January 2019 newsletter: How video competitions inspire and inform students

CORE is a project supported by the RES and readers will have read earlier reports of its impressive progress in helping universities across the world to improve their teaching. In this article Tim Phillips, the editor of the CORE project, shows how a competition requiring teams of students to make videos analysing local issues in an ‘economic’ way, encourages students to engage critically with economic models.

What is the problem?

Reporting on the 2012 Bank of England conference on ‘Teaching the dismal science after the crisis’, Diane Coyle emphasised that both the Government Economic Service and economics consultancies often found that economists coming out of undergraduate degree courses had good technical skills, but struggled to explain themselves:

‘The prevalence of poor communication skills is a common theme. Economists working outside the academic world will all need to communicate their technical expertise to non-technical colleagues and customers, so it is a core skill for them.’ (Coyle 2012).

At CORE1, we heard even more trenchant criticism come from the department chair at a top university in Turkey, who complained that his students could handle any applied maths exercises thrown at them, but if asked about the economy ‘their reasoning is no different from the wisdom of taxi drivers, and sometimes a bit less well informed’. Ouch.

If students of any social science are absorbing abstract technical skills out of context, they will ultimately be at a disadvantage. But, as teachers, we should also consider whether this emphasis on technical skills shifts the centre of gravity of the subject, meaning that the profession, not to mention the public, loses out. For example, one of the most important recent criticisms of economics teaching has been that young women find the emphasis on theory and abstraction off-putting. One paper that interviewed female graduate students of economics described ‘the emphasis on theoretical studies in the current core of the graduate economics program … as a type of hazing process.’ (Colander and Holmes 2007).

While it’s important that students understand theory and models, this doesn’t have to imply a trade-off between engaging with the real world and learning how to explain it. On the contrary, motivating the teaching of models by real problems and then coming back to evaluate how successful the model is can help students conceptualise, recall, and evaluate those models later. That’s why the units in the CORE Project’s textbooks The Economy2 and Economy, Society and Public Policy3 start with real world stories and data, and use this to teach the models and concepts that help explain them. It also means we can encourage students to evaluate how successful a model is at explaining the world.4 https://www.core-econ.org/espp/book/text/04.html#410-is-this-a-good-model).

We wondered if there was a way to extend this process so that students could find and create their own stories, and present them in a way that both informs the audience and teaches them to do economics? We already go some way to doing that in our Doing Economics ebook,5 in which students are given real-world data, and then analyse and present it to create a report. Doing Economics focuses on teaching data skills however, and is still ‘curated’, as all students work with a common set of data and the same problems to solve.

Meeting the challenge

For the last two years, we have also run a competition called the CORE Schools Economics Challenge.6  It was the brainchild of two high-school teachers who have also contributed to CORE: Leith Thompson, of Burwood Girls High School, NSW, Australia, and Andrew Sykes, of St. Paul’s School in London, UK. Although CORE’s text is intended as an introduction for undergraduates, both teachers have had experience in using CORE’s material in the classroom to stretch and extend bright high school students.

They imagined a competition that could inspire schoolchildren to take up and carry on with economics while acting as a way to learn some of the principles of the subject. Their idea was that a competition in which student teams made a video to explain an economic topic would be challenging, but also sufficiently different from the traditional essay-writing format of competitions to be engaging for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Our inspiration for the format was the exciting work done at University College London by Parama Chaudhury and her colleagues in the economics department. Every year they run the ‘First year challenge’ for new students.7 In the first week of the course, the 300 students, who have just arrived, are divided into groups and set assignments to go and make short videos on economics topics around London, each group being sent to a GPS location. They make friends, discover their environment, but as Chaudhury comments, ‘It also gives them a taste of learning and researching independently — which is often a new experience for many beginning undergraduates, yet a skill they need to master.’ (Chaudhury and Spielmann 2016).

In 2017, the first CORE Schools Economic Challenge asked student video-makers to deliver a three-minute analysis of a topic related to where they live, using the work of a famous economic thinker, and to relate it to Unit 1 of The Economy, which covers the successes and problems of the capitalist revolution. For the second Challenge that we ran in 2018, we attracted the support of the Financial Times Secondary Schools,8 and so were able to expand the competition and triple the cash prize for the winner (£1,500 for the school and £500 Amazon vouchers for students), and offer runner-up prizes too. The 2018 challenge was to create an entertaining short video on ‘Ten years on from the global financial crisis’.9

The 2018 and 2017 winning videos can be viewed on the CORE Team YouTube channel.

What have we learned?

First, that the teachers that support the competition report that it is both stimulating and challenging for the students. For example, the 2018 winners came from the European School Karlsruhe, which set the competition as a project for the entire class. ‘We had five extremely good entries, and I felt sorry for the ones we couldn’t put into the competition,’ said Angela Starost, the teacher whose idea it was.

Second, that students respond to the challenge in creative ways that often go beyond what traditional education can easily deliver. The 2017 winners, the Academy at Penguin Hall in Wenham, MA, US, used the opportunity to investigate the impact of declining fish stocks in the waters off nearby Gloucester seaport. Instead of looking up ‘the tragedy of the commons’ on the internet or in the library, they visited local fishermen and recorded interviews with them, which gave them a better insight into the interplay between regulation, the environment and the livelihoods of people who make their living from the sea. Students from Karlsruhe travelled to Frankfurt to interview a banker about the crisis. Both the critics of economics, and economists themselves, often worry that our discipline risks losing touch with the world it is supposed to describe. Challenges like this can show students at the beginning of their economics education that policies, shocks and crises are about far more than lines on a graph.

Third, that the students themselves have a great time. ‘It was difficult and took a lot of time to make but looking back at the effort we put in and what has become of it, it makes us proud,’ said Ellen Gerisch and Maria Assanbaev, about their winning entry in 2018, for which they created an animated description of how the financial crisis unfolded, focusing on the British economy. They didn’t just learn about the causes of the crisis for the video, their learn-by-doing approach meant they found out how to make an animated video too (by watching YouTube videos that other people had made). Penguin Hall’s winners Micaela Trzcinski, Leah Humphreys, Kathryn Ward, Marietta Atkins, Meghan Curtin and Elaine Turner thought that they couldn’t have learned what they discovered from a textbook. And they all reported more interest in the subject as a result. ‘My brother is majoring in economics and I used to say to him “why would you want to study that?” After doing this project, I think economics is interesting and valuable,’ Trzcinski told us.

Fourth, that schools in which the teachers emphasise innovative teaching strategies seem to be attracted to the competition — but also seem to do well. The innovative approaches to education that we learn about from them has set us thinking about how we can help evolve the way teaching is done at universities, not least because their innovations are such a strong contrast with the inertia that is a feature of so many undergraduate courses.

‘We recognise that we’re preparing these young women for careers that aren’t even created yet,’ said Dean Tsouvalas, Director of Advancement and Communication at Penguin Hall, where ‘chalk and talk’ lecturing is kept to a minimum. For example, one of the classrooms is set up to mimic a boardroom, to encourage debates among the students. And at Karlsruhe, the international group of students do more than half their exams in a foreign language, and are encouraged to study news in the global economy. ‘Usually I can say to the students, can you follow the news in France? What are they saying about this in Venezuela? It makes for really good class discussions,’ Starost says.

Fifth, and this is a challenge for us if we want greater diversity among economists: better-resourced schools, often outside the state system, are more likely to enter. It’s not hard to speculate why: perhaps they allocate more time to projects like this and so are accustomed to them, or have more flexibility in their curriculum. Perhaps they have specialist equipment, or parents who can buy it (that said, many of our entrants know how to make a good quality film on a smartphone). That’s why in 2018 we also encouraged participating schools to enter a collaborative entry with another local school, with its own prize, also £1,500 for the school and £500 Amazon vouchers for students. A joint state-school / private school team from The Charter School North Dulwich and Dulwich College won this year. This joint winner can be viewed on the CORE Team Youtube channel.

Finally, we note that so far both the winners of the individual competition, and their teachers, have been female. As, indeed, is Alice Li of UCL, the winner of the 2018 RES undergraduate video competition.10 Clearly this is far too small a sample to draw any conclusion, but using this storytelling, real-world approach to learning the subject at an early age may be one small contribution to attracting back to economics what we have calculated as 300,000 ‘missing women who decide they prefer other subjects (Zarghamee et al. 2017).

Notes and references:

1. The CORE Team https://core-econ.org

2. https://www.core-econ.org/project/core-the-economy/

3. https://www.core-econ.org/project/core-espp/

4. https://www.core-econ.org/espp/book/text/04.html=410-is-this-a-good-model

5. https://www.core-econ.org/project/doing-economics/

6. You can read CORE’s blogs on the 2017 winners here (https://tinyco.re/4074533) and the 2018 winners here (https://tinyco.re/5478986)

7. https://ctale.org/projects/first-year-challenge/

8. https://www.ft.com/ft-secondary-schools

9. https://www.core-econ.org/core-schools-economics-challenge-2018/

10. https://www.res.org.uk/resources-page/2018-undergraduate-video-competition-results.html

Chaudhury, Parama and Christian Spielmann (2016), ‘Putting CORE to work: UCL’s First Year Challenge’, core-econ.org, 12 September.

Colander, David and Jessica Holmes (2007), ‘Gender and graduate economics education in the US’, Feminist Economics 13(2): 93-116.

Coyle, Diane (2012), ‘What’s the use of economics? Introduction to the Vox debate’, VoxEU.org, 19 September.

Zarghamee, Homa, Samuel Bowles, and Wendy Carlin (2017) ‘300,000 women are missing from economics’, The Conversation, 18 September.