Decolonising economics teaching, Part 2: Some thoughts on pedagogy

Ariane Agunsoye, Michelle Groenewald, and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven[1]

Decolonizing economics teaching is not simply about changing our reading lists, but also centrally about shifting the ways that we are teaching. We are therefore publishing two blog posts simultaneously on each of these pillars – the curriculum and pedagogy – given that we see them as fundamentally intertwined. As was discussed in part 1 of this blog post, in terms of decolonising the curriculum, there is no ‘one way’ to do this, but we find it to be a good starting point to ask ourselves a series of questions.

How do we teach? Decolonizing pedagogical practises

Some questions we might ask ourselves in terms of how we teach are: In our classrooms, are we implicitly adhering to the notion of the ‘superiority of economists’, meaning economists trying to distinguish themselves from other social sciences through their allegedly more ‘rigorous’ methods, and with it, more confidence in the ability of economics to ‘fix’ the world’s problems? Do we see our students as partners who we recognise as being able to teach us and their fellow peers concepts based on their lived experiences and on their expertise? Do we encourage critical thinking? Who are we inviting to lecture in the classroom as guest speakers? Might we invite informal traders themselves to share their experiences, along with setting a journal article that is trying to measure the size of the informal sector?

A starting point could be to avoid using one textbook to tackle key issues, but develop knowledges as discussed by Ndlovu-Gatsheni. In encouraging knowledges, we may need to be explicit in encouraging a wide variety of sources to be used as ways to acquire an understanding about the economy, going beyond books and articles, to also exploring blogs, videos, podcasts, tweets, and students’ own conversations in their households. This may be particularly fruitful at the undergraduate level to show that how we come to know and what is viewed as legitimate sources of knowledge are wide and varied.

A fruitful way of decolonising pedagogy could also be to encourage students to become active co-creators in their journey of learning by leaving space in curricula for students to shape it. This might take a staggered approach for greater collaboration depending on the year group, but a starting point might be for students to choose a topic they are interested in and explore it further based on their economic realities. There could also be a week devoted to a student chosen topic or a group project could be set where students are responsible for collecting, synthesising and using their lived experiences to contextualise the content. Another possible avenue to include students as co-creators, is to involve them as partners in reviewing existing courses and modules to identify where changes could fruitfully be made, as well as partners in wider curriculum development processes.

It is far too easy to forget that students play an integral role in the decolonising process. It would be doing them a disservice to not value students as essential  to this process. Importantly, while students can be partners, we should also be aware of the difficulties that come along with this and seek to encourage open dialogue about some of the burdens student activists face as they challenge the university as an institution.

How do we assess and why?

How can we ensure that students are given more opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills and the confidence to share a well-informed opinion? Beyond even that, what options are there for students who may not test well in the written form? Whilst we certainly think that it is important to develop clear and coherent writing skills, is it not equally important that we encourage students to develop their verbal and social skills too? Are we encouraging students to see their peers as real collaborators, through group work that allows them to interrogate the idea of all lecturers being the “source” of knowledge? These questions are especially important when we think about how crucial it is for economists to be able to better communicate complex economic concepts in a compelling and honest way to the general public.

Methodological diversity in assessments can also be achieved by employing non-standard teaching methods such as asking students to conduct small research projects where they investigate a current issue with the help of an economic theoretical viewpoint and empirical data, including primary qualitative data, and presenting policy recommendations. This has often led students to recognise limitations of existing dominant economic theories and explore alternative theoretical viewpoints. Moreover, they work together throughout the whole module and learn how to engage in teams. Almost every economics student will encounter econometrics as a course throughout their degree. This places a heavy focus on quantitative methods, and we think that within a decolonised curriculum, while it is important for students to have strong quantitative skills, students should also be exposed to methodological diversity. To allow students the freedom to be able to ask broader research questions, they need to be taught and to practice these qualitative methods, something that is often sorely lacking in our curricula.

Finally, we might push ourselves and our students to engage with their communities or social movements outside of the confines of the university classroom. Might our students guide us on how they would want to engage with their communities (where students decide what form that community takes), and have students choose an economic topic to teach on, that they think is relevant for their communities, and in turn make use of reflection feedback to discuss what they learnt in turn from their communities on the topic they chose? While the lecturer can guide the students in terms of making sense of how curriculum content can be relevant for communities students find themselves in, as well as relevant social movements, there is potentially also a lot to learn for lecturers that may not be knowledgeable of all the different kinds of social groups that different student groups are a part of.

With such tasks, we can also recognise that our students are likely to be interested in topics far beyond the scope of what we can teach them in a single course, or for that matter in a single undergraduate degree. Indeed, some of us have trialled these different approaches with our students and gotten positive feedback. They report feeling empowered to seek knowledge on topics they have been interested in, but didn’t think were possible to link with their perceptions of what counted as ‘real economics’. Moreover, they discuss how valuable it is to be encouraged to have their own opinion on the work of scholars they would previously have seen as impossible to critique. They also explain the importance of using reflection over an extended period of time to construct and create their own ideas about a topic, instead of only memorising work out of a textbook.

Who does the teaching?

When we are in positions to do so, how can we ensure that women, ethnic minorities, scholars from the Global South and people who have been previously disadvantaged are given opportunities within academia? How do we ensure that those positions are not exploitative and offer a real chance at success? Related to this, are we willing to acknowledge our own privileges and our own biases, so that we can question how this might reflect in our teaching?

So too, we might link this to our own research. How does research influence our teaching? When we are conducting our own research, do we push ourselves to read outside of the established canon? Are we integrating research with an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary approach? Do we search for answers in other disciplines and let those guide us in our teaching?

Decolonising economics curricula and pedagogy will be challenging due to the insular nature of the discipline. Haldane (2018) used the work of Van Noorden (2015) to show that economics is incredibly insular, ranking lower even than mathematics (using citations to other disciplines and citations from other disciplines). This type of insularity shows that those shaping economics curricula will probably be quite recalcitrant towards incorporating contributions from what might be, more narrowly defined, as sociological or political. As we seek to critically engage with ideas around supposed ‘universality’ and ‘neutrality’, question hierarchies and power structures, grapple with imperialism and eurocentrism, and incorporate more diverse authors and content in our curricula, we may find ourselves having to defend against those who would claim that a decolonised curriculum doesn’t teach ‘real economics’. Ultimately, we argue that economists should be excited by this process. This is an opportunity for change, for innovation, for discovery, for transformation. There are certainly challenges to decolonisation, enormous challenges and particularly in the field of economics. But given the importance of decolonising economics teaching to empower future cohorts of economists to challenge the alleged neutrality of colonial hierarchies and economic injustices, this is a challenge we as students and lecturers must collectively rise to as a part of the broader effort towards decolonising economics.

Positionality statement

Who we are and how we are brought up and trained matters for how we see the world. To be open about our own backgrounds, biases, and potential blind spots, we include a joint, yet differentiated, positionality statement. We invite all blog post contributors to consider doing the same, although we recognize that this may be too sensitive or not feel appropriate for some people. Ariane Agunsoye, Michelle Groenewald and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven – the three of us – are all white heterosexual cis-women, which has certainly informed the ways in which we see the world and the kinds of injustices we most easily can spot. While Ingrid is from a middle class background, Ariane and Michelle’s working class backgrounds add a different layer to their experience of the world and the classroom. As a German, Ariane grew up in East Berlin which was up until she was 7 years old part of the GDR, as a South African, Michelle grew up in South Africa, and as a Norwegian and daughter of a teacher and development worker, Ingrid grew up in Mozambique, Botswana, and Cambodia, as well as Norway. Growing up white in South Africa, Michelle is personally well aware of the extraordinary privilege her skin colour has afforded her. Similarly, growing up in both the Global North and South, Ingrid’s sense of immense privilege originating in her skin colour and passport have been felt at a personal level early on. We are aware that our positionalities both allow us to see certain injustices more easily than others, but also that our positionalities create certain blind posts that we must interrogate in all social settings, including the classroom. What’s more, Michelle, Ariane, and Ingrid are all fundamentally shaped by their training in heterodox economics.  

[1] Refer to the positionality statement at the end of the post.

One thought on “Decolonising economics teaching, Part 2: Some thoughts on pedagogy

  1. Henry Leveson-Gower says:

    I really appreciate this work. I am not a teacher and have not been taught for sometime but really think that pedagogy is a hugely important topic much neglected in economics and even in heterodox economics. As a cis gender white male from an elite background I have really appreciated role playing as a way of generating empathy for people indifferent situations. I wonder if this could be an important teaching technique.

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