Be Careful What You Ask For

The dynamics of my macroeconomics course are quite different than in past years. I’ve alluded to this in previous posts. For one thing, I’m reading the text just slightly ahead of the students. I’m doing it that way to try to get a feel for what the students are experiencing as they confront the material for the first time. The book is really quite good. It reads, to me at least, less like a standard text and more like a practitioner’s guide, something I would assign a research assistant to study prior to starting a research project in macroeconomics. I am learning more than a few things, things I have never noticed in an intermediate text before.

The other day one of my students raised a complaint about the text. He said, “why doesn’t the author just define things clearly?” In the chapter we were working on, he said he had struggled to determine the exact meaning of several terms, that nowhere had he been able to find the type of focussed definition one would find in a glossary. “Why doesn’t the author just tell us what he means,” he asked? The student wasn’t out of line since I had asked the class to provide feedback on the text.

At the time, I was sympathetic, but I found myself thinking about the question for the next few days. Perhaps part of the reason is that these terms are complex concepts that are difficult to explicate concisely? It occurred to me that perhaps the student was looking for a cookbook-type text, where everything is clearly spelled out (but to get there the content has been reduced to the lowest common denominator) and easy to memorize and parrot back on exams. I don’t say this to criticize the student, but I wonder if that’s what he was looking for.

By exploring complex, real ideas, this book requires readers to wrestle with the text, which is no doubt more difficult than memorizing definitions, but also leads to deeper learning in which students have to make meaning. Not easy, but real learning often isn’t.

In any case, the punch line of the story turned out to be “Be careful what you ask for.” The next chapter included a very concise definition:

The Business Cycle is the alternation in the state of the economy of a roughly consistent periodiity and with rough coherence between different measures of the economy.

It took me a few minutes of work to figure out exactly what that meant.

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3 Responses to Be Careful What You Ask For

  1. Martha says:

    I think this sounds like a great teachable moment. Bring up the definition in class and ask them if this helps them. They think they want a cookbook approach but partly that’s because they think concepts can always be easily and succinctly defined. When faced with a definition that pretty difficult to work through, perhaps their perspective will change.

  2. Steve says:

    I already did this–the class after the event, when I found the definition.

  3. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » A Purer Version of Just-in-Time Teaching

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