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Using Interdisciplinary Teaching in Economics

Vision, Academic Leadership, and Interdisciplinary Learning

It is fascinating that many questions of interest to economists are also examined by other disciplines. For instance, political scientists are interested in the impact of trade between countries, and scholars in the field of education investigate what determines the level of schooling people complete. Ecologists and Epidemiologists investigate the impact of environmental degradation on health, although they may not refer to this development as a negative externality.

When Neil Rudenstein was president of Harvard he asked the faculty to envision a University organized around questions rather than departments. He imagined various buildings on campus that would house faculty, regardless of their current departmental affiliation, with common interests such as: the well-being of children, peace, technology and life, or water. He initiated this conversation to emphasize his belief that examining issues from multiple perspectives and integrating insights from across disciplines – interdisciplinary thinking – would lead to a deeper understanding of the issues that we find perplexing. Within this spirit, economic research and instruction is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary.

Why Use Interdisciplinary Teaching in Economics?

The discipline of economics is a behavioral science primarily concerned with the production of goods and services and the allocation of scarce resources to promote social welfare. Economists typically examine questions that are also being investigated in other disciplines, but with different analytical frameworks and methodologies. Thus an interdisciplinary approach that fuses knowledge and insights from other disciplines with an economic framework of analysis to form a more inclusive means of examining questions will foster a richer, more productive, discourse.

Some examples where an interdisciplinary perspective might be useful in exploring issues of interest to economists would include efforts to understand the causes and consequences of; joblessness, pollution, educational attainment, and health care. All of these issues have psychological, sociological, moral, and political dimensions for which a market framework may not be sufficient means of exploration.

Many students select economics as a field of study because they hope to advance their decision making or problem solving skills. Since researchers find that interdisciplinary instruction leads to such cognitive gains, learning that entails economic analysis conducted in an interdisciplinary manner is an ideal way to acquire this critical skill. Moreover, a challenge students face as learners is that they arrive in the classroom with preconceived notions. The fusion of ideas from economics and other disciplines is an ideal way to formulate rich insights into complex problems and to interpret evidence and thereby overcome the preconception barrier to learning.

Thinking Like an Economist is Becoming More Interdisciplinary

Economics Teaching is Now More Interdisciplinary

Colander and McGoldrick (2010) prepared a book for the Teagle Foundation on the status of the economics major and its contribution to the liberal education of students – the accumulation of broad knowledge, transferable skills, and a passion for learning. They assert that economics courses should help students develop their capacity to think critically, integrate insights from the full range of courses they have taken across the curriculum, explore "big think" questions, and account for moral and ethical dimensions of issues – the fundamental features of interdisciplinary learning.

However, most economics professors teach students "how to think like an economist," which in their view became narrow and highly technical over the course of the past few decades. They believe this is the case because the material economics professors teach and the manner in which they teach are heavily influenced by the nature of their research, which has become both inward looking (i.e., discipline specific) and grounded in high level mathematics and statistics. Fortunately, economic research that accounts for insights from other disciplines, while maintaining its technical status, has increased markedly in recent years, especially among younger scholar educators. This development has substantially increased opportunities for economics majors to learn how to approach issues in an interdisciplinary manner. In their view, as scholarship in economics that draws on ideas from related disciplines becomes commonplace more economics educators will teach in an interdisciplinary fashion.

Economic Research is Now More Interdisciplinary

A number of economic research studies are now drawing on insights from other disciplines to inform their efforts to understand a wide range of questions. This development suggests that in the research sphere, economists believe the gains of interdisciplinary evaluation are greater than the costs. A number of examples will serve to illuminate the breadth of interdisciplinary research that economists are engaged in, and serve as a signal that economics instruction benefits from the integration of ideas from other disciplines, and the gains likely supersede the costs.
  • Biology, Sociology, and Economics
    • Bedhard and Dhuey (2006) use insights from biology and sociology in their work asking at what age should a child start kindergarten
      • Their work could be discussed in a course on labor economics when the link between family wealth and schooling is discussed or in courses on poverty, income distribution, or social problems when discussing factors leading to greater income inequality over time.

        Bedhard and Dhuey's (2006) work on the link between school performance and the age a child starts kindergarten is motivated by a dramatic rise in "red shirting" the practice of holding a child back so they can start school a year after they ordinarily would. They note that a continuum of ages exists at school entry due to the use of a single school cutoff date - making the "oldest" children approximately 20 percent older than the "youngest" children. Drawing on ideas from biology and cognitive science they expect older children to outperform their classmates due to superior maturity and learning skills. They find the youngest members of each cohort score 4–12 percentiles lower than the oldest members in grade four and 2–9 percentiles lower in grade eight.
  • Psychology and Economics
    • Akerlof (1982) draws on ideas from psychology and sociology in a study that asks how a firm can motivate employees to work hard and reject shirking
      • This paper would be illuminating as part of the section in a labor economics class dedicated to understanding ways to reduce worker shirking.

        Akerlof notes that workers may enjoy shirking workplace responsibilities more than working, especially if it is hard to detect if they are not putting forth a good effort. This leads employers to hire costly managers to oversee workers. Using insights from psychology and sociology, he posits that if employees receive a "gift" from their employer – a higher wage than they expected to earn given their attributes (i.e., an efficiency wage) – they will feel compelled to offer a "gift-in-return," strong effort. This paper explores the conditions under which it is profit maximizing to offer employees an efficiency wage.

  • Neuroscience and Economics
    • Berns, Laibson, and Loewenstein (2007) draw on neuroscience scholarship to examine how people make decisions about outcomes today - such as marriage, enrolling in school, saving - and alternative outcomes at a future date.
      • A fundamental topic in courses on Finance concerns why some people are savers and others are so myopic. An examination of this work would offer some insights and likely stimulate interesting discussion.

        Berns, Laibson, and Loewenstein (2007) note that people prefer rewards today relative to at a future date. Thus, they discount future rewards or value them less. New research in neuroscience reveals that alternative regions of the brain consider what to do when presented with options that have a time dimension - things like investment where the costs are in the present and the returns are in the future. Two regions of the brain - one of which is older - are involved in making the decision over what to do. The older region of the mind privileges emotional factors when facing a problem to solve while the newer region is guided by logic. However, the older region tends to dominate the younger region, which explains developments like low rates of household savings. They conclude that as a result of the manner in which the mind works, clear incentives are needed to encourage a delay in activities that the mind finds pleasurable such as saving and schooling.
  • Religion, Sociology, and Economics
    • Krueger, and Maleckova (2003) draw on ideas from the disciplines of religion and sociology to ascertain the factors that lead a person to become a terrorist and engage in a suicide bombing.
      • Economics and policy courses that address contemporary social issues as well as courses in international trade and development inevitably discuss factors that inhibit trade and economic well-being. A discussion of this paper would contribute to that dialogue.
        Krueger, and Maleckova (2003) note that there was an extensive increase in the number of suicide bombings in the Middle East during the decade of the 1990s. In order to understand this development, they integrate ideas from economics with insights from the disciplines of religion, politics, and sociology. They find that the decision to participate in hate crimes against Israel is largely independent of educational background. Poverty, strength of beliefs about unfair treatment, the importance of religion, and political autonomy appear to be the primary determinants of carrying out a fatal terrorist act.
  • Demography, Sociology, and Economics
    • Chiteji and Hamilton (2002) use insights from demographers and sociologists to explain why the racial gap in wealth exists and to challenge the longstanding belief that African American families are less thrifty than comparable white households.
      • Courses on the Economics of Race and on Income Inequality cover the causes and consequences of the racial wealth gap. This paper offers a neglected or ignored explanation - intrafamily financial relations and how they may differ across racial groups - that will enrich the classroom discussion
        Chiteji and Hamilton (2002) note that rates of saving are lower for black families than white families and that this plays a role in generating a racial gap in wealth holdings. Drawing on insights from demographers, they point out that cross-generational economic assistance, especially from children to their parents, is more common among African Americans than whites in the U.S. Moreover, they demonstrate that this form of lending accounts for much of the racial gap in savings. In addition, they provide evidence that when earnings are equivalent, there is no difference in saving rates or in the style of savings between white and black families.

    These examples offer a flavor of the types of questions economists are examining in an interdisciplinary manner and reveal that the notions integrated from other disciplines are leading to new insights that would have been undiscovered if a discipline specific approach was adopted.