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Understanding & experience

June 15, 2018


IF you find that two grocery stores, reasonably closely located, are charging different prices for the same good, and you have had even a few classes in introductory economics, you should immediately become curious as to the reason for this differential. Violations of the ‘law’ of one price, same price for the same goods, should raise the curiosity of economics/social science students.

I find few students are able to connect what they read in their courses and what they experience every day around them. This limits their understanding of the material they read, limits their learning and limits their ability to use their learning as a stepping stone for deepening their learning and understanding in a dynamic sense.

When I ask students to define something, most are able to, if they remember the concept, spill out the definition as they had learnt it. When I ask them to give examples — from their experience and not from the textbook — of the concept in action, most falter. But this is a big issue. If social sciences are not able to equip you to understand the world around you, you are not learning anything and your ‘knowledge’ will just be a collection of rote learnt definitions, concepts and methods that will stay as long as your memory works and then, with time, slowly fade away.

Even a week or two after the end of the semester when I ask students to recall what key concepts they had learnt or which authors they had read, many cannot remember details. A year or so later most students do not even remember some of the key concepts.

If you are not using your learning to make sense of the world around you, you are not learning.

If you are not internalising what you are reading, if your reading and learning is not shaping and changing your worldview, and you are not using your learning to make sense of the world around you, you are not learning. This is true for almost all academic disciplines but it is especially true for the social sciences.

When you go to buy cloth for shalwar kameez and the retailer tells you that you have to buy a three-piece set of shalwar kameez and dupatta and you do not think of bundling and what the retailer is trying to do, you are not using the concept of price elasticity, taught in every introductory microeconomics course, very well.

When schools insist that your child has to buy her uniform, books and stationery from the school and not from any shop, you should be able to see parallels and differences with the shalwar kameez example quite clearly.

When you see a bottle of water that you get for Rs60 from a store priced at Rs250 at a restaurant and you do not think of similarities and differences with the school example above, there is a problem.

I could go on at length, but the examples here should be enough to support the more general point I am trying to make: book and class learning has to connect to the world you live in. It has to shape how you look at the world, and it has to impact the categories and concepts that you use to make sense of your world. If they do not, you are not learning, you are not getting knowledge, and you are not growing.

The problem here is not just for the students and from the students’ side, it is from and for the teachers too. Most of the teachers in the system, both school and university level, have gone through learning in more or less the same way as their students are doing today. They too, when teaching, are not able to connect the learning they are trying to impart to their students to the world around them. This is definitely a big problem.

I have had the privilege and honour of being taught by some great teachers. But, I have also had teachers who just did not know their subject and/or did not know how to teach. They relied on notes they had made many years ago: in some cases the paper on which they had made their notes had become yellow and turned quite brittle with age. They did not make the subject come alive by giving relevant examples, did not encourage questioning and/or class-discussions and did not make the effort to provide frameworks that would facilitate development of cross-concept and cross-reading connections.

Given that the majority of the teachers in the system have content knowledge and/or pedagogy issues, students have to take on a greater burden of ensuring they are able to get more out of their education than they currently are. They have to put in the extra effort to try and connect what they are learning with what goes on around them.

If you have come through the schooling and university system that has been rewarding rote learning and the regurgitation of facts and you continue to have teachers who encourage that behaviour, it will be hard to break the habit. But it is important to do so. You will need to consciously redesign how you learn. You will need to explicitly connect your learning to examples, try to come up with some of your own, and use your learning explicitly to interpret the world around you. As you get more adept at doing all this, the older habits will get weaker. But the effort to challenge the older way of learning, using rote, will need to be persistently practised before older habits will start weakening. This is not an easy task to do nor is it a quick one. However, given where most of us are coming from, it is important to consciously reflect on our learning process and to try to improve it.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2018