Economics in the School Curriculum: A Breakdown of Consensus

By Jephcote, Martin | Teaching Business & Economics, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

Economics in the School Curriculum: A Breakdown of Consensus


Jephcote, Martin, Teaching Business & Economics


INTRODUCTION

Subjects gather around themselves communities of people who compete and collaborate with one another, who define and defend their boundaries and who demand allegiance from their members, A subject acts as a 'flag' of allegiance so that the differences and tensions within a subject community can actually work to hold it together. However, when pressure for change begins to mount, either from within or from outside the subject community (especially from central government and its agencies), this gives rise to multiple identities, values and interests and to the formation of coalitions.

In this process of transformation, subject communities are not all-powerful in engineering change (Goodson, 1994) but their contribution is largely neglected. This article explores the ways in which those in the economics subject community acted in relation to the development of A-level and to attempts to widen economics as part of an entitlement curriculum for all.

A-LEVEL ECONOMICS: WARNING SIGNS AND PRESSURES FOR CHANGE

Livesey (1986), a Professor of Economics and a Chief Examiner for A-level, was concerned more generally about the changing status of economics and the implications for A-level. It was his view that the dominance of an inappropriate scientific model, the fallibility of econometric modelling, and the inadequacy of economic forecasting created both a bad press for economics and also an unsatisfactory relationship between economists and the general public.

In calling for changes both at the academic level and at the school level, Livesey recognised only too well the resisting forces. It was not that there was any shortage of critics at either level, but the problem was in the lack of agreement over alternatives. At both levels, he saw the investment in 'academic capital' as a barrier to change and described teachers as 'virtual prisoners of the system' constrained by the examination syllabus (p.54). Perhaps, as Lines (1988, p.73) stated, the existing 'pedagogic formula' was adhered to because it meant that teachers delivered examination results.

Indeed, as Levacic (1987) observed, primacy was given to the principles of economics, an approach which stemmed from the deductive models used in 'mainstream' economics. She wondered how teachers could stand in front of their students and justify the unrealistic assumptions of the model, particularly in the face of the breakdown in consensus. She called for an emphasis on understanding economics and economic behaviour rather than on understanding the academic discipline. She did not reject economic theory in preference to descriptive economics, but did seek to distinguish between the two kinds of understanding. In academic economics, understanding was concerned with the ability to make logical statements tested by logical questions which have logically correct answers. In other social sciences, understanding was drawn from a perspective or set of perspectives, and assessment of understanding required 'intuitive judgement rather than applying the criteria of logical truth'. It was her view, therefore, that for the beginning student of economics, it was more important to convey an understanding of economics in a broad and intuitive sense rather than to place an excessive emphasis on the logical understanding of economic propositions. For her, as for Gavin et al. (1989) economic theories and concepts should be selected when judged to help understanding and not be seen as an end in themselves.

Livcsey, Levacic and Lines were foreshadowing the likely effect of the adherence to an outdated economic and pedagogic paradigm on the numbers taking A-level economics. Peripheral changes to examination syllabuses, such as the addition, expansion or contraction of multiple choice or data response questions, did not tackle the underlying problems and were no more than a means for individual examination boards to expand their market share. …

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