Using the Simpsons to Improve Economic Instruction through Policy Analysis

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

In most introductory economic classes only a select number of students will become economists. However, unlike disciplines such as engineering where an entire sequence of coursework is needed to become a practitioner, in economics every student will be a lifelong practitioner of political economy (Klein 1999). Many textbooks recognize the importance of students learning to apply the tools of economic analysis to public policy issues. One popular textbook (Gwartney et al. 2003), for example, provides over a dozen 'special topics' that give students the opportunity to practice the economic analysis of public policy issues.

Empirical research on the pedagogical techniques used by economists finds that economists rely heavily on "chalk and talk" in the classroom (Becker and Watts 2001). Becker (2000) urges economists to move beyond the lecture-method of teaching and begin to integrate new types of pedagogy such as classroom games and the Internet into the classroom. Other economic educators have detailed how economists can use literature (Watts 2002) or movies (Leet and Houser 2003; Mateer 2004) to provide examples of economic concepts to students. Considine (2006) provides numerous examples from the long-running television show The Simpsons that can be used to help teach public choice.

Combining these two important points, we suggest that The Simpsons can be used to augment student learning in a basic economics courses through the application of economics to public policy issues. The Simpsons is a cartoon sitcom about a fictional middle class American family, set in the fictional town Springfield, USA. Although the show revolves around members of the Simpson family, which includes Homer (the father), Marge (mother), Bart (son), and Lisa and Maggie (daughters), there are numerous additional recurring characters that play major roles throughout the series. The Simpsons is currently in its twenty-first season and airs on the Fox television network and earlier seasons are on in syndication in most areas.

Using The Simpsons, instructors can promote active learning by encouraging students to both participate in classroom discussions and apply the economic principles they are learning about in classroom lectures. Moreover, the clips suggested here allow students to examine real policy issues through a medium with which most of them are very familiar. (2) Use of clips from The Simpsons goes beyond simply providing examples of concepts to actually encouraging students to use the tools of economics to analyze both the positive and normative aspects of specific policy issues. Cameron (1998) suggests that active learning by students can lead to improved student outcomes such as enhanced retention of course material.

We have found that analyzing examples from The Simpsons has two distinct advantages over other, more traditional, ways to introduce policy discussions such as newspaper or magazine articles. First, given that most undergraduates do not regularly read newspapers or news magazines, The Simpsons engages students in a way that these traditional methods do not. Second, we have found that many students have a hard time applying basic microeconomics when it comes to realworld situations. A classroom discussion about the effects of a ban on organ sales, for example, can often be derailed by student opinions on the ethics of allowing individuals to sell their organs. Using a fictional, animated television show to discuss issues like organ donation makes it easier for students to set aside their normative concerns and focus instead on the positive effects of policy changes.

In this article, we present a list of episodes of The Simpsons that we have found useful in helping students to 'think like an economist.' These episodes were selected because the substance of the episode revolves around a particular public policy issue open to economic analysis and there is a clear economic concept that can be introduced or reinforced with the episode. …