Teaching the News

On May 6th, I hosted an Econ Ed Chat for A-Level and IB Econ teachers. The questions discussed were:

1) What lessons have we learned from remote learning that we can take forward into the classroom next year?

2) How can we best manage the teaching of current affairs in the A-Level classroom?

3) Topic in Focus: How can we teach Development Economics effectively?

You can read about our discussion of the first question here, but this post focuses on the second question.

It's easy to see why we want to 'teach the news' in Economics. It's part of the very purpose of Economics: to explain how we handle scarcity in society. For many, this is what draws them to the subject. If we take away the 'in society', the subject becomes little more than an (albeit interesting) exercise in academic thought.

Moreover, 'Teaching the News' can be beneficial for students studying Economics A Level. It can help students to add something concrete to very abstract theories. In their exams, they are expected to analyse unseen texts, and analysing news stories helps us to practise this. Students are expected to be able to evaluate Economic theories in the context of the world around them, and will often be awarded marks for bringing in discussions of Brexit and Sugar Taxes and Climate change into their answers.

However, the actual business of Teaching the News in Economics A-Level is fraught with difficulties. Andrew Lay discussed many of these in his blog posts (1 and 2) on the topic, and kicked off our discussion.

For me, one of the key problems when trying to get students to apply Economic theory to the news is that the cognitive load of what we are expecting them to do is immense. We are asking them to draw together several complex skills and hold these all in the working memory at the same time.

Firstly, as Andrew pointed out, news stories come with a history. To understand a development in Brexit proceedings requires knowledge of what came before in negotiations, public sentiment, the decline of manufacturing and European history, to name but a few. These issues are difficult to unpick in a 10-minute' starter'.

Secondly, news stories pose challenges in reading. Nichola Labrey pointed towards language challenges. Using the vocabulary of David Didau, most teachers are very good at teaching 'Tier 3' vocabulary, our subject-specific keywords. However, as Nichola pointed out, news articles use a lot of 'Tier' 2 vocabulary. This tends to be vocabulary we see more in written texts than spoken language, and so those who read less often have a deficit in this area. This can make accessing news articles very difficult for these students. (There's a whole other discussion to be had here about how this barrier disproportionately affects different groups in society).

To overcome this, Nichola actively teaches this Tier 2 Vocabulary by getting students to make passages more or less technical by replacing these less familiar words with more familiar ones and vice versa. Sarah Morris explained how she devotes a lesson a week to practise reading newspapers to build up students' confidence with handling news stories, starting with simplified texts, such as tabloid papers or The Week, and building up towards broadsheets.

However, even if students understand the language and context of articles, their theoretical Economic knowledge needs to be fluent enough to identify and apply it. There is clearly a trade-off here between the time spent building students' reading skills and time spent teaching theories. If this wasn't hard enough, the theory is rarely a perfect fit for real life, and it often feels like we're trying to demonstrate a concept with a non-example.

With all of these difficulties, it is not easy to envisage a situation wherein students come out of a discussion of a news article with less understanding than they went into it. This is potentially damaging.

But even if we could overcome all of this, there is still a question over how we 'Teach the News' from a practical standpoint.

Classtime is scarce, and even if we put the bulk of responsibility for finding and reading news stories onto the students, making them accountable for this is challenging. One participant has had success with students creating a physical scrapbook, although a digital version might also work. Ben explained that his students know they are expected to introduce the article and pose a question about it. I have never quite managed to do this successfully, but I imagine the key is likely to be setting and maintaining expectations about how students are expected to have really thought about the article.

Finding appropriate news articles of the right length takes time, as does devising questions to focus students' attention. It is easy for teachers to spend all of their time doing this, diverting it away from carefully crafting their explanations or giving useful feedback. This is compounded by the transient nature of Economics: the articles quickly become outdated, so we are constantly needing to find replacement articles. Helen McPhereson shared how she uses the Curious Economist to find short, relevant articles with accompanying questions for students. Helen shares these with her students through a twitter channel, but Microsoft Teams or Moodle users could also use an RSS feed to automatically post these articles on their VLEs so students are reminded of them without the teacher having to do anything. This video explains how to do that.

Even if, however, teachers are armed with a stock of perfect articles, how can we work these into our carefully sequenced narrative? We did a quick straw poll in the meeting, and there was a fairly even split between teachers who incorporate current news articles regardless of the topic they are studying, teachers who stick to those articles related to their current topic and those who do something in between. There are pros and cons to each approach.

Teaching news stories as they come up is likely to maintain student engagement and a culture of wider reading. It also allows students to practice reading the news right from the off. However, to do this requires a discussion of concepts students haven't covered yet. It is then tempting to do a quick rushed job of explaining big concepts which might set the stage for misconceptions later on. It also likely comes at a cost of the flow to the curriculum, making it difficult to see the bigger picture.

Picking news stories which relate to your topic help to maintain some semblance of flow. Since, in this case, you would generally use slightly older articles (because it's unlikely the perfect example will crop up just in time), teachers are more likely to have time to incorporate it into their planning. It does, however, mean that students aren't kept up to date with newer developments. I'm not completely clear whether they can be penalised for old contextual knowledge in exams, but I've found that students who have a wider range of examples to draw upon tend to produce better evaluation. (Of course, more examples doesn't necessarily mean more up-to-date examples, but one can lead to the other).

I imagine that some of those who opted for 'something in the middle' perhaps use news stories with links to topics they have already studied (in contrast to those they are currently studying). This is likely to result in a greater emphasis on news stories as students progress through the course (a few teachers have mentioned doing much more of this in Year 2 than Year 1). Students are therefore not exposed to concepts they don't have the skills to analyse economically, and revision of older topics might well be beneficial, but the issue of a disjointed narrative still remains.

Even if students are looking at a news story which relates to their current topic of study, it is easy for them to go off on a tangent, focusing more on the story itself and less on how it illustrates the theory. Prairna Sharma highlighted the importance of making those links to the curriculum explicit so that students are not drawn into very general answers. Manisha Sadhev explained how she used the timing of her contextual examples to maintain focus: she often begins lessons with a news story so that students can grasp the concept intuitively, before going on to discuss the theory.

If you're interested in watching our discussion, you can do that here:

Do consider coming along to our next Econ Ed Chat. Details will be posted soon.