Why inquiry is central to concept based teaching and learning

In the two subjects that I have always loved and taught, Geography and Economics illustrative examples and case studies are the tools that every teachers uses to bring the subject to life.

IMG_4983.JPGReal world examples such as those connected to earthquakes, recessions or endemic unemployment help students grapple with and contextualise otherwise abstract concepts. My approach has always been to unpack examples with students in a semi-teacher directed fashion. I would often choose the best case study to illustrate the example from my travels and borrow examples of other teachers or websites.

With some coaching and help from a colleague Carla Marschall, I attempted to pivot away from a content heavy syllabus. We looked to flip an existing unit with it’s many learning objectives to provide students with greater agency, choice and to foster some genuine inquiry.

Lifting thinking from knowledge to conceptual understandings

In the revised unit, I structured the teaching around a retrieval chart linked here, where students began by selecting a case study in pairs then after some readings were able to fill in the first columns of the chart; describing the intervention, describing the context and unpacking the governments motivations. You can repurpose this chart for different subjects or topics but the essential idea is that each column provides a question that scaffolds the students to analyse the case study. Instead of leaving the inquiry completely open to students you are focusing their reading and analysis and making it more effective…. and quicker !

With each pair covering a different case study you eventually end up with a chart with loads of illustrative depth to ground their thinking. Over the next two weeks I stepped through a series of mini-lessons unpacking the concepts of taxes, subsidies, regulations and price controls in more depth. Each time I would use the example case study as the detail and help students use diagrams to explain the impacts. After each mini-lesson the pairs went back to the Google Doc to add more detail to the final columns and I began to add some comments to nudge their thinking and add more depth. The final product was a rather epic 7 foot poster which we hung in the back of our class or they accessed electronically.

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Why stop now…. whats the general idea?

Typically I have taught each of the concepts of intervention in isolation and have tried to connect students to the big idea for the unit below but students always struggle to connect the facts and examples to the big idea.

Governments may intervene in markets with the intention of balancing efficiency, equity and/or sustainability.

With Carla’s coaching, I was able to be far more deliberate in helping students craft their own generalisations about the relationships between the concepts without me just providing the understanding shown above as a rule for them to rote learn.

The idea of creating a generalisation is that students are able to consider how the concept of equity for instance is illustrated in each case study using a visual organiser of cross comparison chart show below by thinking of how the concepts connect together.

The chart shown below is a looks a little crazy but it is really just a massive venn diagram with overlaps between the different interventions (taxes) and the larger ‘macro concepts’ (stakeholders and goals of efficiency, equity, sustainability)

Some of the example generalisations that the students crafted were:

  • Taxes are used by governments most effectively when trying to achieve the aims of sustainability but they are unlikely to lead to an efficient allocation of resources. (ERP in Singapore,
  • Subsidies are an effective tool when governments are trying to support producers to become more sustainable (Nepal trekking, German Solar Panels) but are often less efficient in the long run.
  • While subsidies might support low income consumers and thus improve equity in the long run they are incredibly expensive and inefficient.
  • Minimum Price controls support producers, but consumers lose out (Rice farming Vietnam)

The big idea that all the students could eventually explain is at the bottom of the chart where I gave a leading question. The idea is that governments may intervene but must balance and tradeoff the various economic goals.

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Ok so if you understand that…. can you transfer your understanding?

The real challenge for students it taking an understanding about economics and being successfully in applying it in different contexts. To finish off the unit we looked at a couple of other quirky examples of government intervention to ‘stress test’ our generalisation. The interesting case of Minimum Alcohol prices in the Ireland is a slightly odd government concept but the students were able to discuss how the government balances the same ideas as the other case studies they have explored and the same idea still holds true.

Would I do it again?

In specific parts of the course where students explore a connected set of ideas and need to compare and contrast this approach works really well. It provides students with a more holistic take on an unit and hooks them in with real world examples at the beginning. Most student are now more able to explain the concepts with different illustrative examples and explain the nuances relationship far more eloquently than before.

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