Dr Teresa Healy, Associate Professor and Chair at SIT Graduate Institute writes about the advantages and challenges of using the CORE syllabus as part of a course on sustainable international development.
Students come from all over the world to the SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont to study sustainable international and community-development. In the spring of 2016, I journeyed through the CORE economics curriculum with a group of 16 MA students. Coming from different countries, social identities and academic backgrounds, the students shared a common desire to explore solutions to economic problems, and become self-confident social justice advocates. What they did not share, was a common background in economics. Two students had Bachelor’s degrees in Economics whilst five had no economics background at all – the remainder fell somewhere along this spectrum.
The students also had different aims from the course. They all wanted to be able to take their learnings into a professional environment but whilst some wanted to understand economic crisis and austerity and their relationship to development, others wanted to better critique the neoliberal economic system, understand its effects on marginalized populations, and link this knowledge with alternative economic systems and sustainable futures. All of them wanted to be effective communicators of economic ideas, and to be able to more easily turn theory into practice.
“I endeavoured to create an experiential context within which they would be able to be both teachers and learners.”
My strategy for unifying the class was to create a focus on popular economics. In so doing, I knew I would be crossing some disciplinary boundaries. In the first class, I introduced bell hooks vision of “education as the practice of freedom”, where students could learn that “any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process” (bell hooks (1994). Teaching to Transgress. p.21). To put meat on these bones, I invited more experienced students to become T.A.s in the class.
What I really appreciated about the CORE curriculum were the many and varied ways in which the authors presented capitalism as an historical and political construct, not a natural and enduring economic system. My background is not in mathematical economics, but as a feminist political economist I teach economic concepts in a politico-historical-theoretical context. I invite students to a language-rich exploration of economics in which curves play a descriptive role, but words are the preferred means of dealing with economic models and their assumptions. So, when CORE offers us scenarios based on the characters Yichen, Renfu, Stephanie and Mark, for example, I appreciate it very much.
CORE does, however, teach students about curves and modelling. In my classroom, this felt rather abrupt – and to this non-traditional audience, more guidance on the level of maths needed – and how to attain it – would have been very useful.
One of the other key challenges was adapting CORE, a resource developed to be delivered in ‘lectures’, into the discursive approach required for a graduate seminar. As the course went on, I changed my strategy to present case studies as supplemental material to the CORE chapters. For example, I would take a broad topic for the week (eg. fiscal policy) and present it by discussing a policy area with which I was very familiar (eg. public childcare campaigns).
From the students’ perspective, they appreciated the interactive and the high quality, open source resources of the CORE curriculum. Those who had been through formal economics training in the past appreciated the unique philosophical differences of the CORE curriculum from mainstream economics texts, and commented favourably upon the ‘real-world’ examples that were offered. Students also appreciated learning about the economic historians and theorists who have had such an impact on the discipline over time.
Nevertheless, they did encounter some difficulties. Some thought of CORE as an intermediate, rather than an introductory text. In particular, given these students’ specific goals of relating economics to social justice, they thought there were a few areas the curriculum could better develop: more references to the gendered dimensions of economics and for future editions to incorporate more diversity in examples from countries other than the United States and the United Kingdom. In particular, the students were keen to explore the impact of colonialism and decolonization in more detail and how marginalised people have been affected by such practices.
The CORE team offered a great resource to these committed ‘reflective practitioners’. This evolving curriculum is one they can return to in support of their work in the years to come.
Are you learning or teaching CORE, and want to share your experiences/give feedback? Get in touch with us by emailing contact[at]core-econ.org. We’d love to hear from you.