Serve fewer courses to nourish more; let the diners in the kitchen and give them aprons.

Bob Frank exhibits the factor most highly correlated with student evaluations of teaching, which is manifest enthusiasm for his subject matter. Like many of us, especially those of us who teach and preach more technical content, he’s perplexed by the failure of so many students (and, I bet, cocktail party interlocutors) to see how great this stuff is or to retain much of it. Like few of us, he’s taken this failure as a challenge to his teaching of introductory economics and thought seriously about how it could be done better.

Modern psychology has boiled down being really smart to a couple of core traits. One is knowing a lot about a lot of different things; the other is being wired up so these different things jump out of their usual cognitive boxes and connect in unusual ways. Frank is smart in this way, so his exploration connected his experience with learning languages and his general education knowledge of why male and female albatrosses look alike while bull and cow seals don’t.

The result is three very solid insights, consistent with a lot of what others are discovering about how people learn. The first is the difference between (i) recall and repetition of a recipe, formula or fact on cue and (ii) really knowing something. The second is the principle articulated by Bob Behn thus: “If you’re teaching someone to use a computer, you should never touch the computer.” The third is the difference between the few important basic principles that experts use all the time without realizing it, and the many abstruse and frontier-pushing results they get with them. Put these together and you get a teaching model with:

1. A few big ideas, looked at from many directions and dressed up (but not hidden) in many guises.

2. Students getting their hands dirty using these ideas to solve problems they know they have (this is always better than letting the ideas look like new problems they didn’t want).

3. Displacement of the concept of being right by the concept of being useful (Nelson Goodman explains this in Ways of Worldmaking).

The central exercise of such a course is to assign the students the role of naturalist (this is where the birds and seals come in): Find a situation that surprises you, that you can understand better (or even explain completely) using the core concepts of economics. Your explanation doesn’t have to be complete, or even right, but it has to be interesting and reasonable. Five hundred words, once in the middle of the semester and again at the end.

I have generalized his exercise this spring in my introduction to public policy course to a “policy naturalist” assignment with excellent results (though I’m not sure I did such a good job of distilling the course down to fewer big ideas and less showoffy arcana), and I intend to do the same next fall in an introductory probability and statistics course. This model really has legs.

The result of Bob’s experiment is, obviously, a drawer full of these exercises, which he has assembled into a book that presents both the core ideas we need to concentrate on and a batch of “naturalist” exercises, from his students and from real live professional economists. It’s called, of course, The Economic Naturalist, ISBN 046500217X, and if you’re not putting on your coat to repair immediately to your local physical bookstore, or mousing over to your favorite online merchant to buy it, you are reading the wrong blog.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.