Analyze This!

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Some Thoughts on Flipping Classrooms & Economic Lesson Plans

For a teaching class that I am taking this summer,  Advanced Trends in Educational Theory, I was given an assignment to critically analyze three distinct lessons–with a particular eye on the teaching concepts that animated them–and then produce a sample model lesson using a current trend. (There were a few more requirements but you get the gist). I have chosen to explore the teaching of the economic concept, Price Elasticity of Demand, which I think many students find difficult.  I also wanted to explore the relatively new teaching technique of the “flipped classroom”, where students watch lessons at home and then complete exercises (traditional homework) or activities in the classroom. (I strongly recommend clicking the link for a much better explanation  I believe that there is much potential in this technique, particularly for economics/math/sciences where there are fantastic online resources that explain concepts far better than many of us teachers can do in the classroom.

Process

Although at the moment I am predominately teaching ESL courses—as well as an American History and Culture course—I chose to focus on one of the subjects that I intend to teach in the future, Economics. I have a strong background with a B.S. in Economics, but very little experience teaching it- Furthermore, I have some trepidation as I recall my economics courses as being utterly dry and boring.  Being an intuitive thinker with some ability in math, I was able to grasp the material fairly well, but most of my peers found it incredibly boring and hard to follow.[1]

For my individual lesson plan to analyze I chose the concept of Elasticity of Demand.  I chose Elasticity because when I googled “most difficult economics topic to teach” this was the most common resultElasticity of Demand measures changes in the quantity demanded when prices change.  A good is considered inelastic if a price raise does not affect demand very much (for example gasoline—we all need it and it is not substitutable).   A good is considered elastic if demand changes dramatically as the price changes (non-essential easily substitutable luxury items like restaurant meals are the most common examples).  The basic concept is relatively simple to understand, but as examples grow more complex it is very easy to grow confused, and the mathematics behind it can often seem a little confusing.

Next I searched out lesson plans. This process took me quite a bit more time than I expected as the majority of my search hits tended to be video lecture lessons, and I wanted a variety of different lesson plans for my analysis.  Eventually, I found two different lesson plans with activities that along with a representative video lesson I chose gave me three distinct models to examine.

Three Lessons Analyzed:

Episode 16: Elasticity of Demand by Dr. Mary J. McGlasson

  • A video lecture lesson with diverse examples, illustrations, and some key questions

Price Elasticity: From Tires to Toothpicks by Cheryl McGaughey

  • A high-school lesson with interactive activity produced by EconEdLink

Elasticity of Demand: Background, Activities, and Critical Analysis by Greg Timmons

  • Produced by NPR’s Frontline, this is a much more complex lesson that covers several different ideas through an investigative journalism report and then accompanying worksheets.

 

 The Analyses

A. Episode 16: Elasticity of Demand by Dr. Mary J. McGlasson

For my first example I used a two-part video lesson produced by Dr. McGlasson for her micro-economics classes, these classes are taught for Community College, but applies equally well for advanced high school. This is a traditional economics lecture with examples and graphs delivered with powerpoint. This is how generations of students have learned economics, now aided by powerpoint.  However technological augmentation has not been completely successful, in fact some research has even demonstrated that the introduction of powerpoint actually decreased student learning in Economics (Sosin et al 2004; via Watts, 2012). Additionally there is some evidence that graphs themselves are not overly helpful in learning more economics (Cohn et al. 2001; again via Watts, 2012).

Overall, I thought this was a great lecture, if somewhat limited. Her explanative narrative was very well designed with well-chosen anecdotes and examples. It was interesting, fun to watch, and at times even funny. Some examples came from everyday life, and some from pertinent issues of the day that might relate to students well (e.g. teen cigarette smoking), so an attempt is made at student centered learning.  However, I felt the lesson–like all lecture formats–suffered from a lack of student feedback. I could easily imagine students tuning out and then download the videos the night before the test to cram.  Quickly forgetting the math the following day. Personally, I am inclined to believe that the reason why the introduction of powerpoints reduced student learning is that in my experience (I came of age during the transition to powerpoints) many students stopped taking notes when they find out that the powerpoint lectures are online and available the night before the final.

Elasticity of Demand Definition & Intro. Begins with an anecdote of a small business asking a question

I found that diagraming her narrative gave me some insight into her technique (the orange and yellow boxes are questions, note how she spaces them somewhat regularly throughout her presentation to keep students thinking).  Dr. McGlasson employed a version of inquiry based learning begging with basic queries and then moving on to explanations.  She asked lots questions, but did not give students a chance to answer (probably an impossibility considering the technology).  She also posed many critical thinking questions, asking students what they know about the particular example or if the answer seemed reasonable or not.  She also employed predictive questioning techniques asking students what they think the outcome might be under different circumstances. 

Poking through rate my professor.com, I find that Dr. McGlasson is fairly well regarded among her students with most giving her good marks. Many laud her use of technology and explanation abilities. However, a significant number of students claimed that she was too easy in class but then her tests were too hard.  But many expressed admiration for her dedication. One student even said that: “she spoke to them as 5 year olds–which is not always a bad thing” Overall, I liked this lesson, and feel that it can be very effective but it still leaves much to be desired as a teaching method.

 

B. Price Elasticity: From Tires to Toothpicks

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This attractively laid out computer based lesson is targeted for high school students. The student lesson begins with a relatable anecdote about pizza and then moves on to a moderately difficult explanation about what price elasticity is. The explanation starts with good questions designed to get the students thinking (e.g. “if gas prices increase do you still buy gas?”) and also attempts to activate prior economic knowledge. It then moves quickly to graphs illustrating the concept without any explanation of the math or how it works. Next it explains the conditions that determine whether goods are elastic or inelastic with examples.  Then students move on to an “interactive” activity that compare gasoline with restaurant meals by completing a checklist(e.g. “is there a substitute available”) worksheet.  Students are then to print their results and give them to the teacher.

I thought the idea of using a checklist was a potentially good one, but felt it would be better if students were able to generate the checklist themselves or through an interactive questioning session. There was some room for student input in answering questions about why products where elastic or inelastic. Finally, the assessment activity had students look up various goods in a table that labeled various goods elastic or inelastic and then answer questions as to why the goods where elastic or inelastic. These were good questions that I could see much merit too, but overall I felt the lesson to be overly didactic.

The assessment section required students to do Internet research and then search out the elasticity of demand of certain items. I like this type of inquiry based approach and it teaches students how to search out information. The website students were sent to also had additional information about Elasticity of Demand, including the history of the idea (Marshal, 1894). I would like that it teaches students to look at the values of Elasticity of Demand and then work backwards to determine if the good is elastic or not, but without explaining the math I am not sure how valuable this skill really is. This lesson doesn’t exactly lend itself to lots of differentiation options.  It can be used to teach students at different levels, particularly as the more complex math is buried in the end as an extension activity, nor does it have a lot in the way of graphic explanations save the basic explanatory graphs and a few pictures of discussed goods.

The goal of this lesson is stated clearly that students will “gain an understanding of price elasticity of demand and why different goods have different degrees of elasticity. Students learn how to calculate price elasticity of goods.” However, I don’t believe that this lesson really teaches the final point at all, the math behind the number is largely buried as an extension, and there were few exercises to practice it. Still, the exercise was not without total merit as students practice some good skills and would learn the basic concepts. If it were coupled with another exercises–ideally a group project-based exercise-or and some math/graphing exercises then maybe it would be fine.

 

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(click the picture to take you to the video)

C. Elasticity of Demand: Background, Activities, and Critical Analysis  

For my final lesson plan I looked at a lesson produced by the excellent PBS investigative journalism show Newshour. This 3-day lesson was by far my favorite, but perhaps that is because I am biased towards interesting multi-layered journalism that illustrates the full complexity of these concepts. However, the complex lesson also incorporated multiple popular trends in teaching, including group work, inquiry-based learning, multiple integrated subjects, a cool student centered learning project, and a lot of critical thinking–must of student generated.  It did not, however, have much math.

To begin students should be divided into groups of 3 and then the initial handouts distributed. The handouts contain questions about the economic terms and concepts that will come up in the subsequent news story. The teacher should review the concepts with the class before the video begins, and make sure that the students clearly understand them.  There are a fair number of concepts, from weak dollar to niche market to elasticity of demand, this could not be an introductory exercise but rather one that happens after the students have a basic grounding in economics.  While watching the story, individuals are to fill out the worksheets. Then after the story is complete the groups are to discuss their answers.  Presumably the whole class would then come together for summing up.

Day 2 is where the fun part comes in, where the groups (or new ones as the teacher/class prefers) are given a new worksheet that explains a project. First the groups review what they learned about the economic concepts from the previous class. Then the groups are given the scenario that they are each a marketing design team that has been asked to figure out what products to market to other students during an economic downturn. They have to do marketing research to determine what products to market and then create an advertisement–for any medium–for them.

For a high school project I thought this was a much superior lesson plan than any other that I encountered in my research. It’s not only interesting and multi-leveled but it also has a very effective design.  For example the group work plan has individuals first complete worksheets and then discuss together helps ensure that every individual has something to contribute and also helps to mitigate the free-rider problem that can sometimes bedevil group projects. Then the next group has to not only research and identify products that would sell in a recession (inelastic ones), but also create and market a product.  This opens the learning possibilities up for all students. Those whom are good at math can research product elasticities and then crunch numbers, those who have a more artistic bent can draw the advertisements. Students of every level can participate and different assessment projects can be created.

Overall I think this is a fantastic multimedia lesson plan, ripe with fun possibilities, and utilizing most of the more effective teaching techniques. However, I can see one potential negative to this project, unmotivated students. The key to the success of such a complicated lesson plan would be ensuring that students are motivated and then I believe it would be a blast.

 

The Flipped Classroom & My Thoughts on an Ideal Elasticity of Demand Lesson Plan

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(From Knowton.com, I recommend checking the whole graphic out, I only clipped a portion of it and it is full of great information)

My approach to teaching Elasticity of demand would depend on the level of students and the resources available, for this assignment I am going to assume that I am teaching Grade 11/12 students who have access to technology at home.  In my opinion this level of students should be able to not only understand the concept but also be able to perform the mathematical analyses. Due to the difficulty getting the concept of Elasticity of Demand to stick,  I believe that additional time and extra activities are necessary to really get it to gel. Therefore, I advocate using a variety of approaches and activities to help students truly master the concept.

Perhaps because I am a little bit of a traditionalist, but I really like the idea of using a great narrative to introduce the concept, as Dr. McGlasson’s example shows, there are lots of great economics explanatory videos out there, and many of them also include good explanations of the mathematics   Today there is a new technology education trend in the math’s and sciences known as the “flipped classroom” or “reverse instruction,” this consists of sending students home to watch lesson plans then using class time to work on problems or activities.

There are many potential benefits to this approach:

  • More interesting assignments or fun projects would can increase students interest in the subject
  • Group work which encourages the development of social skills
  • Many video explanations are far more professional and engaging than anything a regular teacher can do.  Therefore we can use the best ones.
  • Students are exposed to different explanatory approaches beyond just their normal teacher’s. A variety of explanatory approaches will give students the best opportunity to learn.

In my ideal conception of a Elasticity of Demand lesson plan I would do a hybrid lesson plan using the Flipped Classroom to maximize student’s time. First I would assign students an introductory video (ala Dr. McGlasson). This would be a 10-15 minute assignment at home, with my only homework being to come to school with their own examples of elastic and inelastic goods with their reasons as to why those goods are elastic or inelastic. The next day I would  begin by going over their examples and then we would do some basic math exercises. Then I would move on to some sort of multi-media integrated subject group project activity like the Newshour lesson plan.  In fact, I would probably even use the Newshour lesson plan and then complete the week with the exercise expanding it, or limiting it as time allowed/required.  I would give students more difficult math exercises as extra credit homework.

In the following weeks I would conduct a follow up exercise and also schedule a test to review the concept.  Testing has been shown to be much more efficient then other methods in helping students cement learning and I believe it should be used for not only assessment but also as a learning tool. Truthfully, in my heart of hearts I believe that fun group projects are probably the best way to learn something for life.  But a balanced approach has been show to be the best approach, and therefore that is what I intend to do.

Anyway, that’s a wrap.  I apologize that this turned into such a long post, but it’s an important topic, “how to teach difficult concepts” and I wanted to try and give it my best effort.  If you read this far, than I definitely want to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

 


[1] I suspect that this is the common experience throughout the world as most people’s eyes tend to glaze over whenever they encounter an economic discussion.  This is a tragedy as basic economics is not a particularly complicated field, but central to how our society runs.

[2] I would like to thank my peer, Soja Miljkovic for help thinking about this graphic.

[3] I will not wade into current argument of whether the highest achievement in learning (a la Bloom’s taxonomy)  is evaluation or creation.

[4] I suppose that if I feel that strongly then it should be linked to everything, but then these are hard diagrams to draw

 

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