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Economics for (and by) 10th Graders


It’s a well-documented truth that many Americans are financially and economically illiterate – a handicap that some believe contributed to the recent financial crisis.? A 2008 paper by?Annamaria Lusardi, Olivia S. Mitchell and Vilsa Curto found that “[F]ewer than one-third of young adults possess basic knowledge of interest rates, inflation, and risk diversification.”?While experts disagree on the effectiveness of financial education, it seems likely that teaching economics at the middle- and high-school levels are a pretty good idea.
Enter Dan Wise, a humanities teacher at the San Diego charter school High Tech High.?The school, to which admission is determined by a Zip code-based lottery, follows an integrated, project-based learning model, and boasts an impressive college admissions record among its graduates, 35% of whom are “first-generation college students.”
High Tech High’s teachers are told to “teach their passions.”? In Wise’s case, the result of this mantra is Economics Illustrated, a student-produced primer on the kind of basic economic concepts adults and kids alike should understand.
Wise taught his 10th grade students basic economics in class and then divided them into small study groups, where they read a variety of?pop-econ books. He then?assigned each student a specific topic based on their declared interests.? Each student was responsible for producing two pages of the final product, “with the first page defining the economic term and providing examples, and the second page exploring, through an original article, how the term can inform one’s understanding of a current event.”? Students also produced visual examples of their concepts, in conjunction with the school’s art teacher.
The final result is chock full of important economics lessons.? One student wrote about “warm glow preferences,” using volunteers in Haiti as an example: “Many American citizens help, and they aren’t getting anything out of it except the feeling of generosity.” Another student explained the effects of loss aversion on the housing market. Classic topics like externalities, free-riding, expressed vs. revealed preferences, and regression analysis (look for Eric Morris and Emily Oster examples!) are also covered in the book.
For good measure, Wise added one final component to student’s grades:

“It was important to me that the students’ work was intelligible to their peers, so, as a final component, I asked each student to deliver a lesson on his or her term, with the accompanying pages serving as a handout. As a final lesson in incentives, each student’s grade was partially determined by how well his or her peers performed when quizzed on the student’s term.”

Not bad for 10th graders.