What do security guards and empty hotel rooms have to do with the economy? How can economic principles help in decision making? The schoolbag is talking to Mr. Kevin Tan and Mr. Simon Kweck, winners of the 2021 Outstanding Economics Teacher Award, to learn how they help their students “see the economy” in everyday life, and their tips for novice economists.
From comments about the tour bus to empty hotel rooms, spectacles and sounds around us can evoke the training of student economists Mr. Kevin Tan, a developer of school staff at Juno College. In Mr. Simon Kweck’s class, the usual items come to class, such as pocket money and coins. The head of the Raffles Institution’s economics department uses them when explaining concepts such as balance of payments and official foreign reserves.
Mr. Tang and Mr. Kwek, winners of the 2021 Outstanding Teacher of Economics Award, make economic principles relevant – even necessary – for their students in everyday life. Let’s learn more about how they empower their students and what inspires their craft.
Mr. Tang encourages his students to observe the environment – with the hashtag #whereistheecons running in their heads.
1) Mr. Tang, could you describe your experience of teaching economics in 3 words?
Growth, excitement and dynamism. My growth as a teacher has been facilitated by the ability to often relate concepts learned in economics to real-world examples and deeper discussions with students where we challenge each other’s assumptions; excitement when I watch students point out logical errors or give counterexamples, assuring me that certain concepts were in their minds; and dynamism to innovate and adapt your learning and lessons to new requirements. For example, during a pandemic, when students had to sit farther apart and were restless, I made them walk around the school and take pictures of the economy in action. They enjoyed the experience!
2) What is the situation like when they saw the economy going on around them?
When our school was on Mount Sinai Road, I showed my students that if they left the school gate, they would find rental apartments to their left and plots of land to their right. Why is this happening in such a small area? This simple question provoked a rich discussion, and what may have been just a concept studied in the economics program came to life for the students. They could observe and consider the causes and consequences of income inequality, making the study of economics even more significant.
In one of his extracurricular lessons during the pandemic, Mr. Tang (left) led his students to discuss how unused taxis could be a sign of market distortions and competition in the transportation sector.
4) Tell more about the chat group for your students.
To encourage shy students to ask questions, I started a WhatsApp group chat for them. I also started the hashtag #whereistheecons. Whenever I come across a video or picture related to a hashtag, I post it in a chat with a tag. And students were also inspired to discuss the application of economics in their daily lives. For example, students wrote about their observations during power outages, such as dark, empty hotel rooms, and commented on how the tourism sector has affected aggregate demand and adverse effects on Singapore’s economy.
5) What is your favorite advice to them?
“It’s all about the cost of opportunity.”
If you make a choice in your life, whether it is a personal decision, a business decision or if you are trying to understand government policy, you should always understand that free lunch does not happen. Every decision you make is costly. I hope this is one piece of advice that my students will take from studying economics.
6) What do you think about the practice of economics as a career?
At the heart of the economy is how people can improve their lives. For those looking to do economics, identify what you want to improve in the world, and apply an economic lens to the issue. However, this is not enough. You need to understand the problem from different perspectives. For example, inequality needs to be seen in terms of low-, middle- and high-income families, as well as in terms of power. To be an effective economist, you need to be able to base your theories on past experience.
Students can connect to this experience through volunteering or opportunities offered by their schools, which include liaison with outside agencies and internships. With this skill and knowledge, I hope that some, if not all, of my students will be able to change the lives of others, on a personal level or at the level of politics.
Thank you, Mr. Tang, for sharing your thoughts with school early. Next, we’ll meet our second winner of the 2021 Outstanding Economics Teacher Award, Mr. Simon Kweck of the Raffles Institute, about how he knows when his lessons are appropriate for students.
Mr. Kweck seeks to help students interpret real events through a critical economic prism.
1) Hi, Mr. Kweck, could you describe your experience of teaching economics in three words?
Stimulating because there are many connections between what we teach (our program, theories, economic base) and what we observe around us; satisfies when students experience a eureka moment, in terms of understanding a theory or being able to explain an event using what they have just learned; enrich because I am constantly gaining and applying new knowledge and perspectives in current affairs.
2) You teach A-Level economics for 10 years. How do you know if a lesson went well?
If it is dynamic. Here I create a scene and options for discussion, and where students actively contribute their ideas. I act as a facilitator, asking questions and encouraging them to develop their ideas and thus sharpen their thinking. I find it especially nice when students can critique each other’s ideas and analysis, and I contribute by bringing it all together and choosing key conclusions. Seeing how my students collectively work out the answer is very helpful.
Mr. Kweku enjoys the role of facilitator and encourages his students to collectively rely on each other’s answers.
3) Name one concept that your students tend to misunderstand.
Students tend to confuse the official reserves account in the balance of payments with the amount of the country’s official foreign reserves. The official reserves account actually reports a change in official reserves, but not the level of official foreign reserves. The analogy I use compares official foreign reserves with the money the country has kept in storage. The official reserve account in the balance of payments is similar to an accountant who guards the entrance to the vault and keeps track of all the money that enters or leaves the vault during the year, and yet it is never allowed into the vault. This is why he can accurately report the amount of money that has gone into or out of the vault, but not the amount of money that is in the vault.
4) What challenges do your students face?
I believe there is an unhealthy obsession with model answers. This is not the end point of teaching economics, and economics is also not evaluated that way. As long as students can analyze and discuss an issue based on sound economic concepts, credit will be properly given. Thus, this obsession with “answers” is very stifling. This actually prevents students from thinking independently and critically when the best answer is a conceptually sound answer that they can come up with themselves.
5) If you are not fond of model answers, do you see how they apply their lessons to modern problems?
The advantage of the A-Level Economics curriculum and assessment format is that it is very up-to-date in terms of real economic problems, and all questions are asked in a real context. In the Case Study component, students read articles on recent economic issues. In the future, economics may even help them to critically evaluate economic policy, study the pros and cons, and understand that an ideal economic policy does not exist; there will always be compromises. In this way, they can better participate in the democratic process.
6) What real trends have interested you lately?
Inflation that is beginning to occur in developed economies. Such inflationary pressures may signal the beginning of a long-term inflationary trend in the world economy.
Another challenge that has come to the fore in large economies is inclusive and sustainable growth – how the economy can develop in a way that benefits everyone in the economy. This is in response to rising income inequality caused by the capitalist system.
7) Finally, any tips for novice economists?
“Know your theories and economic models, but never trust them completely.”
Economic theories and models are largely a simplification of what is happening in the world, and are useful for explaining certain phenomena under a very specific set of assumptions and conditions. However, what contributed to, say, the 2009 financial crisis may be very different from the next financial crisis. So, if we are going to apply the same theories or models that were used to explain the previous phenomenon, and trust them completely, it may not be good. We need to be very critical of the assumptions made in economic models, be adaptive and compare theoretical analysis with what is happening in the real world.
Do you know an inspiring economics teacher or someone who uses creative techniques to make economics fun and exciting? Apply to your school to nominate him or her for the Outstanding Economics Teacher Award.