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Not just a numbers game: Asking the important questions with Economics

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The most important goal of my undergraduate classes is to impart to students that Economics is a framework. It is not just playing with math models and answer hypothetical questions and what ifs. It’s about thinking through the bigger ideas, discussing real world issues. I want them to have a better understanding of how the world is a system, how that system works, how we can think through it and affect it.”

Dr. Graeme Walker, Founding Faculty at Fulbright University Vietnam, recently concluded an undergraduate course, titled “Doing Economics”, preceded last quarter by a primer class on Statistics. Those closely related subjects are often seen as a specialist field, but at Fulbright, both courses were open to all undergraduates, not necessarily future economics majors. As Graeme explains, “Concepts from economics have a much wider range of applications than you would think. Providing students with those tools can help them with their decision-making process for potentially all their lives, and it is a key component of course design.” We sat down with Graeme to discuss his unique approach to this staple of international education, and its place in the Fulbright model.

Dr. Graeme Walker

Return to the original foundations

As first-year courses, “Doing Economics” and ‘Statistics’ are evidently introductory in nature. But as Graeme remarks, “we shouldn’t expect to make all participating students into economists. Many will choose to specialize differently.” In a liberal arts college such as Fulbright, this variety of profiles, recombination of interests, and flexibility in specialization is not only expected, it is actively encouraged, further enriching the student’s thinking and adaptability. This also means Graeme had to rethink the basics of introductory economics courses to answer the question: what is the best way to approach this wide subject that lays the groundwork for future specialization, while remaining immediately applicable?

Firstly, whether in Graeme’s statistics or economics class, the goal was not to develop statisticians and economists. It was to get students comfortable with making sense of numbers and graphs, as well as gain a better understanding of the decision-making process of policymakers and governments. As the professor explains, “students who come through Fulbright are taught to think critically, to feel they can make sense of the world around them so they can form their own opinions, and make informed and constructive contributions to society. This can only happen if they have an idea of what’s going on, but you don’t have to be a classically trained technocrat for that.”

This approach doubles as a return to the true foundations of economics as an academic discipline. Simply put, “Economics is only a framework to think through the world’s big problems.” Where most introductory courses will first present key concepts, such as supply and demand graphs, Graeme’s “Doing Economics” began directly with a model of COVID-19, allowing students to truly think through trade-offs the world is now grappling with. What are the outcomes in terms of lower numbers of infected, vis-à-vis the negative consequences of longer social distancing and lockdown procedures? By first introducing students to a tangible problem, Grame makes apparent the fact economics is not composed of predetermined sets of problems. Rather, it is a systematic way of thinking, driven by need and experimentation, for which empirical, mathematical tools have been developed.

As a future economics major, Phuoc Tuong “could really get a sense of what thinking like an economist would be like. It was a great combination of practical, human issues and the hard numbers that go with it. This course really showed me that natural and social sciences are inextricably interwoven.”

As Phuoc Tuong also expresses above, economics is both a natural science and a social science, from hard numbers to behavioural psychology and ethics. For our professor, students first needed to grapple with the larger themes, like inequality. As she explains, “it is one thing to understand what the numbers mean, but you need to know what you want to do with them.” When students strive to explore and explain practical and ethical issues is the best time to introduce the tools or methods of analysis that economists use to find answers.

“I was given a chance to place myself in the role of both a writer of economics reports, but also its intended audience. Numbers are not the finishing line. We must organize those numbers in a logical way, but also a compelling way, so they convey meaning that can be understood,” explains Minh Phuoc, who studied Statistics.

From preconceived notions to multifaceted understanding

“I feel like students coming into the class have a certain notion of what socialism, capitalism, or communism is. I thought it would be interesting to have them react and respond to contrasting opinions.” Graeme presented students with graphs comparing the growth of countries with ‘capitalist’ or ‘communist’ economic models. This included American and European economies as well as Asian tigers. “Students can point out that communism and capitalism can be practiced in many ways. Independently from fundamental differences in governance, communist countries can have open markets. Capitalist economies can be beset with rising inequalities, such as in the US or the UK, but it is not so in others, such as the Netherlands or Canada.” Graeme always strives to challenge students to think beyond labels, which serve only to limit the depth of analysis.

At first, I thought Economics was a dry, rigid subject in which every concept was fixed. I believed our job was to follow guidelines and good practice. However, we were shown how hundreds of external factors play complex roles in determining final results. Graeme really cultivated our ability to look at the world from different angles,” reflects Pham Hoang Lan, who studied ‘Doing Economics’.

Pham Hoang Lan

In Statistics, looks were also shown to be deceiving. Exercises for this first year class does not require a deep understanding of complex math. Instead, Graeme strongly emphasizes maintaining a critical eye on data. From the way it was gathered, to the way it is organized, the class opens important questions, such as: where does the data come from? “I don’t think it’s necessary this early to delve into the intricacies of regression analysis or simultaneous equation. It’s much more important for students to start feeling comfortable looking at a graph and understand how it can be understood, as well as think critically about how it was produced and how credible it is,” says Graeme.

As Phan Thuc Anh shared of her experience with Statistics, “since we are heavily exposed to facts, news, and information, a majority of which is communicated via numbers and statistics, we need to have the ability to take them with a grain of salt. Stepping into this class, we were constantly challenged to doubt the credibility, preciseness, and accuracy of statistics. That thinking process was so well injected into my mind that it remains a habit even when the course has ended.”

Among the problems posed to the students, Graeme always strive to keep to relevant, contemporary examples. Some examples were particularly familiar to our students, such as when ‘Doing Economics’ participants were tasked with analyzing Fulbright’s “business model”. Students were encouraged to critically engage with the nature of their university as a nonprofit, opening complex discussions regarding fairness. “I remember growing up not really understanding how government and institutions decided things, how they could afford things. And I get the sense that our students are like that as well. It was very interesting to see them work through our own model, and have to answer some tough questions: Does Fulbright have to profit from some in order to be able to subsidize others? what does a financially sustainable model for an institution like ours looks like, when we get down to numbers? How does it afford to fulfill its mandate?”

“All the exercises were not taken out of any books but from the up-to-date reality surrounding Fulbright students. This helped a lot in understanding the concrete concept of economics, especially for beginners, as they will find extremely familiar cases, not just purely theoretical lessons,” says Minh Phuoc.

Confined, but continuously learning

Online education, during confinement, can be a challenge for student and professor alike. From the start, Graeme took full advantage of resources available online. Of note, the Institute of New Economic Thinking provides a variety of free resources, from exercises to data sets, making possible to study contemporary issues such as COVID-19 through a treasure trove of data.

An online class via Zoom

But one of the biggest struggles facing Graeme was more human in nature: the lack of feedback he would receive from blank screens, or voice only conferencing when students felt shy – or just scruffy. Cameras into private spaces can feel invasive, an uncomfortable projection of professional life into the intimate. Graeme, together with his students, found several workarounds, continuously improving on the course setup over the weeks.

Hence, our professor reorganized the class. On Fridays, students would be assigned to watch, in their own time, a lecture or research seminar video relevant to the lessons. Graeme’s group sessions would then take the shape of a 40-minute conversation with students, in the style of a podcast. “On the one hand, it allows students to reflect upon what they’ve learned and try to capture this in a way that they can share with everyone in the class. It also allows me to sort of see what their takeaways are, and importantly, whether they are understanding things correctly. It becomes a forum, with a surprising amount back and forth,” reflects Graeme.

To further ensure constructive feedback, and open opportunities for improvements on the next iterations, the class implemented an online, shared learning recapitulative document. Students would share one key concept they took away from the lesson, and one element they are still confused about. The first incentivizes students to reflect on important aspects of the lesson, helping with memorization and perspective. The latter allows a triple synergy: our professor identifies areas of improvement for the course, while the document functions as a collaborative peer-learning space where students answer each other. Meanwhile, Graeme can monitor that students understood correctly. “This makes it far easier for me to gauge and respond, but also to identify which area of the course requires special attention,” explains our professor.

Alongside the feedback from students, the document also embodies the co-design mindset prevalent at Fulbright. Indeed, students are aware Graeme will utilize this information to improve future iterations of the class. In this way, students take ownership of not only their learning, but the future education of their peers. This introduces them to a constructive mindset that will serve them in all aspects of their careers and lives.

As Graeme concluded, “students have contributed in so many different ways, and the have realized that co-designing is real, that it does impact the courses we are creating. Beyond that, it also invites students into the ‘gray part’ of the world. Students in general tend to think the world is very black and white, that some book exists with all the questions in the world and their answers, and their job is to find that book. By inviting them into the designing and implementation side of the course, they realize that there is no right way, only a better way that requires thinking on your feet and solving problems. This is true in our classroom, but this is also often what the world is like, and what future jobs will feel like. Getting students that experience as their professor is a great way to prepare them, not to ask “what is the right question? Or the right answer?” But rather, “what is an effective question to improve on the answer?”

Antoine Touch

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Khoảnh khắc bạn đối mặt với nỗi sợ và dũng cảm hành động, đó là lúc bạn đã khai phóng bản thân. Đã có nhiều đêm bạn mất ngủ, đã có nhiều phút giây bạn nản chí. Nhưng, bạn đã không bỏ cuộc. Các bạn đã luôn kiên cường vượt qua những thử thách, những khó khăn trên chặng đường bốn năm vừa qua. Fulbright tự hào về các bạn. Hẹn gặp các bạn tại Commencement Day 8/6/2024, ngày chúng tôi tự hào giới thiệu với thế giới: Khóa 2024 – Class of the Fearless của Đại học Fulbright Việt Nam.

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