people who had been employed in the mature sectors might either see their wages decline or lose their jobs outright (by luck, not by their own lack of effort) and would have to find new work in a different sector. I mentioned the prediction that experts have made about the typical new worker currently coming onto the labor market will ultimately have perhaps four different careers in their lifetimes by working at different jobs through various business cycles. I wanted the students to ask whether government had a role in this to smooth out the rough edges entailed in career change, more or less the traditional argument for social insurance. But I wanted to make the argument from the point of view that this is their own likely outcome for their futures. They should have self-interest in a system that smoothed out the edges because while they will have times when they experience good fortune, there will be other times where they suffer the consequences of bad luck.

So I wanted them to personalize this notion of the business cycle and social change resulting as a consequence of the changing nature of work. As we are now recovering from a deep trough in a very tough recession, it occurred to me to poll the class on who knew somebody who had lost their job since the housing bubble burst. There was stone silence in the room. Then finally one kid raised his hand and said his aunt an uncle lost their store. They were in their early 60s. That was the only example offered up. Could it really be true that in these hard times that these kids had no personal experience with somebody who's been laid off? If so, how could I proceed with an argument about social insurance as enlightened self-interest?

There is a big issue for the instructor who tries to tap into student experience only to find the experience isn't there. The issue is whether to assume the underlying subject can't be taught because there is no handle to open a door to it. Alternatively, the question is whether the students should be expected to abstract beyond their own experience and reason through things with some passion without those things directly relating to their own lives. I'm fairly sure I did a lot of that when I was an undergrad, so it seems a knee jerk thing to expect it of students today, particularly given that they have the academic credentials to indicate they should be capable of doing it. This was my reaction immediately after the class session had ended. I had been pampering these kids and I should have raised my expectations by asking them to think this through in the abstract.

A couple of days later, it seems to me I'm wanting to change my goals in midstream. At the outset, this was to be a course that Business students would tolerate, if not enjoy outright. It was to give them an economics perspective on issues that they were otherwise confronting elsewhere. The tapping into their own experiences fits well with that. On the other hand, and while some students did comment about this in their posts, how can I make a reasoned argument for social insurance with such students? In planning for this session I had thought about mentioning Rawls, Justice as Fairness.

Would the Veil of Ignorance be an effective intellectual device to convince these kids? Ultimately, I didn't do that but now, only two days later, I can't recall whether I chose that deliberately based on what I was seeing at the time or if simply forgot to do so in press of the moment. And I'm asking myself whether my failing at eliciting discussion in the class is mainly because of a liberal-conservative gulf between me and the students or if instead it's mainly my limitations as a teacher. Either way, it's rather frightening.

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