Making economics fun for students and their teachers
There’s a scene in “The Princess Bride” that is a “fantastic example of how economics works,” Tom Duncan says.
It’s the repartee between Westley and Vizzini, who has captured Westley’s true love, Buttercup.
Westley has placed on the table two goblets of wine and tells Vizzini that one contains poison. “The battle of wits has begun,” Westley says as he challenges Vizzini to choose from which goblet to sip.
“This is economics game theory at its best,” said Duncan, explaining the concept to a group of secondary teachers attending the inaugural Economics Teachers Conference at Radford University in August.
“He [Vizzini] had to make a decision, and he had to coordinate that decision with what he thinks the other person [Westley] has already done,” Duncan explained. “So, what he has to figure out is that person has already tried to coordinate a decision with what he is trying to do.
“Now, you’ve got coordination problems and knowledge problems all in that same scene. It is fantastic, and it’s fun.”
Helping teachers make economics fun and interesting for middle and high school students is one reason Duncan, an economics assistant professor at Radford University, helped establish the two-day conference along with colleague Dan Farhart, also an assistant professor in the Department of Economics.
“One thing I can’t stress enough is economics should be fun,” Duncan said to those teachers gathered in Kyle Hall for the conference’s opening session. “Part of the fun of economics is in how we teach it.”
Melody Poe teaches economics and personal finance at Chilhowie High School and attended the conference because she “wanted to be better at teaching economics,” she said during a break between sessions. “I’m already excited. We’re going to start economics Monday, and I’m going to approach it from a completely different standpoint.”
The conference was offered free of charge to secondary school teachers who teach economics and personal finance in Southwest Virginia schools.
A few educators who teach topics other than economics and personal finance joined in the fun, such as Amber Owens, a world geography teacher at Ridgeview Middle School in Dickenson County. She said her school is in a rural location and she and her students often examine their surrounding economy.
“I came to the conference to learn ways to inspire my students to learn more about their economy and to better understand it,” Owens said.
Rory Willis teaches math – “mostly,” he said – at Montgomery Central and enrolled in the conference “for inspiration and more ideas to bring into the math class dealing with economics, personal finance and real-word issues.”
Duncan and Farhat designed the conference in a way to give educators an opportunity to meet with peers and explore key topics in economic theory that are essential for students to learn before they enter college.
Preparing her students for their post-high school education was one reason Melanie Lester chose to attend the conference.
“One of the main reasons I’m here is to learn more to make sure my students are ready to go to college and know what they need to know before they get there,” said Lester, who teaches economics, personal finance and accounting at Pulaski County High School.
Among the many topics covered were scarcity and opportunity costs, decision-making at the margin, economic growth and entrepreneurship, America’s economic history, and ethics in the market system.
Conference participants were eligible to receive credit for 10 contact hours, subject to approval by their respective school administrators.
Kristan Morrison teaches in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at Radford University, preparing students for their future careers as educators. She went to the conference “with the hopes of learning effective ways to approach teaching some of the economic concepts that underlie education policy issues, which are the focus in my foundations of education courses,” she said.
Morrison was seeking ideas to help students creatively engage with and deeply understand economic ideas, such as opportunity costs and economies of scale, she said.
“The conference leaders and fellow participants pointed me to a variety of excellent sources, such as videos, readings and group activities that I can incorporate into my classes at Radford,” Morrison said.