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Engaging in Deeper Learning: Poor Economic Thinking Hurts the Poor

For fourteen years I taught AP Micro and Macroeconomics at Minnehaha Academy, and believe me when I tell you that I love ideas. The concepts that drive economic thinking are positively fascinating to me, and then to illustrate them using chalk on a blackboard? My love. To name assumptions and modify variables? This is the traditional stuff of school and I adore it.

But I’ve had to reckon with the fact that some of my students didn’t. Sure some of my enthusiasm rubbed off and was infectious, and with some I could engage about the intrinsic value of education, an end in itself, but I also have to admit that a lot of the time I was preaching to the choir. I could make the case that If a student needed to be told how to “use” this or that idea or concept, they’ve already adopted some form of pragmatism and are cut off from other visions of education. I could contend that knowledge is inherently good just like beauty is, telling students, if you’re asking this “use” question you’re the tool being used by the economy rather than using a tool of economic thinking to navigate the way toward living a good life. But again, I found that I was talking mostly to myself, and maybe a handful of other students. Only a certain segment of the student population was always picking up what I was putting down.

Enter the concepts of real world, real need, and real people from Teaching for Transformation. For all of the misunderstandings and possible abuses of microlending, it occured to me that running a mini development bank out of my classroom might serve to show students not only how banking works, but also how to chip away at global poverty and alleviate suffering. Are the tools of economic thought worth anything in the world of flesh and blood? Yes they are, and when Mohammed Yunus won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for his work with the Grameen bank, this led to organizations like KIVA capitalizing on the concept .

By using KIVA in my economics classes, Room B308 at Minnehaha Academy became a little lender to the rest of the world, right from South Minneapolis. To date our students have lent close to $5,000 to 164 different people in 53 different countries around the world. And this engaged and inspired students who weren’t interested merely in economic ideas. Reading and researching stories of real people in the real world with real needs, and then using the concepts learned in class about banking and economic growth, was a genuine experience of deeper learning. The students wanted the real real real, and see that a conceptual subject has real world implications. These ideas matter. John Maynard Keynes famously wrote, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” (Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Ch. 24)

I’m grateful to Teaching for Transformation for the ways that it’s adding to our pedagogical toolbox at Minnehaha Academy, because not all students can sit still and get excited about ideas like I can. And thankfully we’re made in the image of God, and not our teachers. God desires the restoration of our world, the building of the Kingdom, and this requires us as instructors to be open to new pedagogy, including kinds that we might be allergic to instinctively—like for me: pragmatic application. One family was so excited by their daughter’s experience in this microlending exercise that they donated to the class assets; so did one of our Middle School Art classes looking to serve globally.

In our school’s denominational tradition, the Evangelical Covenant Church, this would be referred to as bringing glory to God and good to our neighbor. And as I would say in my classes, poor economic thinking hurts the poor. These ideas matter, and let’s do good to our neighbor. May our journeys in Deeper Learning take us further into the heart of this dual endeavor, bringing glory to God and good to our neighbor, aware that God’s love is wider and deeper and ever more practical than we sometimes realize. We may even be able to help with a hand up to people who want to make beautiful work of their own around the globe.


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