'Swap the structure of traditional lessons to boost learning'

Teachers are often keen to explain the theory of new concepts - but should instead let students experience them for themselves, says this high school economics teacher

Nick Anello

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A colleague of mine once told me that kids need to eat. I was a new, young teacher and so I just nodded my head in approval, but after a while I gained enough confidence to ask him what he meant.

It turned out he wasn’t talking about consuming a healthy diet, but was in fact talking about how students should learn: Experience; Apply; Theory.  Students need to experience the concept first, apply their new experience to the unlearned concepts, and then learn the theory that relates back to the experience.

Teachers often teach theory first, then ask students to apply the theory to various scenarios, and end with maybe a video or game to help students understand the concept they were just taught.

But reversing that thinking can bring impressive results. I teach economics to upper level high school students. Almost no students come in with background knowledge of the subject.

Many students have not had their first job, none of them have voted, and many have not engaged in other active citizenship (such as reading the news or discussing politics).

There are obviously challenges in teaching economics to students with little experience of borrowing money, using banks and savings accounts, or understanding of the national debt. My job entails giving students the experiences of those concepts in the safety of a classroom setting. After all, we wouldn’t want a student’s first introduction to interest rates be at a payday loans store being offered a rate of 45% interest and thinking ‘what a deal!’

For example, one of the topics I cover is the concept of free trade. Most economists agree that in general, more free trade is better, but it is a subject that students have very little knowledge of.

In a traditional class, the teacher might present all of the arguments why free trade is good, explain the effects, give some worksheets as practice, and then maybe play a game to strengthen their understanding. However, here is how I do it:

Experience

Students are grouped in tables of four around the room. I give no background information of what we are doing nor do I even tell students what unit we are starting. I give each student a paper bag filled with a few items I picked up at the local dollar store. Students are told that they are allowed to keep anything they end the lesson with and can eat anything in the bag only after the game is finished. First, students peak into their bags and give their bags a rating as to how satisfied they are with their bag. Then I increase the number of students they are allowed to trade with. Students only make trades that are mutually agreed upon which lead to their bag ratings increasing. At the end, every student ends up with a higher rating at the end of the game than when they began the game.

Apply

Now students are asked to fill out some questions relating to the game. Hidden in the questions are inferences to the actual theory that free trade is good, but the idea is to let the students arrive at the knowledge that free trade is good. We then discuss the questions as a group.

Theory

We then more formally discuss the benefits of trade and all the usual content they need to know. The benefit is that the students really already ‘learned’ the theory in the game.

Students enjoy this type of approach because they get to play a game, keep some dollar store items and brag to their friends - but also because they have learned a key concept of economics. Swapping around the traditional lesson structure – and having students EAT – can be a useful way to boost learning.

Nick Anello is a high school economics teachers in Mokena, Illinois

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