Gen Y Speaks: Teaching economics is a perpetual challenge, but seeing my students grow keeps me going
When I was younger, I had a complicated relationship with the learning of economics. The subject was new to me in junior college, and I initially found the content of the lectures quite overwhelming.
When I was younger, I had a complicated relationship with the learning of economics.
The subject was new to me in junior college, and I initially found the content of the lectures quite overwhelming.
Yet, I remained drawn to it.
I was fascinated by how the economic ideas I learnt in school had real-life applications. As a student, I felt a sense of accomplishment in being able to explain real world phenomena by applying the knowledge I had learnt in school.
My interest deepened when I chanced upon the book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, in the school library.
Admittedly, it was the title that caught my eye, which made me assume it was a mystery thriller novel.
I was not entirely wrong. The book was about the mysteries of human decisions and how economics could shed light on them.
I eventually did well in the subject at the A-Levels and went on to pursue it at the Singapore Management University.
Upon graduation, I had my heart set on teaching. I recall one of my favourite pastimes as a young child was to role play as a teacher.
I would don my mother’s dresses, carry her handbag, and pretend to “teach” whoever was patient enough to listen to me ramble about what I had learnt in school.
I had a wonderful English teacher in primary school, who I saw as a motherly figure who gave great advice.
I still recall her telling us to eat a hard-boiled egg daily as we were preparing for our Primary School Leaving Examination.
While I did not fully understand the reasons why, I remember pestering my parents to cook me hard-boiled eggs daily. As I grew older, I appreciated the health benefits of eggs, especially for an underweight child.
But more importantly, I realised the significance of the role that teachers play in the lives of their students, beyond academics.
My teachers were key in shaping my attitude, values and beliefs as an adult. I realised I wished to also influence young lives positively.
Being an economics teacher, therefore, seemed like a natural choice that married both my interests.
TEACHING DOES NOT EQUATE TO LEARNING
When I started as a teacher in 2012, my focus was on delivering content clearly so that my students could learn well.
However, I noticed that some of my students made repeated mistakes in their assignments, or seemed less motivated in the subject.
I thought hard about how I could help my students understand the concepts of the subject and to better motivate them.
The turning point for me came when I realised that teaching does not equate to learning.
I gained a deeper appreciation of the complexity of learning, which is affected by a multitude of factors, such as students’ motivation and feelings of self-efficacy.
These observations and reflections spurred me to continue to hone my pedagogical practices through various professional development opportunities.
With this renewed understanding of students and learning, I became more deliberate in the way I approached my lessons. I renewed a personal endeavour to make the learning of economics relatable for my students, and to ignite their joy of learning.
Light-hearted memes became a good way for me to introduce economic news to my students. Knowing their popularity among today’s youths, I’ve found that they served as low-hanging fruits for students to keep up with economic developments, which were discussed in greater detail during lessons.
The use of technology also features heavily in my students’ everyday lives, from entertainment to obtaining information and news, and is also why e-learning has taken on greater relevance.
I am not the most tech-savvy person, but with the support of like-minded colleagues who value and welcome innovation, we developed a flipped classroom and blended learning model to encourage independent learning.
The idea behind such a learning model is to place a smaller emphasis on lecture and direct instruction in the classroom.
Instead, students are expected to acquire basic content knowledge outside of the classroom, so that they can focus on developing higher-order thinking skills during class time.
For my colleagues and I, this involved creating an ambitious plan to rejig our lesson plans to seamlessly blend independent online learning at home with face-to-face lessons at school.
We had to produce recorded lessons and curate lesson materials for students to study the lesson content independently at home on the Education Ministry’s Student Learning Space portal.
When students attend lessons in school, they engage in tasks where we facilitate deeper learning of skills.
DOUBLING DOWN ON HOME-BASED LEARNING
But soon after, Covid-19 struck.
Teachers and students were thrown headfirst into home-based learning (HBL). This presented new challenges as I was not at all familiar with the use of video conferencing tools to conduct online synchronous lessons.
The thought of online teaching was daunting. It was funny how the first few online lessons were nerve-wracking even though I was conducting them from the comfort of my bedroom!
I wondered about the challenge of engaging my students and gauging their levels of engagement and attention online. How could I make their voices heard? How do I ensure that they are paying attention?
I was plagued with self-doubt about my ability to teach efficiently online.
With the help of my colleagues, I picked up the use of Nearpod, an online student engagement platform that allows me to create interactive presentations with gamified quizzes, polls and collaborative boards.
In spite of my doubts in being able to conduct HBL, my students embraced it in a surprisingly positive way.
I had a quiet and shy student who always responded with “I don’t know” whenever she was asked questions in class.
So I was pleasantly surprised when she participated actively in lesson activities through Nearpod.
Her “voice” came through clearly, making her thinking visible to me and giving me valuable insights into her misconceptions.
It warmed my heart when the student shared with me that it motivated her to contribute in class.
When we returned to the physical classroom, I continued to make use of Nearpod and other such tools to encourage student participation in my classes.
Even if some students may be shy about speaking up in class, the use of technology has given me greater assurance that my students are engaged.
While I still encounter challenges in motivating my students in the learning of economics, I simply tell myself to enjoy the ride.
What keeps me going are the heartening moments that emerge spontaneously in class when I least expect it.
During a lesson on inflation, when I asked the class to share how the higher prices had affected their lives, a student said that the price of “cai fan” (Mandarin for economy rice) from the hawker centre opposite our school had gone up.
It cost S$4.70 for rice with eggs, chicken and vegetables, which was significantly higher than a few months ago!
This phenomena sparked a lively discussion in the classroom on the reasons why. Some students cited the higher egg and chicken prices, caused by rising chicken feed prices and Malaysia’s chicken exports ban.
I was also glad to hear some students expressing concern about how the elderly residents would cope with the rising prices. This was met with enthusiastic responses about how they could use Community Development Council vouchers to defray the costs.
Through this discussion, the students demonstrated the ability to apply economic theories to explain real-life events, an awareness of economic news, and most importantly, empathy for others.
To me, teaching economics goes beyond the teaching of economic concepts.
Fundamentally, there is the constant endeavour of guiding my students to learn sound values and develop positive learning dispositions through their journey.
As educators, we play an important role in inspiring hope and igniting a sense of curiosity and wonder in our students. Only then, can life-long learning truly take place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zeng Wenjie is a senior teacher in economics at Temasek Junior College and the recipient of the Economic Society of Singapore’s Outstanding Economics Teacher Award 2022.